I think anyone who's been working out long enough has come across the term 'broscience' and their fair share of broscientists. These are people who make wild claims about the effectiveness of certain workouts or nutrition programmes without any evidence whatsoever other than their own anecdotes.
Unfortunately, anyone who has been involved in the vegan health and fitness scene will also have to contend with broscience's raw fruitarian sidekick. For lack of a better term, let's call this 'hippiescience'.
What is hippiescience?
Hippiescience is a form of pseudoscience that is particularly prevalent within health and fitness, and is mostly commonly encountered in vegan communities, but is also espoused in other niche fitness movements.
Hippiescience is a pervasive force that's, at best, embarrassing for the vegan health and fitness movement, and, at worst, downright damaging to people's abilities to live a healthy lifestyle.
Like broscience, there’s little to no real science to back most hippiescience up. Instead, it consists of extremist health claims about the body’s nutritional needs (such as claims that protein is pretty much unimportant, or that any supplement other than spirulina is evil) and what constitutes healthy eating.
Wander the forums of vegan fitness communities, and whilst the vast majority of people are trying to have intelligent discussions about nutritional needs and exercise, there'll be at least a handful of people spouting unfounded statements about yoga, detoxing, fruit, superfoods, RDAs of protein being 20 grams, or even worse (read: crystals and antivaccine).
How does pseudoscience begin?
Fitness communities and ‘expertise’
Fitness communities aren't made up of nutritionists, trainers, athletes, doctors and experts. In an ideal world there would be an abundance of them in any community, ready to educate and advise. But actually, fitness communities only have a sprinkling of those folk in them, and the vast majority of people tend to be your everyday person who doesn't work in the industry of health, fitness, and wellbeing. These are people who range from being extremely unhealthy and are looking for advice on how to get on track to a healthier lifestyle, to those for whom fitness is like a second job to them and meticulously track their workout and nutrition routines. Most people are somewhere in the middle. And there's a wildly varying degree of knowledge from person to person.
Thus, besides the minority of qualified professionals, the newbies will look for people they can aspire to: the unhealthy, overweight, and struggling, will look to the fit, healthy, and seemingly knowledgeable. The former are people who may be at a particularly vulnerable point in their lives, and are lost when it comes to their health, and will take others' word as gospel when it comes to advice.
To add to this problem is the issue of research going into many fitness topics being limited or even non-existent, and that which does exist may be mired with bias and problems, as highlighted in our recent article on HMB. All too often though this research, problematic as it may be, will be snapped up, stripped of 99% of its content, and stuck on someone’s blog with the claim that this is the ultimate exercise to lose weight, and that that is all you need to eat to grow chunky biceps.
Whilst peer-reviewed research papers allude to the myriad of errors that might plague the research, or point to what could be done better, Joe Bloggs’… well, blog, doesn’t point to any of that and just dives straight in with ‘this research shows that adding this weird chemical supplement to your diet is the BEST way to gain muscle’ without any consideration for the errors at hand for the unwitting fitness public to read up on.
How does pseudoscience, and particularly hippiescience prevail?
There are a series of social and psychological problems that lead to the spread of pseudoscience, some unique to veganism, some not. We'll look at five key reasons here. Most aren't malevolent or greedy but are still harmful. Some are motivated by greed, however, so let's look at that first...
1. You can get away with it on the internet
The internet is a haven for liars. It protects anonymity, and thus allows anyone to say anything without being at any real risk. At most they’ll get challenged on their claims, and they’ll disappear to a new comment thread or forum article to spread their smatterings elsewhere. Anyone can claim anything, and everyone has an equal voice. It’s both the great opportunity and the great danger of the internet. Disingenuous comments will be shared, and sooner or later the truth is entirely concealed. This is furthered by the use of Photoshop to edit together images.
This can happen for a multitude of reasons, including downright maliciousness. Most commonly though there’s commercial gain to be had. Whaddya know, the person making these wild claims is also peddling some overpriced product, and furthering bogus claims to support it is just part of their marketing activities.
A recent case in point (although actually targeted at the paleo crowd rather than vegans) is Bulletproof Coffee – a company which made wild and unsubstantiated claims about harmful mycotoxins in coffee. Good marketing to the paleo community, and the coffee was getting snapped up for about four times the price of a normal bag of high quality coffee. Only a few years later have the claims about mycotoxins been debunked, but I have little doubt that people are still buying this stuff by the kilo.
2. Community confusion and groupthink
Linked to this is the problem of group dynamics. Much of our society is built on the idea that the majority are correct. Democracy, you may wanna cover your ears for a mo…
Unfortunately, due to the psychological phenomenon of ‘groupthink’ we are far more likely to allow erroneous claims to go unchallenged, especially when such a claim is being spouted by numerous members of a community. It’s natural for most of us to actually avoid conflict, and allow those claims to go on.
Thus, in our natural desire to move towards cohesiveness, more and more people will get swallowed up into the erroneous points of view, and before long, factually incorrect information is being spread as the truth and going totally unchallenged.
As the group dynamic grows, so too does the difficulty of nipping it in the bud. With regards to hippiescience, perhaps this is most prevalent with the antivaccine movement: a vast but entirely irrational body, which completely ignores the decades of research disproving its beliefs. Because the group is so large it has become difficult to break it, despite scientific refutation of pretty much every single claim.
