Spot A Fake Nutritionist/ Dietitian
With everyone from personal trainers to health coaches dishing out nutritional advice, could you be leaving your health in the hands of an under qualified “professional” rather than a properly qualified nutrition expert?
As a licensed nutritionist with a Master’s of Science (MSc) in Dietetics, I’m often asked about the various “nutrition gurus” that are popping up left and right. Increasingly, I’m also asked to “mop up the damage” with disappointed clients misled by “self-appointed experts” who have misrepresented their nutritional knowhow.
Always be sure of these queries whenever you are opting for a nutritionist/dietitian. Because a self proclaimed Wellness guru does more harm than good.
Does my dietary guide have a nutritional license?
Obtaining a license from a fully-accredited institution – ideally one with a reputation for academic excellence – is the best guarantee to ensure genuine credibility.
My fascination with how food choices affect physical and mental health is lifelong, but it took five years of full time study to earn the necessary qualifications to be considered an authority on nutrition.
I am trained with Master’s of Science (MSc) in Dietetics & Food Service Management, widely accepted as among the most prestigious and demanding in the world. Before enrolling, I had to complete a year’s foundation course in advanced chemistry and biology. Most of us already had a university degree and were well acquainted with the rigors of evidenced-based research.
Understand that (licensed) nutritionists and dietitians are united
Despite differences in philosophy and approach, both play a particularly helpful role in educating patients about proper nutrition and improving people’s health.
- Nutritionists help patients reach their health goals by identifying underlying factors, correcting nutritional deficiencies and prescribing specific diets, supplements and diagnostic tests. A holistic nutritionist also considers environmental, psychological and emotional factors.
- Dieticians complete a 5 year degree and log in hundreds of hours of rigorous internship. They usually work within institutional settings (hospitals, nursing homes) and often work with doctors and other healthcare professionals to coordinate medical and nutritional needs.
Remember that registered dietitians and licensed nutritionists are professionals that have accredited nutrition degrees and took universally-accepted exams. Other nutritional titles – including health coach – require very little training.
Know that anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist”
Much confusion prevails over the words dietician and nutritionist in the first place.
In developed countries, where these things are regulated, dieticians and nutritionists are Government-certified, trained practitioners, with two very different sets of certifications.
In India, minimum qualification required is an Masters degree in Dietetics or Food & Nutrition followed by at least 1 yr internship from a MCI accredited Hospital with an established Department of Dietetics.
Unfortunately, anyone with a short diploma in food and nutrition can call themselves a nutritionist, as there are no laws in this space, leading to people circumventing any potential legal irregularities quite easily.
Many who call themselves “nutritionists” lack proper credentials, which is both confusing and unhelpful to the public. The title alone is not enough to indicate whether the person has Ph.D. level training or simply completed a 6-month part-time course.
Those seriously involved in the profession are working to establish standards of training and practice. In India, there is must be a petition to make “nutritionist” a legally protected title. Until that time, choose only nutritionists with a fully-accredited license.
You probably know someone who’s a health coach. Perhaps they studied at the “World’s Largest Nutrition School”, notoriously heavy on marketing and light on substance. Open to anyone who can pay the tuition it avoids the academic focus of more intense courses and does not teach how bodily systems work. Many of the nutritional theories it covers not only clash with science, but also with each other.
Health coaches can help motivate people to fulfil their health goals, however their lack of in-depth knowledge means that their recommendations can be inaccurate and sometimes even harmful.
Don’t get me wrong: health coaches can provide valuable support and guidance. Just remember that all are not created equal. Investigate their education and experience.
Avoid mistakes by checking credentials
Don’t be fooled by “certifications” and fancy-looking stamps. There are only two things that guarantee you will receive balanced and correct nutritional information from a qualified professional – either an undergraduate (BSc Hons) or postgraduate (MSc) degree in a Dietetics/Food & Nutrition, plus at least some years of professional experience.
Beware of the quack offering a quick solution
I have a friend who has left no dietary stone unturned. In the past decade, she has been to the most well-known (and expensive) conventional dieticians, to the freakiest new-age ones abroad who recommend bizarre things like a nicotine diet to kill hunger. She hasn’t given up yet, and her weight hasn’t given up on her; she remains the exact same size as when I first met her.
Losing excess weight is not something to be derided, though. It is ideal to be your optimum healthy weight, to keep illnesses at bay. But somewhere along the way, we have managed to turn weight-loss into a big money-churning industry. Every day you see advertisements declaring the latest “diet that works”, which usually translates into you losing 20 kilograms in three months. These unreasonable diets have soft targets like brides-to-be, often in a hurry to fit into all the clothes they bought too soon.
“Short-time programmes with fad diets are not only harmful in the long run, creating different deficiencies or excesses, but they also often have a rebound effect when stopped,” says Rekha Sharma, former chief dietician, AIIMS, Delhi, and former president, Indian Dietetic Association.
Unlike in other countries, where only Government-certified dieticians can practise legally, there are currently no defined regulations on who can call themselves a dietitian in India. This leads to quack-a-minute diet centers coming up across the country, promising sensational weight-loss with minimum effort, which naturally tempts people, who have been struggling with weight for years.
Getting legit help
Some hospitals call their registered dieticians ‘clinical nutritionists’ to emphasise that they are not just laying out diet charts, but are also involved in counselling patients in disease management. It’s important to understand that dieticians are not doctors, but allied healthcare professionals. So anyone who uses the Dr preceding the name is suspect, unless they have a PhD. (Doctorate).
Again, anyone guaranteeing weight-loss in large amounts (for example, 1 kilogram a week for three months), is suspect. American Board of Nutrition-certified dietician Lovneet Batra, based out of Delhi, says, “Twelve weeks is enough time to assess, to make required dietary interventions for long-term behaviour modification, encouraging a holistic approach, rather than quick weight-loss.”
Interestingly, in India, a certain amount of stigma is attached with the word ‘dietician’, as it indicates someone who makes you “diet”, whereas people assume a nutritionist is someone with a more holistic approach.
Luckily, soon, more concrete help will be available. “The Government is in the process of creating a paramedic council, wherein a registration will be issued to practise, after clearing the minimum desirable qualification to practice dietetics,” informs Sharma. Once this is in place, it will be easier to weed out the frauds from the friends. Till then, be careful who you trust with your calories.
Do we need a dietician at all?
On the face of it, weight-loss is a simple equation of deducting the number of calories you burn from the number of calories you intake. But for most people, it isn’t that simple. Many of us suffer from hidden digestive or gut-related issues that come in the way of regular weight-loss. Dietitians help us lose weight in a regulated, holistic, manner, without allowing damaging nutritional loss. Everyone is a nutritionist in the days of the mobile Internet, but to know which diet will work for your particular physiology, you need to consult a qualified dietetics expert.
The Internet will give you confusing and conflicting answers that may lead to complicating health issues, so it is best to go pro. And if you’re looking for special needs, such as say, weight-loss for a child or nutrition management for a sporting event, a dietitian does help.
All said and done, it comes to that all-important matter: self-discipline. “The best dietician can give the required information and get you started, but discipline plays a very important role,” agrees Batra. A dietician will help you get tuned in to your body and provide the right tools and guidance, but in the end, it is up to us to follow the good advice long-term.
There simply is no substitute for rigorous education in the field of nutrition as all recommendations should be supported by science. Make sure your nutritional advice comes from a well-qualified practitioner licensed by a reputable institution that covers nutrition science, biochemistry, physiology, anatomy, and other related topics.
Remember, your health is your most important asset. Take the time to choose your advisor wisely. A good decision will equip you with all the tools you need to reach your optimum health.
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