Nutritionists That Aren’t

Did you know you can earn the nutrition certificate approved by Croatian Ministry of Science and Education by attending four months of weekend classes? But why even bother, when you can call yourself a nutritionist without even starting primary school? Now imagine if the same went for doctors, lawyers or pilots.

Exactly. We don’t want to live in that kind of society.

However, for some reason we’ve normalized this nutrition prostitution which leaves people confused and frustrated along with bad dietary habits and an unhealthy relationship with food.

Not all opinions are equal

Everyone has an opinion. And you know what else everyone has.

And that’s (more or less) okay, until we fall into the trap of believing that everyone’s opinion is of equal value. I don’t know who sold us this story and why we as a society keep believing it.

Human knowledge deepens now faster than ever. It’s progressively harder to keep track of its advancement. This is why we have experts, individuals who dedicated a significant amount of time and money into their education and met certain criteria to be able to perform their work in a quality and legal manner in a certain field. Individuals who continue to invest time and money into following new achievements in their field of work.

I write this article because I constantly witness a large amount of eating disorders, unhealthy food relationship, and diseases that are a direct result of advice given by unqualified “experts”.

This is my way of adding to protection of consumers and to raising the dignity of nutrition science.

Nutrition prostitution

Everyone engages in nutrition. And their brother the vegan, and paleo cousins. Most nutrition services are offered by people that are not qualified for that.

This might be happening because we feel that the experience of eating several times a day throughout many years makes us an expert and qualifies us to give and sell dietary advice.

If we add to this a few read articles on the subject, some potential successful weight loss, or achieving a decent-looking figure, we get a state of creating instant-experts which erases the boundaries between experience and professionalism.

But experience does not make an expert.

Experience without a strong and verified theoretical base, as well as the necessary interdisciplinary context, is not and cannot be the reason to consider someone an expert.

Social media is filled with people offering (and selling) dietary advice. With all due respect, most of them are of repetitively catastrophic quality and their advices create more damage than benefit. They convince people that they’re eating healthy by limiting food choices, setting unnecessary restrictions, leading to eating disorders.

Without a doubt, the most common sellers of nutritionist services are fitness figures and/or coaches.

I’ve been in sports for 22 years (not including going to the gym or running on my own, I’m talking about supervised training under qualified individuals) and it does not make me an expert on basketball or triathlon training. I can certainly offer some basic advice to a friend, but I don’t feel qualified to get deeper into problematics and diagnostics of problems. And I certainly do not feel qualified to sell that knowledge.

However, for some reason, the experience of eating, good looks and knowing how to open a can of tuna (in brine) makes a dietary expert.

Achieving good looks or physical strength isn’t proof of healthy diet or knowledge about nutrition. More often than not, those that achieved one or both are usually very motivated individuals who got there despite their diet.

I don’t know that I know nothing

The frightening thing is that self-proclaimed experts know what they know about diet, but have no concept of what they don’t know. Since our society rewards confidence, or the illusion of it, these individuals are motivated to further deepen the neglect of their lack of knowledge.

It seems that everyone who shares their opinion loud and often enough we consider a figure of authority.

As Bertrand Russell famously said:

„Fools and fanatics are always so sure of themselves, and wiser people are full of doubts.“

Of course, the former are unfortunately the louder.

Consequences of putting trust in wrong places

Unprofessional service is not without consequence.

As you would inevitably run into problems if your house was designed by a layperson, same will happen if you allow a non-professional to give you dietary advice and design your diet.

Low quality service won’t result only in lack of results but in many more implications.

Broccoli, rice, tuna, chicken, low fat cheese, avocado, and chia seeds every three hours are not a healthy diet, and getting rid of carbohydrates won’t solve your dietary problems.

Nutrition science is more complex than that, and the diet is more interesting.

Developing dietary deficiencies from a limited diet can increase the risk of chronic disease.

Often clients that have worked with a „nutritionist“ approach me with a damaged relationship with food, which can include actual dietary phobias. From sugar, carbs, additives, depending on which unprofessional they decided to trust.

Lack of results as a consequence of unprofessional nutritionist service is more common than is being suggested by a bunch of before-after photos on Instagram. Bear in mind that these photos show a significant minority of successful clients; most of them quit in the process and their failures don’t make it to Instagram. Very few individuals can comply with the classical hardcore all-or-nothing approach that unqualified professionals generally advocate for.

