A regular comment to me is to ask “why have I got it in for Nutritionists?” Surely, these are dedicated health professionals who do wonders for peoples’ health by improving their diets and making sure people take the right supplements, if required. Well maybe. The problem is that so many nutritionists are not doing this and often resort to pseudoscience and quackery. This week’s Quack Word blog entry will argue that the Quackometer is quite right (most of the time) in scoring highly a web page with the word ‘nutritionist’ in it.
So, a quick definition of ‘nutritionist’. Whilst one should always take wikipedea articles with a sceptical eye, their definition of nutritionist is a good starting point:
A nutritionist is a person who advises people on dietary matters relating to health, well-being and optimal nutrition. Nutritionists should not be confused with dietitians. Dietitians are health care professionals who have received specialised formal accredited tertiary education and training, and undertake internship in hospitals, and who are required to adhere to their regulatory body’s code of conduct. They are also the only non-medically-trained health-care professionals permitted to practise clinically in hospitals or health-care facilities. Many “nutritionists” appear on television, in newspapers and magazines, and write bestselling nutritional books.
Self-identified nutritionists have varying levels of education, and can be someone with little education up to someone who may have the equivalent of a master’s degree in Physiology or Biology.
But, surely this is all a side issue – getting people to eat healthily is what counts? Well yes, but I will argue that the advice of so many of the Sunday supplement writers can actually be counterproductive. Let me list some ways in which nutritionists go astray…
- It’s not just about eating healthily. Bad diet is promoted as being the root cause of almost all diseases and conditions. Eating in a certain way can restore the ‘balance’.
- It is not possible to get all your vitamins and minerals from food today because of modern farming methods. The nutriquack can sell you the right supplements.
- Organic is healthier.
- Claiming that a simple change of diet or popping a vitamin cure complex social issues, like omega-3 fish oil pills helping poorly performing kids in schools,
- Promoting radical diets which usually involve cutting out entire food groups.
- Promoting the health benefits of consuming huge volumes of vitamins.
- Advocating ‘superfoods’ that allegedly have remarkable health benefits.
- Obsessions with discredited and weird diagnostic techniques, such as examining stools.
- They use pseudoscience to sound knowledgeable. Talk of ‘detoxification‘ is common.
- Selling weird made up foods with remarkable properties such as this nonsense salt seller and shrouding it in ridiculous claims.
All these things have in common is their overstatements and lack of evidence. Making health claims in this way is quackery. From now on, I will call such people the nutriquacks.
I think the problem of the nutriquack arises from the simple fact that good nutritional advice (for most people) is quite simple – eat a balanced, varied diet with a low amount of fat and lots of green stuff. You are not going to make a fortune with that mantra – even though getting people to follow it is quite hard sometimes. By making the whole thing appear more complicated though, the nutriquack is creating a market for their services. You cannot get enough antioxidants – my superfood berries (available on my website) will do it for you though! Register with my site, complete my questionnaire and I will personally compose your optimum nutrition plan and supplement mix. And so on.
What is happening is that nutriquacks are fetishising food and bamboozling people. Rather than enjoying food for its own sake, many people are led down the path of analysing everything they put in their mouth, jumping to conclusions about why they might be overweight or unwell and fruitlessly giving money away to people who do not deserve it. The real heroes of healthy eating for me are those people who try to instill a love of good food into people. Chefs and writers who try to excite about the benefits of buying good ingredients, how to source fresh ingredients inexpensively, how to be creative in the kitchen without needing top-chef skills and basically try to impart a joy about food. That is surely the route to people having a good, healthy relationship with their food and so end up getting a more rounded, varied and balanced diet. People like Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson spring to mind, but there are many more. These people do not resort to pseudoscience in order to justify what they do.
When science does make some well researched discoveries about the food we eat, this is often drowned out in the swamp of nutriquack baloney. It is often impossible to tell good science from nonsense in the popular press and TV. All this does is make people despair of the ‘scientists’ with their constantly contradictory advice and silly discoveries. It undermines a reliable source of knowledge for society that genuinely could help improve peoples’ lives.
Nutriquacks operate in a legal void. Selling food is not illegal after all and vitamins and minerals are just food. However, make medical claims and use ingredients that might be medicinal in nature and you might end up in hot water. At least this is a curb on the excesses of nutriquacks, although it is seldom invoked.
However, such is the fate of arch-nutriquack ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith. Today, the MHRA (the British organisation that is supposed to control the use of medicines) has ordered that McKeith stop selling illegal products. McKeith has been capitalising on her TV fame by selling all sorts of expensive and silly ‘superfoods’ to her fans. At last, the law has caught up with her, at least in a little way and she will have to re-think how she goes about her business now.