It’s buyer beware when it comes to nutritionists

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Healthy eating advice is being hurled at you from all directions. So-called nutrition authorities seem to be coming out of the woodwork – actually more likely bombarding you electronically on your devices along with TV, radio and print media. Experts abound doling out advice on everything from how to shed that extra weight, eat clean, save the planet through your food choices or which supplements you must buy now- right now.

Nutrition consultants, nutritionists, nutrition experts, personal trainers and life coaches – sometimes with registered appearing before the title – are all providing information for a hungry public.

Finding someone with authentic credentials is a tougher task than ever before. While in some cases, the cost of heeding the guidance of unqualified professionals may simply be financial, in other instances, it could potentially be risky to your health – either physical or emotional or both.

It used to be that if you saw someone on TV, you were likely to believe what you heard. After all, they had to have some expertise just to be there on the tube – right? Not necessarily. A good publicist can get a self-styled nutritionist credibility in a flash. And with current media budget and time restraints, who has the resources or time to check out the so-called expert’s credentials.

Is an Instagram nutritionist really an expert?
Then look at what’s happening with social media. If you think social media gurus are multiplying like rabbits, check out the status that Instagram and Twitter have bestowed on self-style nutrition experts. Anyone can gain legitimacy these days with a social media platform. Instagram accounts with astronomically high numbers of followers somehow also seem to qualify as nutrition experts, sometimes simply because they themselves have changed their food styles with miraculous results. Or have they?

What’s the cost?
So what’s the potential harm from heeding the advice of unqualified individuals?

First the financial aspect. Many of the self-styled experts, whether in an office or at your local health food store, diet centre or local gym, have something to sell to you – nutritional supplements, special foods or meals or costly programs. Just take a look at how many people have turned to supplement selling and pyramid sales to weather their financial difficulties or rake in big bucks.

The emotional cost can also be staggering as well. Many people who are seeking nutritional solutions may be quite vulnerable as they may have had recent serious medical issues or are desperate to lose weight. But numerous unqualified weight loss experts are simply those who have shed many pounds themselves. And while it’s great to have the support of someone who has done it and has lived to tell their story, advising others who may have different lifestyles or medical conditions may not yield success – something that can lead a dieter to believe that they are a failure, yet again.

What about those promising cancer cures and the like? Who pays when you find out they’re hucksters?

Supplements can also be a risky proposition. If a co-worker or friend suggests a product, you might first check it out with a health professional. But if you have heard it from what you think is a nutrition professional, why not just go ahead?

There’s a long list of reasons why you might want to hesitate. If you’re making a simple purchase of a multivitamin that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, then likely there’s no reason to be concerned. Not so for an expensive test such as a hair analysis which might be followed by a strict diet and bottles full of unnecessary or risky nutritional supplements.

So is someone who has a diploma in nutrition able to assess your risk? Where is the diploma from and how long did the so-called expert have to study to earn that piece of paper? The same goes for many registered so-called professionals.

Ask yourself whether you would take your car to an unlicensed car mechanic or your pet to a self-styled vet if you had a problem in either area.

In some provinces and states south of the border, the term nutritionist can only be used by those with a similar background of a dietitian. But in other places, you could set up shop as a nutritionist with no qualifications at all. Nutrition consultant and nutrition expert fall into the same category – even if they have taken a short course on the subject. Add in the term registered and believe it or not, you’re not really upping your chances of finding the qualified professional.

For example, there’s a Canadian school offering nutrition courses which would not be recognized by universities offering training. They seem to get around the legislation in various provinces simply by changing a few letters in a title. So instead of nutritionist in one province, the student becomes a registered nutritional consultant in another.

So how do you find the real deal – a qualified nutrition professional?
Firstly look for someone who is regulated or licensed with a university degree in nutrition and foods. If you’re in Canada or the U.S. and seek out a dietitian, the professional will have had either an undergraduate or graduate degree plus practical training such as an internship and is regulated by a professional body. The four year in-depth science course includes biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physiology and various human nutrition courses. The internship is usually one year long.

With this regulation, also comes specific standards such as continuing education. For example, as a licensed dietitian in Ontario, not only must I demonstrate that I am keeping up with the science but also that I practice in an ethical manner. This includes periodic examinations by the College of Dietitians of Ontario. And without my license, I could not call myself a dietitian.

To find a dietitian in your area if you’re in Canada, go to  the Dietitians of Canada website.

But if you can’t visit a dietitian in person, many of us do virtual consulting via Skype or FaceTime.

One fact is clear though, with nutrition being big business these days, it’s definitely a case of buyer beware.

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Categories: Rosie's Rants

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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