How Clean-Eating Rhetoric Is Shaping the Anti-Vax Movement

In 2008, journalist Michael Pollan published In Defense of Food, a book with a now familiar message: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The book’s central argument is that the processed foods that make up a big chunk of the standard American diet and are ruining our health, and we all should strive to replace these “edible foodlike substances,” as he calls them, with whole, unprocessed foods.

That message quickly became omnipresent. Pollan’s well-meaning advice lent more momentum to a growing fanatical clean-eating movement, which popularized the idea that natural is always best: whole foods are inherently pure and health promoting, and processed foods are filled with toxins that disrupt and undermine our well-being. On the surface, it seems to make sense—there’s truth to the idea that whole foods are more nutritious than overprocessed ones. But the clean-eating ethos can also oversimplify nutrition and lead to an unwarranted fear of food that isn’t in its original form. Think: “I don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients” (which comes from Food Rules, another Pollan book) or “I won’t buy anything with ingredients that I can’t pronounce.”

Today the glorification of what’s “natural” (a vague term with no clear regulatory meaning) has seeped out of the nutrition realm and into the broader landscape of health and wellness, and some influencers are using the same playbook to spread fear about the COVID-19 vaccine.

The “I don’t know what’s in it so I won’t put it in my body” argument has expanded from food and into medical interventions. But “natural” doesn’t always mean good for you, nor does synthetic mean the opposite. What started as a truth-based suggestion to eat more apples and fewer Pop-Tarts has morphed into misguided skepticism of the food industry, biotechnology, and science.

Natural Isn’t Always Better

Key to all of this messaging is the concept that the best way to solve our modern health problems is to return to nature. “There’s this idea that our bodies are perfect as is and could fight off every single disease if we could just eat right and live in some healthier environment,” says Kevin Klatt, a dietitian and nutrition researcher at the Baylor College of Medicine.

But scientific and historical evidence proves this isn’t the case. In 2018, the World Health Organization estimated that vaccines save roughly two and a half million lives every year (and that was pre-COVID). The fortification of processed-grain foods like bread and cereal with folic acid has reduced neural-tube defects in newborns by over a third since it became mandatory in 1998. Human life expectancy in the U.S. has increased from 47 years old in 1900 to 78 in 2020, largely due to improved food safety, sanitation, health care, and pharmaceuticals. None of these lifesaving advancements come from nature; they’re all a result of technology and science.

And yes, the same industries that give us vaccines, safe food, and effective cleaning products also do bad things, like implementing huge price hikes on medications, manipulating health and nutrition research, and essentially green-lighting the opioid crisis. There are legitimate reasons to be critical of these industries and to stay up to date on the science of health and nutrition. But that doesn’t mean you need to boycott everything they produce.

It’s About Money

“The problem is that the wellness industry, which is a massive for-profit industry, has leveraged those genuine concerns to use fear to sell products,” says Tim Caulfield, research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta. And now they’re twisting their message to dissuade people from getting vaccinated.

On Instagram, @Vitallymelanie who describes herself as a medical herbalist and who talks about “natural health” and “natural living,” started her account in 2019. At the time, her posts mostly criticized the food industry and promoted clean eating. Now she has over 65,000 followers and her focus has shifted to criticizing the pharmaceutical industry and vaccinations (which she spells “​​va***nations” to prevent Instagram from flagging her content). “People who refuse pharmaceuticals and work on their health naturally are the healthiest people alive,” she wrote in a recent post, citing no evidence or sources. Through the link in her bio you’ll find links to 12 “natural” products that she recommends, 11 of which come with discount codes.

Another good example is @Healingcavelady. She claims she is a “certified nutritional therapist,” although she doesn’t say where this certificate comes from. She has amassed over 40,000 Instagram followers by focusing her account and her website on detoxing information, and she sells a seemingly infinite number of supplements meant to eliminate various toxins. In an Instagram highlight titled “FEAR!!!!!!!!!” she reads biblical scripture and equates the media to the devil and the “spirit of fear,” asserting that those of us who listen to them “worship at the altar of pharma.” On her website, she sells a COVID-19 immunity protocol “for Prevention and [if] someone comes down with the Virus.” It includes ten supplements and costs $394.26.

This isn’t an anomaly. Influencers who speak out against the vaccine are almost always promoting some kind of supplement as an alternative therapy—much like the way they often damn mainstream nutrition science in favor of their own alternative diet theory, which usually comes with a supplement recommendation or two as well. Klatt points out that while vaccines typically drive little profit for pharmaceutical companies, supplements are huge moneymakers for those who produce and market them. And while pharmaceuticals are heavily regulated by the government, supplements are not.

Doing Your Own Research Is Complicated

Such influencers promote the “do your own research” thinking that is a huge part of the clean-eating movement—dissecting nutrition labels, refuting dietary guidelines, second-guessing staple foods that have long been considered safe—and is now a catchphrase among people who don’t agree with masks and vaccines.

The trouble is, performing sound nutritional or medical research is something that researchers, scientists, and other experts spend years learning how to do. “My alarm bells go off immediately when someone says, ‘Do your own research,’” Caulfield says. “It’s problematic for a whole bunch of reasons. For one, it invites the idea that there’s some dominant conspiracy theory creating a narrative that you need to see through.” But the real issue, Caulfield says, is that people likely never take all of the evidence into account. In a legitimate evidence-based review, researchers gather every study previously done on a given topic (excluding those that don’t meet certain quality or study design standards) to get a full picture of the data. While it’s impossible to completely eliminate bias, even in a legitimate review, there are checks in place to minimize it. On the other hand, an individual who does their own research is usually seeking out evidence that supports what they already believe. “They find one study here, and another study there that supports them, and a YouTuber that supports them, and they’ve ‘done their own research’ and confirmed their preconceived beliefs,” Caulfield says.

“It’s just a gish gallop of bullshit,” Klatt says. “When you can say a bunch of stuff that sounds science-y to an audience who has no idea about what it means to be evidence based, it’s just a losing battle for the evidence-based folks.”

Be Critical, but Trust the Evidence

It has become glaringly obvious over the course of the pandemic that personal beliefs and values can skew the way that we view facts. This isn’t new, and the tendency to disregard the evidence isn’t unique to any particular worldview. Caulfield points out that while conservatives are far more likely to believe anti-scientific information about the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s primarily liberals who championed the early iterations of clean eating and ignore what the science says about the safety of GMOs. (Not long ago, liberals were also the loudest vaccine critics.) We’re all susceptible to this kind of thinking.

And there are still reasons to be wary of the companies that gave us the COVID-19 vaccine, just as there are reasons to be wary of those that manufacture processed food. Yes, there’s some level of uncertainty about the safety of both vaccinations and processed food—there always will be, because uncertainty is inherent to health and nutrition science. But the blanket distrust of industry and reverence for natural products, pushed forward by clean-eating acolytes and now serving as the crux of the anti-vax movement, isn’t helpful.

Instead of blindly believing in whatever interpretation of science best fits with our values, we all need to get better at respecting science itself. Seek out experts who have legitimate credentials and who regularly cite large systematic reviews and meta-analyses that pool huge amounts of evidence, instead of following self-appointed authority figures who take small bits of evidence out of context. And if you’re skeptical of what an expert is telling you, go ahead and do some follow-up research by reading through those same systematic reviews yourself. Just don’t fall prey to the influencers and conspiracy theorists who exploit the (inevitable) uncertainty of legitimate science in order to sell you an ideology that’s not based in any science at all.