3. Protection of views
Despite our inherent desire to avoid conflict, we are also incredibly defensive of our views. Even when we are disproved by rational science, we cling to our original remarks, occasionally altering them to fit the elements that were disproven. When’s the last time you enjoyed being wrong? Exactly. This is a result of cognitive dissonance – we find it difficult to reconcile the fact that we’d hold irrational beliefs, but rather than altering ourselves, we try to alter others.
I recently walked smackbang into some hippiescience in action on the Vegan Bodybuilding and Fitness Facebook page. A girl on there asked if it was ok to use frozen fruit and veg for her smoothies, as she couldn’t afford fresh. One respondent claimed fresh ‘is always best,’ but I pointed to some studies showing that frozen is actually more nutritious, based on nutrients being ‘locked in’ (rather than being leeched from the produce over the days it gets shipped to the supermarket), and due to it being allowed to properly ripen (most ‘fresh’ produce, is actually picked before its ripe to allow for shipping time).
To this one comment, I received a wall text with several different wild claims including one about frozen fruits inhibiting the absorption of vitamins and minerals, one saying that we require water in the fruit to enhance absorption, and told that I could ‘believe’ what I wanted to ‘believe.’
Others jumped in to back up my point and link to further rational, scientific evidence. To which came the response that we cannot trust scientists, as they all have an agenda.
The common backup argument of the hippiescientist is that scientists are all funded by big corporations, and when this argument is dug out of its box it’s time to walk away. It's the hippiescientist equivalent of Godwin's Law. There’s very little reasoning to be done here. The hippiescientist here went on to claim that all food should be eaten raw, and despite people stating that they could not digest some raw food, she told them to just keep going until the ‘digestive system heals itself from the lifetime of eating meat, dairy, and grains’. Again, this could actively hurt people, and thus it’s fair to judge this behaviour as morally reprehensible.
4. Desperate to promote veganism
This commonly occurs in vegan fitness communities when people deny all nutritional facts that have come before and approach healthy eating with a clean slate. Shrugging off protein and B12 as either not necessary or simple to attain by just eating fruits and veggies seems tempting at first – after all, if we can easily get our nutritional needs from those sources alone then veganism is a no brainer, right?
Well, sadly that’s not the way the body works. Yes, you can survive on a fairly low level of protein. But studies on protein for athletes have been done to death, and consistently show that, at an absolute bare minimum, we need 1g per kg per day. As for B12, there are two decent sources: animal products, and a pill. To deny all this isn’t going to turn more people towards veganism; it’s actually going to hurt the movement. It makes vegans look like idiots who’ve got very little nutritional knowledge.
Instead we should be promoting a varied and nutritious diet with good levels of protein, and supporting vegan protein companies and those working towards providing good alternatives to animal protein, such as Beyond Meat and Muufri. I met Patrik Baboumian a couple of years ago, who is arguably the world’s strongest vegan. He gets approximately 200-300g of protein per day.
Hell, even if a head of broccoli did have your RDA of protein in it, we have to face facts – people don’t eat meat for health reasons, but because it tastes good. The hippiescientist can talk until the (free-roaming companion animal) cows come home about how you can get your RDA of everything from cucumber skin, but in all honesty it wouldn’t make a difference even if you could. If you want to further veganism, both from a nutritional standpoint and as an ideological movement, then support the companies making strides into the animal protein alternatives out there.
5. Most people just want to help
Perhaps the biggest reason for the spread of hippiescience is an entirely innocent one – people genuinely just want to help. They may have read some hippiescience elsewhere, or tried something that worked for them, and will then pass it on to others looking for guidance. As mentioned above, most people aren’t experts, and they only know what they’ve read elsewhere in vegan health and fitness communities.
The problem is that giving the wrong advice is only going to exacerbate people’s health issues, and cause them problems later on. Offering some advice is fine, but it’s best if it comes from someone in the know. Wherever possible, recommend people see a vegan-friendly nutritionist for the best advice. Speaking of which, I guess this is an apt time for me to say I am not a nutritional expert myself, so take everything I’ve said with a pinch of (low-sodium, iodine enriched) salt. Yes, even the thing about not being able to get all your vitamins from cucumber skins… you never know.
How to change it?
Stay educated – keep reading up on nutrition if you’re going to advise people. I don’t mean blogs, and I certainly don’t mean exclusively vegan groups where there’s a clear agenda. I mean scientific and evidence-based approaches. Examine is a good place to start.
Educate others – when you know, share the knowledge. Link to sources wherever possible. Invite people to read the studies, or at least the abstracts. And don’t spread hippiescience.
Support vegan nutrition companies – there are a ton of brilliant companies out there producing vegan nutritional supplements, protein powders, animal-protein replacements and more. They need our money if they’re going to thrive though.
Challenge hippiescience – if you see blatent hippiescience, don’t be afraid to challenge it. Especially if it’s being recommended to someone who seems to be new to veganism and is looking for advice.
Yoga, spirulina, and raw foods all have their place - I've equally seen people jump too far the other way and rubbish anything commonly espoused by hippiescientists. Actually, yoga, 'superfoods' and raw eating are all awesome, and there's scientific evidence to prove it, but aren't the be all and end all to balanced healthy lifestyles.
Live by example – at the end of the day, even common nutritional pillars aren’t applicable to everyone. Yes, there may be people out there for whom certain hippiescience mainstays have worked. But the best thing to do is find what works for you, and build on it. Tell people it worked for you, but just remember to include the caveat that you’re not an expert. That said, I’ll never wear a crystal. Sorry.