Quack Word #16: ‘Nutritionist’

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.

So, there is our first major cause for concern, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. Call your self a dietitian without a formally recognised qualification and you would be breaking the law. But, if you just want to write in a Sunday supplement or set up a health food web site selling vitamins, by all means, call yourself a nutritionist.
The wikipedia goes on:

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.

I have discussed before how some high profile UK nutritionists have little formal education, like to flaunt their unconventionally acquired titles and awards, and glow under self-styled accolades, such as ‘world’s foremost nutritionist’.
Now, there are varying trade associations that do seek to represent nutritionists in the UK. Membership is not compulsory and of course, they cannot stop someone calling themselves a nutritionist if they act in a way thought to be harmful or dishonest. Some appear to have little interest either in monitoring the behaviour of their membership as was well documented by Ben Goldacre of the Guardian when investigating The Nutrition Society.

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.

7 Comments on Quack Word #16: ‘Nutritionist’

  1. While I agree with your comments that more people call themselves nutritionists than should, I disagree with your assertion that the listed statements are quackery, especially the one that organic food is not better. Scientific study after study has demonstrated just the opposite, that commercial agriculture strips veggies of much of their vitamin and mineral content and that people are unhealthier for it. Who pays your bills that you are so vehemently against this movement to get back to natural farming practices? The evidence is there. I suggest you look in the right places next time for your answers.

    • You’re an idiot. cite the “scientific” studies. ACTUAL SCIENCE has stated over and over and over again there is no discernible difference in the nutritional content of organically grown foods and Transgenic foods.

      I would argue transgenic foods have the potential to be healthier because we can engineer them to produce more vitamins and minerals essential to human well-being. Vitamin A Rice is a good example.

      But then I’m sure you’ll resort to some scare-tactic quackery that ALL agriculture companies are “evil”, out to get us and paying shills like the author of this article to further their demonic agenda.

      Don’t be an idiot. Idiot.

  2. My mum, unfortunately, is so gullible she obeys every word these “nutriquacks” say. She takes too many vitamins, she has completely cut out all wheat, soy, and dairy from her diet, and she looks very yellow.

    I call her nutritionist “Dr. Ducky”, because he’s a quack and he waddles.

  3. “Who pays your bills that you are so vehemently against this movement to get back to natural farming practices?”

    This is one of the core arguments of the Organic Movement: “Study after study which I don’t care to cite have proven my philosophy, while any idea or notion to the contrary is funded by the Corporate Boogeyman.”

    Not too dissimilar to the arguments used by Animal Rights activists, purveyors of New Age bunk, and even far-Left activist types.

    Organic food’s biggest selling point is it’s politics.

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