Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

“Nutritionists” Who Do You Trust? Part 2

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Nutrition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What if you had a question about diet or nutrition?  Who would you ask or more importantly, whom can you believe or trust?  In the New Oxford American Dictionary, the term “nutritionist” is defined as a person who studies or is an expert in nutrition.  The term “dietitian is defined as an expert in nutrition.  Sounds simple enough but there has been a battle waging in the field of nutrition for years as to who is “top dog” when it comes to dispensing nutrition advice.

There are some fundamental problems when it comes to choosing someone who is a reliable and a trustworthy source of giving out nutrition or diet advice.  Knowing the facts can protect you from unscrupulous or “sham” nutritionists.

Problem #1 Education
Forty-six U.S. states regulate registered dietitians (RDs) and/or nutritionists through statutory certification or licensing. One purpose is to protect the consumer from unscrupulous nutrition practices.  In the states with weaker laws, anyone with an interest in nutrition can call themselves a “nutritionist”.  Many educational institutions offer B.S. M.S and even PhD degrees in the nutrition field, but the course work and standards are often questionable.

Recently there was a news report that a Bassett Hound named Molly received a high school diploma from a so-called “diploma mill”.

Are you ever tempted by an email or an ad claiming you can “earn a college degree based…on life experience”? Don’t be, say attorneys for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), America’s consumer protection agency. Chances are good that the ad is for a “diploma mill,” a company that offers “degrees” or certificates for a flat fee, requires little course work, if any, and awards degrees based solely on life experience.

Problem #2 Accreditation

Diploma mills may claim to be “accredited. Not all accreditors are equal.  Colleges and universities accredited by legitimate organizations undergo a rigorous review of the quality of their educational programs. You can use the Internet to check if a school is accredited by a legitimate organization at the database of accredited academic institutions posted by the U.S. Department of Education at or at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation database at There are a few legitimate institutions that have not pursued accreditation. Wikipedia lists over 200 unaccredited institutions.

Problem #3 Certification This is where it often gets laughable.  I just Googled “nutrition certification” and found over a million results.

Of the non-university level nutrition certifications out there, there is plenty of garbage.  The requirements run the gamut from weekend seminars or workshops with no formal studying.   Some rely on actual classes; others only lectures, speakers or demonstrations.  The prices vary from around $500 to over $1,000.  The situation is a mess.

Years ago, the late Dr. Victor Herbert, chief of the Hematology and Nutrition Lab at Bronx Veterans Administration Medical Center in New York, reported the fact that Sassafras Herbert received recognition as a professional member of the American Association of Nutrition and Dietary Consultants without attending classes, writing a term paper, or having any experience in the field of nutrition.  She was a poodle.  All that was required was her name, address and the $50 fee.

It appears that the organization is now called The American Association of Nutrition Consultants (AANC) and standards are a little more stringent.  For $400, you may take a series of 11 tests but from their website:

“However, we realize that in preparation for the tests, the candidate may feel that he or she needs to review one or more of the subjects. Therefore, we include with the examination topics a list of recommended textbooks. The recommended textbooks are those, which will assist the candidate in successfully completing the specific portions of the examination. All answers for this examination must come from the corresponding textbook. Without the textbook, it may appear a question could be answered several ways based on your previous experience or other books. All tests will be graded according to the answers found specifically in the corresponding textbook”.

Sounds like an open-book exam to me.  For this, you receive a Certified Nutrition Consultant (CNC) credential.  You be the judge on this one.

Problem #4 Credentialing

There are three credentials you may trust (in my opinion), although it’s always good to consult your physician or a local accredited college or university nutrition department.

  1. The American Society for Nutrition members who are individuals with a doctoral level degree (Ph.D., M.D, D.D.S, D.V.M., D.Pharm) in nutrition or a related field from an accredited institution with notable accomplishments as an author of a nutrition publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Most of these “nutritionists” work in the academic and/or research fields.
  1. The Commission of Dietetics Registration recognized by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics credentials registered dietitians (RDs)) who have completed a four-year degree, a supervised internship, and completed a national exam.  Every five years, they are required to complete 75 hours of continuing education.
  1. The Certification for Nutrition Specialists was founded by the American College of Nutrition.  It offers a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential to professionals with an accredited master’s or doctoral degree that have clinical experience and pass an examination.

“Sham” nutritionists are practitioners who hold themselves out to the public as qualified in nutrition, but who often do not practice on the basis of nutrition science or standards of conduct observed by ethical practitioners. “Sham” nutritionists are characterized by:

  • Their use of bogus credentials to feign expertise
  • Their use of invalid methods of health or nutrition assessment

They may use such credentials to go into the nutrition counseling business, or to obtain employment in health or nutrition agencies. Sometimes well-meaning people inadvertently patronize these mills because out of a mistaken idea that the purveyor is a legitimate off-campus study program. The main clue that should serve as a tip-off is that the course of study is relatively easy.

“Sham” nutritionists often use hair analysis, muscle-strength testing (“applied kinesiology”), iridology, computerized dietary questionnaires, live cell analysis (blood smear viewed through microscope by video), sublingual tests, and many more, to convince their clients that they need dietary supplements.

After learning the facts, you be the judge when it comes to assessing the qualifications of the next “nutritionist” you meet.  Knowing the background, education, credentials, or licensure is of paramount importance since some of these practices may harm your health.  Check them out before buying what they have to say.

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