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The Dark Side of Testimonials

Testimonials are a tool used everywhere to promote the benefits of a diet or another health approach, which can be incredibly motivating and inspiring, but they also have their dark side, one that is rarely discussed.

Let me start with an example. On one of my websites, I advertise my series of books grouped as “The Raw Health Starter Kit.” A long-term reader wrote me a wonderful testimonial on how my books helped her to make this diet work, which in turn has helped her health. Recently, I learned that this person died of the consequences of the disease that motivated her to change her diet in the first place. Without going into the details, let’s say that she lived for many years with this disease and was able to have a good quality of life. Changing her diet probably saved her a lot of suffering, but it didn’t save her life.

After this experience, I realized how testimonials only express a slice of life, a moment of enthusiasm, but in the end, are only anecdotal evidence. For the person considering a lifestyle change, testimonials can be a huge motivator. By seeing that other regular folks have experienced an incredible transformation, it can motivate them to make a change.

But here comes the dark side… testimonials can also be a source of discouragement, when we compare our results to those incredible transformation stories that are advertised, because often they don’t match up. Many people wonder what’s wrong with them when they don’t experience all of the benefits that are promised, and can feel worthless and like a failure. They would also love to be one of those incredible testimonials, but sadly their health problems didn’t completely vanish by changing their diet, leading to mixed feelings of shame, demoralization and maybe a desire to give up.

From my experience, here are some hidden realities of health testimonials.

1) The best testimonials are chosen.

It’s true: we choose the best testimonials. When looking for testimonials, an author will select the most dramatic, inspiring health story they’ve heard. Sometimes they contact their customers directly, asking them to share their story. Sometimes, those people will approach them directly, to thank them. An agreement will be reached to use the testimonial on a website. But in the end, only the best testimonials are published, those that promise the most and are the most inspiring.

2) Testimonials are rarely updated.

As in the example I gave you, a testimonial is a moment in time. If the health situation of the person providing the testimonial changes over time, in a negative way, those updates won’t appear. Rarely will you get an update on the testimonial, as to how the person is doing after 10 or 15 years.

3) You don’t know the rest of the story.

People can tell whatever story they’d love, focusing on the positive but obscuring the negative. If a person managed to overcome their heart disease but then develops another health problem, they might not mention the latter. Should they get cancer a few years later, and undergo traditional treatments for it, like chemotherapy, that part will often be left out.

4) It’s anecdotal evidence.

Testimonials are not science. There’s no way even to prove that they are accurate, and they cannot really be used as evidence. When evaluating the benefits of a particular approach, it’s best to look at the science rather than rely on testimonials.

5) A diet change cannot cure every single disease.

Positive testimonials on how people have managed to radically improve their health through a particular diet or approach obscure the fact that many people struggle with health problems that cannot be entirely overcome with those approaches. Although diet and lifestyle can do a lot — it cannot do everything. Some health problems occur for other reasons, and we have to accept the fact that even the best diet has some limitations. In the case of cancer, this is particularly obvious. A friend of mine died of metastasized liver cancer in his forties — and he was one of the strictest persons I knew with his diet. What does that story mean regarding the link between diet and cancer? Not much, except that some people are simply unlucky — and we have to recognize it. Some people are also very lucky, and a simple diet change can help their health problems.

Other more minor health problems that can nonetheless be extremely aggravating, and can sometimes be helped with diet and lifestyle but usually not as much as we’d like, include: insomnia and other sleep problems, various bacterial and viral infections, back pain and other forms of injury, normal signs of aging (hair loss, wrinkles, etc.), depression and other debilitating mental illnesses, vision problems, hearing loss, and many more “annoyances.”

The dark side of testimonials, in the end, is that it can lead people to have unreasonable expectations for a lifestyle change that can otherwise be extremely positive and beneficial, even though it might not be a panacea.

What do you think?


Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets.