How can I tell a good nutritionist from a bad one?
March is National Nutrition Month and I thought you would like some help with recognizing nutrition quackery. Companies with ineffective or hazardous diets and supplements shouldn't separate you from your health or money. There are a lot of new diets and supplements and it is sometimes very hard to sort the good from the bad.
Some questions to ask yourself next time a diet or supplement sounds too good to be true.
- What are the credentials of the person offering advice, are these credentials in nutrition and are these credentials from an accredited college or university? A Registered Dietitian (RD) has the education, experience and passed a national registration test to practice nutrition in addition to requirements for ongoing education to continue practicing. Some states license who can provide nutrition or dietetic services. Ask for nutrition credentials, what the credentials mean and whether the person is licensed to practice in your state.
- Is this person selling supplements or pills that must be taken or used in combination with their diet? Unless the supplement is backed by nutrition research substantiating the need for a specific nutrient, most people don't need a daily vitamin or mineral supplement. Ask why a supplement or pill is necessary and what research shows the need for their supplements.
- Does this person push pills because they claim that our soils are depleted of nutrients or that processing removes most nutrients? Food is the best source of nutrients needed by the human body while only about 10 - 15% of most vitamin or mineral supplements are absorbed. Food labels list the nutrient content (protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals) for thousands of foods both raw and processed that are sold in grocery stores and some restaurants. Ask how long you would need to take their supplements and the monthly cost. Ask yourself how much food could you buy for this same amount?
- Are whole groups of foods like starches omitted or magic foods that must be eaten daily? Healthy diets, including weight loss diets, contain foods from all food groups. Omitting whole groups of food decreases your intake of vitamins and minerals supplied by the omitted foods. Ask how you would get the vitamins and minerals in the foods omitted by this program or what food properties or nutrients are provided by magic foods that they must be eaten daily.
- Do these people have special tests they can perform on you to determine your nutritional status? Tests to determine nutritional status are best performed by a Registered Dietitian or medical doctor. These tests can include physical exam and blood or urine tests performed by a medical laboratory. Hair, eye and muscle strength tests are bogus and cannot determine nutritional status of any vitamin or mineral. Ask what their tests prove or disprove, how they remedy deficiencies noted on their tests and the research supporting their treatment recommendations.
- Does this person use testimonials (It worked for me so you should try it) rather than nutrition research to substantiate their diet or supplement claims? Nutrition practice is based on research that has passed the rigors of multiple research studies and review by other scientists. Ask about the research behind their diet or supplement.
- Do they promise quick, dramatic results rather than long term success? Most nutritional remedies take time to take effect, especially weight loss. Ask what you are supposed to eat when you go off their products and if your nutritional deficiency or lost weight will return.
- Do they claim they use "natural" products rather than synthetic ones? Your body is a biochemical factory that only recognizes chemicals and doesn't have the ability to tell the difference between "natural" and "synthetic" nutrients. What is natural about a pill unless you have seen a pill tree, bush or plant. The human body has evolved over thousands of years eating whole foods, not supplements. Ask them what the difference in similar supplements between their products and brand name synthetics.
- Do these people downplay or not explain negative aspects to use of their diet or supplements? There are positive and negative aspects to every food and supplement. Make sure you know what you are taking and how it can harm you before you hand over your money. Ask if there are any health risks to following their diet or taking their supplements.
- Are these people telling you to take megadoses of their supplements (10 times the RDA for a nutrient) because the RDA's are set too low or do they recommend you take supplements for which there is no RDA? The RDA's are based on clinical studies of people's need for a nutrient. If a RDA doesn't exist for a nutrient, then the research has not yet been done to prove its requirement for humans. Unfortunately, food supplements are not regulated by the FDA and can make any health claim that prescribed drugs and labeled foods cannot. Ask if there is a RDA for their supplement, what percent of the RDA does one dose of their supplement provide and why do you need more than 100% of their product's nutrients.
If the program or people can't answer your questions, walk away or hang up. If their answers sound like hogwash, they probably are.
Lastly, remember that nutrition professionals are practicing nutrition and we don't have it perfect yet. But we learn new information as nutrition research is published and we pass this information along to the public to improve their health and quality of life.