The Dangerous Rise Of The Wannabe Health Guru

Here’s why you can’t trust your nutritionist.

No matter who you talk to, everyone seems to have an opinion on what a healthy lifestyle consists of nowadays.

Friends think they have discovered the ultimate diet and exercise regime and make sure they tell me all about it, not only when I actually talk to them, but also every time I open my Facebook or Instagram. One day having sugar in moderation is absolutely fine, the next I am told it will kill me.

It can be annoying, but ultimately it’s up to us to ignore our friends’ ramblings. But it’s a different story when we actively seek out the advice of a nutritionist.

When someone tells me they’re a nutritionist, I expect them to know everything there is to know about food and how our bodies react to it, what’s healthy for me and my lifestyle, and what to avoid.

But that expectation isn’t being met for many well-intentioned clients being led down the shady garden path of misinformation and costly gimmicks, thanks to a recent flood of wannabe health professionals claiming to be something they’re not.

It’s surprisingly easy to become a nutritionist in most countries. Many would argue too easy.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “a nutritionist is a non-accredited title that may apply to somebody who has done a short course in nutrition or who has given themselves this title. The term Nutritionist is not protected by law in almost all countries so people with different levels of and knowledge can call themselves a ‘Nutritionist’.”

In other words, I can call myself nutritionist and get away with it, even if I haven’t done any formal training. A highly disturbing fact when you consider people who need medical treatments but instead rely on misleading advice from under-qualified nutritionists and fake dieticians.

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In 2012, a consumer report found that 14 out of 15 nutritionists gave dangerous or misleading advice to patients, some of which could have been fatal, with one patient told to delay her cancer treatment and instead quit sugar as “cancer feeds off sugar.” Others were told not to contact their GPs as they “wouldn’t understand what was happening.”

Another shocking example of a wannabe health guru’s very dangerous influence is Australian self-proclaimed wellness expert, Belle Gibson, who claimed her natural therapies and healthy eating cured her cancer and made a small fortune through her health app The Whole Pantry, only to admit last year she had faked her illness, seemingly oblivious to the danger she put thousands of her fans and followers in who believed in her cancer-curing lifestyle.

The problem with these so-called nutritionists and self-made health gurus is they often rely on their own experiences as opposed to medical data or clinical tests. And while one thing might work well for some, it can be disastrous for others, especially when it comes to the interaction of food and medicine.

So what can we do to know if someone’s qualified to give us health advice?

Have a good look at their actual title, and only seek advice from accredited dieticians. In contrast to nutritionists, dieticians need a Bachelor’s Degree in Nutrition And Dietetics including practical experience (read: in hospitals). Some qualified dieticians prefer to use the term ‘nutritionist’ as most people tend to confuse dieticians with weight-loss coaches, which is why it’s important to ask them about their actual title.

Any accredited practicing dietician will be registered with their country’s relevant association, so ringing them up and inquiring about your practitioner’s registration is another easy way of making sure they’re qualified. Getting a second, and sometimes even third, opinion can be very helpful, too, should you ever feel unsure about certain diet or lifestyle changes.

In the end, the one thing we all have to rely on is common sense, and taking any health advice with a bit of skepticism.

Comment: Have you ever felt duped by a wellness expert?