We all know that the Standard American Diet (SAD) is far from perfect and it leads to lots of health problems for many individuals across the United States.
After all, you are what you eat, and if you’re eating a diet overflowing with processed foods and unhealthy fats, it’s no wonder that obesity, type 2 diabetes, and inflammatory illnesses are on the rise.
One way people try to improve their health is to improve their diets and to do that, they turn to nutritionists. But who are nutritionists exactly? And are they causing you more harm than good?
Is a Nutritionist the Same as a Dietitian?
As the name implies, a nutritionist sounds like someone who has studied and can give reliable advice on nutrition. But that sounds like a dietitian, doesn’t it? So, are nutritionists and dietitians the same?
The answer is a big, resounding, “No!” dietitians must study at an accredited American college or university. (Other countries have similar requirements, but it varies depending on the country.) Dietitians must earn a bachelor’s degree, plus an additional year of training, and then pass a national exam.
Their studies can involve scientific subjects, like nutrition, anatomy, chemistry, biology, physiology, and chemistry. Public health and food studies are also popular focuses which then allow dietitians to work in many public sectors after they’ve graduated with their degree.
Who is a Nutritionist?
When it comes to nutritionists, many of these food “experts” haven’t gone through the rigorous coursework that dietitians have. Instead, they can earn certifications from online programs and/or holistic, natural schools.
Unfortunately, there isn’t always a strong scientific foundation within these programs. This means that nutritionists with these backgrounds can often fall short in providing sound and safe nutrition advice.
Nutritionists Do Fill a Necessary Gap
Medical professionals are very scientific and understand the body’s various systems incredibly well. There are specialists who focus on one of the many intricate and complex areas of the body.
This is very useful in helping countless individuals understand their bodies, and to find out what does and doesn’t work in terms of dietary choices and overall health.
However, one problem with this sort of specialized approach – even with dietitians – is that it focuses so much on the specialty, and doesn’t take into consideration all the other important factors that play into a person’s health and wellbeing.
Therefore, even though diet does play an enormous role in someone’s health, it’s also very important to look at the entire person, and his or her lifestyle. That’s because these factors weigh in heavily into someone’s wellbeing, too.
And that’s where nutritionists – especially holistic, and/or natural nutritionists – can be very useful. They will look at the whole picture and try to understand the entire person, instead of just focusing on the individual and the foods he or she eats.
This holistic approach, which is integrated into many nutritionist programs, is a much-needed approach, but sound and reliable science are still necessary.
And unfortunately, too many nutritionists offer advice and coaching without a strong scientific background.
How Can Nutritionists Do More Harm Than Good?
There are some things to watch out for when it comes to bad nutritionists. Here are some of the red flags that you can look out for:
No Signs of Science
If your nutritionist only offers anecdotal and/or personal evidence, instead of scientific research, it’s worth questioning the claims he or she makes. Without scientific backing, it’s easy for nutritionists to make compelling-sounding claims about metabolism, food groups, spices, and dietary guidelines.
If you follow these claims, without doing any of your own research, you can easily develop nutrient deficiencies, or put your own health at risk. What works for one person may not work for you, so it’s important to have solid research behind health claims.
Demonizing Food Groups
Every person is different, and their dietary needs vary, too. Now, some people are clearly allergic and/or intolerant to certain food groups. And it makes perfectly good sense to avoid these food groups.
However, if your nutritionist advises you to eliminate a food group, just because, you should probably ask why. This goes for food groups like carbohydrates, fats, saturated fats, eggs, sugar, or gluten.
Similarly, if your nutritionist says that you should eat lots of grains, or have many small meals instead of three, main meals each day. Or, if they say you should eat a lot of carbohydrates or lots of vegetable oils, you should probably question this, too.
These are dietary guidelines that may not work for you, not only because of your own nutritional needs but because they’re also scientifically unfounded in some cases.
If your body can tolerate these foods, you might not want to cut them out entirely. What’s more, your body might not just be tolerating these foods. You might actually be thriving with these foods. And a good nutritionist should respect what works for you, and your own bio-individuality.
As we mentioned above, there is a big difference between a registered dietitian, who’s earned a degree from a college or university, and a nutritionist, who may have earned a 3-month certification online.
To ensure that you’re receiving help from an accredited professional, look for credentials like “RD” (registered dietitian), or MPH (master’s in public health), or BSc (bachelor of science degree), or even MD or PhD (medical doctors or scholars who specialize in nutrition, diet, biochemistry, etc.).
You can also check to see if your nutritionist is a member of the American Society of Clinical Nutrition or the American Dietetic Association.
Cures, Panaceas, and Trends
Sometimes, eggs are the big bad wolf. Other times, gluten or sugar are demonized. Sometimes, kale is the vegetable everyone should be eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Other times, people focus on fad diets, like the cookie diet, the Whole30, the raw food diet, lunar diet, or extreme detoxes and cleanses, or anything else that promises a quick cure. If this sounds like your nutritionist, you should probably take their advice with a big grain of salt.
A true nutritionist doesn’t need to follow trends, or all the media hype surrounding them.
Finding a Trustworthy Nutritionist
This article isn’t meant to scare you, or to say that all nutritionists are out to get you. It’s just that not all nutritionists have the scientific background required to help you when it comes to one essential part of your health and wellbeing – your diet.
Finding a good nutritionist is possible, as long as you keep an eye out for red flags and look for trustworthy credentials.