NUTRITION, Timely Advice from CPTN

How to tell if a nutritionist is really qualified to offer diet advice1

The following is a direct quote from an article by Rosie Schwartz1, a “Toronto-based consulting dietitian.” The article was so complete and so timely, that I felt summarising it would not do it justice. I know it is longer than the regular e-news article, but Rosie’s viewpoint warrants attention by consumers.

“Healthy eating and weight loss are undeniably hot topics at this time of year. Experts are everywhere these days doling out advice on how to shed that extra weight or commenting on the latest confusing scientific study. 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. At the same time, 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.

“Then look at what’s happening with social media. If you think social media gurus are multiplying like rabbits, check out the status that Twitter and Facebook have bestowed on self-styled nutrition experts. Anyone can gain legitimacy these days with a social media platform. Those with the most Twitter followers or Facebook fans are deemed to be authorities, whether or not they have qualifications.

“The advice was free flowing recently when Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, embarked on a very public diet to shed 50 pounds by June. It was indeed welcome to hear from personal trainers advising that the mayor get into a fitness routine to aid his weight loss and wellbeing, but to hear these same experts suggesting what should be on his plate is a different story.

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

“The first thing to consider is the financial aspect. Many self-styled experts, whether in an office or at your local health food store, diet centre or local gym, have something to sell you – nutritional supplements, special foods, meals or costly programs. Just take a look at how many people have turned to supplement selling and pyramid sales to weather the downturn in the economy.

“The emotional cost can be staggering as well. Many 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.

“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 someone 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 multi-vitamin 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 they have to study to earn that piece of paper? The same goes for many so-called “registered” professionals as well.

“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.

“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 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 come 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, go to www.dietitians.ca.

“In some provinces and states in the U.S., the term nutritionist can only be used by those with a similar background to 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 only taken a short course on the subject. Add in the term “registered” and believe it or not, you’re not 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.

“Jennifer Garus, P.Dt, Executive Manager of the Nova Scotia Dietetic Association states, “It is very confusing to the public to see the term registered before a title when the individual is not registered under a provincial statute.”

“With nutrition being business these days, it’s definitely a case of buyer beware so educate yourself and do your homework before taking advice from what looks to be an expert.”

1. Schwartz, R. Enlightened Eater. How to tell if a nutritionist is really qualified to offer diet advice. http://lifestyle.ca.msn.com/health-fitness/diet/how-to-tell-if-a-nutritionist-is-really-qualified-to-offer-diet-advice Accessed Jan. 22, 2012.