Angel Holding a Hammer and Nails

Conflicted Interests in the Healthy Living Industry

The law of the instrument suggests that the tool at hand when a problem presents itself seems like the right one to use. When all we have is a hammer, everything looks a bit more like a nail. So we pound it. And in the healthy living industry (aka wellness) we have quite a hammer. The market for healthy living is 1.5 trillion dollars, says McKinsey & Company. Everyone seems to have a product or service to sell for this huge and growing market. With so much money in the mix, bias and conflicted interests are inevitable for the healthy living industry.

People care deeply about conflicts in food and drug research. But are we paying attention to the biases and conflicted interests that creep into research on healthy living?

Conflicts About Conflicted Interests

The whole subject of conflicted interests generates some challenging issues. Rob Ralston and colleagues published a recent analysis of input on a W.H.O. tool for managing conflicts of interest in nutrition policy. They found “significant divergence in how conflict of interest (COI) is understood.”

In other words, individual perceptions of conflicted interests vary greatly – perhaps influenced in part by an individual’s interests. The speck in someone else’s eye can look larger than the log in our own.

Commenting on the Ralston analysis, Stella Aguinaga Bialous wonders if it’s possible to solve the conflicts over conflicts of interest. She writes:

“The underlying issue is whether a private sector actor, such as the food industry, with a fiduciary duty to deliver profits by selling unhealthy, even harmful, products, can be a partner in policies that ultimately aim at reducing the sales of these products.”

Obesity and the Healthy Living Industry

On one hand, it’s relatively easy to recognize that an individual making money from cigarettes has a serious conflict of interest in health research and policy. But what about research emanating from the healthy living industry?

It might be easy to see a conflict in folks working for or with funding from companies selling wellness products and services. We would be much more skeptical of information coming from the Goop Lab. But is it also possible that researchers who devote their careers to proving the value of healthy eating and active living interventions might also have a bias that creeps into their research?

Telling an audience of such researchers that healthy eating and active living might not be enough to overcome obesity doesn’t get a warm reception. One feels a bit like a skunk at a garden party.

Some sources of bias are easy to spot and discount. But in truth, when it comes to subtler forms of bias, it’s much harder. Most people believe in the work they are doing – often very passionately. We certainly do at ConscienHealth.

Thus, we all need to be alert to conflicted interests that might discourage us from recognizing inconvenient truths.

Click here for the Ralston analysis and here for the Bialous commentary. For skeptical perspectives on the wellness industry, click here and here.

Angel Holding a Hammer and Nails, drawing by Bartolome Esteban Murillo / WikiArt

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


March 6, 2022