The Rise of the Unqualified Nutrition Expert

As a dietitian for over 10 years now, it is fascinating, frustrating and sad to see how this profession has been hijacked by those who are unqualified to provide nutrition advice especially when it comes to speciality areas such as food intolerances, allergies and paediatric nutrition.

The rise of so-called “nutrition experts”, ” nutrition coaches”, “wellness gurus” is alarming as it is becoming such an easy field to get into with an abundance of unaccredited online courses and the power of social media. So who are the professionals then?

The answer is not so straight forward and simple as it comes down to education, experience as well as belonging to certain regulatory association or body to name a few. As a basic requirement though, a tertiary education in nutrition or food science is a must. So let’s start from there. Then we’ve got all the different titles that people would call themselves: nutritionists, nutrition coach, nutritional therapist, health coach and dietitian. The two distinct professions in nutrition are certified nutritionists and dietitians.

Nutritionist. Perhaps a good way to define a nutritionist is as follows (as per the definition used by the Dietitians Association of Australia – DAA): A nutritionist is a tertiary qualified nutrition professional that has the expertise to provide a range of evidence based nutrition services related to nutrition, public health nutrition, policy and research, and community health. There is no industry specific assessing authority that assesses the qualifications of nutritionists who are not dietitians.

Certified nutritionists are qualified to provide advice on general health and wellbeing, implementing a healthy lifestyle but not prescribe, diagnose nor treat a condition. They hold positions within the public health sector and food industry. Unfortunately, the term “nutritionist” is not tightly regulated nor protected so anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.

Dietitian. As per the DAA, dietitians are also qualified to provide this range of evidence based nutrition services mentioned in the definition of a nutritionist, but in addition, dietitians have the expertise to provide individual dietary counselling, medical nutrition therapy, group dietary therapy and food service management. A dietitian has undertaken a course of study that included substantial theory and supervised and assessed professional practice in clinical nutrition, medical nutrition therapy and food service management.

Dietitians are able to prescribe and treat using medical nutrition therapy and their scope of practice and code of conduct are clearly defined.

So when it comes to providing solid nutrition advice, fashion/wellness bloggers, influencers, personal trainers (unless they’ve got a solid nutrition title and education to add to their resume) celebrities and the like are NOT the experts. Nutrition is a hot and trendy topic, especially in the fitness and weight loss industry, hence the demand and appeal when it comes to creating a business within this industry. Online nutrition courses and schools are another troublesome, money-making industry (without mentioning a specific school that has been on the radar) producing graduates who market themselves as “certified nutritionists or health counselors” where training and education is not based on scientific nutrition.

Now, a health coach is another title that has been loosely defined but is someone who facilitates health and wellness to their clients via sustainable behaviour change and ensures that they achieve and implement their goals. Nutrition is a VERY SMALL PART of this journey and in an ideal world (which exists in some institutions), health coaches work closely with dietitians and doctors to produce the most successful outcome. Legally speaking, health coaches are NOT QUALIFIED to provide dietary counseling, offer nutritional assessments nor prescribe an eating approach nor supplements.

So, before choosing your therapist of choice to help with your nutritional concerns, here’s a little check-list:

  • What are their qualifications? How reputable and respected is their degree/institution?
  • How many years have they been working as that particular therapist?
  • What experience do they have in that particular field (e.f. food intolerance? Weight loss?) Personal experience does not count here!

It infuriates me to see this profession tainted and the nutrition industry become a playground for celebrities, faux-therapists and social media influencers, where we now seek advice from the Kardashians on how to “eat-for-your-body-type”, Gwyneth Paltrow’s ridiculous wellness venture on practically everything Pseudoscience and fashion bloggers on whether digestive enzymes are what I need to add to my daily supplement mix.

  1. You sound bitter in this blog post. You can’t fight it you just have to rise above it. I should know, I’m a qualified photographer and we were one of the first to be overtaken.

    • Ah James, I didn’t intend to sound bitter at all. In the health and wellness industry, a person’s wellbeing is at the forefront of it all. Some may say, it’s the person’s own fault for following an unprofessional’s advice but my role is to raise awareness and educate the public. In a way, it’s not a fight but something that I’ve made a mission of for 10 years – helping people navigate pseudoscience and misinformation. When I get 15 and 16 year olds that have significant body image issues because they followed the advice of a fashion blogger telling them how to eat and behave around food or adults trying to manage their gut health but doing more damage because of wishy washy advice, I will speak up. Not that I’m comparing professions, but one would put up a fight when people’s health are at risk. Yes, professional photographers have definitely had a hard it but the ones that put up a fight to protect the standard and quality of their art are the ones that continue to rise above it all.

  2. Love this. I totally understand where you are coming from. I’m a dietetic student and it’s already driving me crazy!

  3. I qualify as a Nutritional Therapist at the end of the year and found your blog while looking for evidence of this problem – the unqualified persons giving dietary and nutritional advice. If you sounded bitter – rightly so as we spend a lot of time and money attaining the skills to enable us to safely advise and support the Public. However, I know it is not about being bitter it is out of concern and a duty of care as some of this advice is detrimental if not tailored to a person’s actual needs or requirements. Thank you for this…we have to influence our immediate circle of friends and anyone who comes our way – I have found myself saying to friends – fine if you want to take advice from an unqualified uninsured person regarding your health – consider why you would not do so with your car !

  4. I agree 100%, nothing bitter about this.
    The first commenter is comparing photography to nutrition, apples to oranges. Telling someone to take the wrong picture isn’t going to kill/destroy someone’s life as unqualified nutrition and exercise advice can/will.
    I am so sick of seeing people with NO education, NO background and NO experience telling people how to eat and work out, it’s UTTER INSANITY.
    And it’s obviously NOT working as Americans are obese as ever with no signs of the trend slowing down.

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