Also, these photos can be manipulated within seconds.

They hide a potential unhealthy relationship with food and lack of joy while eating. They also don’t show health problems that inadequate diet leads to in the long term.

Dietary changes need to be sustainable, and diet must not be a source of stress. Any short term or unsustainable diet can result in giving up trying to achieve a healthy diet.

It is a professional duty of every nutritionist to point out the fact that diet is much more than a tool for improving physical appearance. It has an essential role in maintaining and improving health – physical and mental – and it provides an opportunity for socialization, relaxation and enjoyment.

Does this require sacrificing the results? Not at all. It means achieving equal or better results with less suffering and sacrifice. You’d be a masochist not to accept it.

What are qualifications for?

In a world of influencers, bloggers and celebrity-wannabe-nutritionists, it can get pretty confusing trying to figure out who can actually help you achieve your dietary goals.

The return of faith in professional qualifications is the first step towards this.

Experts need to be certified, because that’s the only way for laypeople to recognize the quality of service.

There are many nutritionist qualifications worldwide with different (questionable) legitimacy. In Croatia, luckily, there are only two that I know of: one is a college diploma, and the other is the certificate I mention in the introduction. Guess which one I consider inadequate. (Hint: four months of weekend classes is not enough to develop the abilities to understand nutrition science.)

Nutrition is complex and not easy to figure out. A college diploma is a certificate for basic ability to maneuver this often confusing science and a basis for lifelong upgrading of knowledge using new scientific information.

Should college programs be more demanding is yet another topic. Inflation of diplomas in nutrition and many other fields of study is a significant social problem that is not discussed often enough. Not all that have enough money to pay for college should be able to be experts.

In any case, diploma is not a guarantee for professionalism. But not having one is most definitely a guarantee of unprofessionalism.

How to recognize a quasi nutritionist

Other than the obvious – lack of qualifications – there are two basic signals that give out a fake expert:

1.      creating fear of our dietary surroundings and,

2.      sensationalism.

Endorsing fear pays off. It sells books and diet programs and creates followers on Instagram. It gets you on TV. Being anti-mainstream makes people seem special. It gives out an impression that they did a lot of research and „discovered“ a hidden truth.

The reality is exactly the opposite and points out their lack of knowledge. Hidden professional knowledge doesn’t exist today – the world is too connected for that.

What these individuals fail to see due to their lack of knowledge and qualifications is that enticing fear and criticism in a person can have psychological consequences, including development of dietary disorders. There is a reason why nutritionists take psychology classes in college.

Producing sensations is also profitable. In the era where everyone battles for time and attention of potential buyers, it is a classic strategy to transform every news into sensation and promise wonders from services and products offered. Since miracles and wonders don’t exist, this type of approach points to lies.

As soon as you notice one of these red flags, change your website or stop following that person.

Protecting the craft

To protect the clients from quasi-experts, the craft needs to be legally protected. Not everyone should be able to practice it. But if we go on Instagram, Facebook or enter most fitness centers, we see that the situation is exactly opposite.

Unfortunately, we cannot ban giving advice on diet. However, we can at least ban selling it legally.

Fortunately, something is happening on that topic.

What is in the works is the Law on food technology, biotechnology and nutrition, defining a nutritionist as a person who graduated from a university of biotechnological sciences, in the field of nutrition.

Words „food technologist“, „biotechnologist“ and „nutritionist“ will be used according to these legislations.

Also, this Law would lead to founding of Croatian chamber of dietary technologists, biotechnologists and nutritionists in order to promote common interests and protect the public interest.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed for this to become reality soon. It’s in all our best interests.

Verified advice

Nutrition is a complex science which we don’t know everything about. Experience itself is not even remotely enough for an individual to be competent enough to give dietary advice.

The world would be a much nicer place if we expressed more intellectual humility and admitted to ourselves and others that we don’t possess enough knowledge to sell advice in just any area we like.

Why, when it comes to diet, don’t we apply the same logic as with most other areas? You don’t want your appendix operated by an unqualified “doctor”, so don’t accept a nutritionist without qualifications.

Don’t believe experts that are not experts. Stop being fooled by looks, unrealistic promises and sweet talk. Stop giving your trust to unqualified individuals and feeding this illogical and health-obstructing system.

Treat nutrition like any other field of work and study. With no more respect, but also no less.