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A Nutritionist by Any Other Name

by Jon Robison, PhD, MS

This is a bit of a different kind of entry for me for this blog, but I had an experience recently that reminded me about something I had wanted to write about but had not gotten around to. I was facilitating a HAES® training recently with the coaches of a health promotion company who, among other things, provide nutritional counseling. There was a smattering of the usual “OMG where has this been all my life?” and also the occasional “OMG what planet are you from?!” One individual in particular had some real issues with the nutrition portion of the workshop.

We started the day by playing “the food game.” I ask for two volunteers and give each a marker and a place to write on a white or chalk board. I have them set up two columns, one on either end of the board. One column is titled “Good Foods (Healthy)” and the other “Bad Foods (Unhealthy).” Someone calls out a food and then says under which column it should be placed. The person in charge of that column writes it down. People can then agree or disagree. If they disagree with the placement and think it belongs under the other column, the other volunteer writes it down there as well. So, someone might say chicken/ healthy. But someone else might say but fried chicken is unhealthy and so we might put fried under unhealthy and baked under healthy. Someone might then say that white meat is healthy but dark not and so on. Then we move on to the next food. After about 30 minutes of what sometimes deteriorates into rather heated arguments of the virtues and evils of various foods, people get quite anxious and are more than ready to quit. I finish by acknowledging their confusion and anxiety and asking them to think about how the people they are counseling might be feeling.

At one point during the game, the woman I mentioned above calls out “fast food/bad.” I ask the group if all fast food is bad, and most, but not all agree that it is. The woman continues saying fast food is all bad because, for instance, a Big Mac has no nutritional value. I pause for a second and explain that there is, in fact, a significant amount of nutritional value in a Big Mac to which she replies “well, I don’t believe that is so.” So, here is a person who has only an extremely limited understanding of basic nutrition doing nutritional counseling for employees following blood screenings and HRAs. I suggest to her that regardless of whether she thinks the Big Mac contains too much of this or that to be healthy; because it provides fat, carbohydrate and protein – the three major nutrients – it is simply incorrect to make the claim she has made. She continues to disagree and I see that any more discussion is pointless. It reminds me of a colleague who says that math is not a popularity contest and therefore 2+2 equals 4 regardless of how you feel about it!

Unfortunately, it seems that many people, regardless of training or actual knowledge base, view themselves as qualified to give others nutrition counsel. This is a phenomenon that has surprised me many times over the last few decades. Doctors, most of whom have little or no nutrition training do it all the time. Recently, one of the kids on my son’s college soccer team told my son and the other boys that they shouldn’t drink Gatorade because it has too much sugar and salt and is bad for them and they can get everything they need from water. Of course, this is completely false and potentially dangerous for the boys, especially if they are exercising in the heat. Water can help with hydration but it does not replenish the electrolytes and calories from sugar which are so critical to endurance activities like soccer. By limiting their intake of these substances, they are opening themselves up to premature fatigue, slower recovery time and potential increased injuries. I am guessing the advice was handed down from a parent who was restricting calories and carbs for weight loss.

It is unlikely that people would hire someone with no training to fix their car or their television or their air conditioner and yet they listen to health professionals and others who have little or no training when it comes to nourishing the most important “machine” of all – their bodies. Of course, as in any profession, there are likely to be really good nutritionists and really bad ones and everything in-between. However, the next time you seek nutrition advice from someone, doesn’t it make sense to consider asking about their training, education and experience? It is at least as much as you would do for your car, television or air conditioner.

I am not sure of the best way to remedy this problem. I know there have been many people asking the same questions and I look forward to hearing people’s suggestions.

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