Nutritionalists: the Good, the Bad and Everything in Between

When I first started getting interested in healthy eating, lots of bloggers were advertising themselves as nutritionalists. As someone who had seriously considered taking a degree to become a registered dietician, seeing these nice shiny qualifications was reassuring. The bloggers clearly knew what they were talking about with their official-sounding title, and I had lots if role models to aspire to. Since then, there has been a quiet backlash in the more scientific community against so-called nutritionalist. The problem is, the term nutritionalist doesn’t actually mean anything. Whilst becoming a dietician requires at least a three year undergraduate course accredited by a body such as the British Dietetic Association, health coach/nutritionalist courses can be undertaken in six months or even less. Both the Guardian and Women’s Health have shared articles about the unclear waters between dieticians, nutritionalists and health coaches, and as someone interested in both holistic health and proper scientific accreditation, I thought I would share my thoughts on the subject.

Of course, that isn’t to say that becoming a health coach is misleading -many bodies such as the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) are extremely popular and can equip professionals with the tools to become better able to help their clients. The problem is is that these holistically-focused courses can miss out key areas of study, such as biochemistry and physiology and typically do not hold scientific accreditation. I have noticed that a few IIN graduates have relabelled themselves as health coaches rather than nutritionalists, and I respect them for making that distinction. Health coaches have packed in a year of hard study, but I think it is important for there to be a clearer distinction. On the flip side, others are making it clear that they do not see themselves as nutritionalists, but rather chefs and food writers. Blogger and “wellness rebel”, Plant Based Pixie is bucking the trend by undertaking a Masters in Nutrition and isn’t afraid to call out popular health trends and diets.

When you have health professionals and bloggers offering dietary advice, you need to feel confident in their knowledge, and this can be a tricky line to toe. I strongly believe that good diet, movement, sleep and stress management go a long way towards improving health, and this isn’t something that will necessarily get prescribed at your GP. Health coaches and holistic nutritionalists are definitely helping to fill this gap, but again, when it comes to diet the area becomes much more grey. A classical example is gluten. It’s currently the big bad boy of the food world, right next to sugar. If you are intolerant to gluten, or have a sensitivity to it (which can be temporary, particularly if you have been on a course of antibiotics) then of course, reducing or cutting it out is going to make you feel better. But if you can digest it, then why ditch a nourishing food source? Everyone is a unique individual, and so are affected differently by foods. But when you find yourself looking at a gluten free option that is twice the price of your everyday item, and with added sugars and ingredients to make up for the gluten, you do have to wonder if it’s worthwhile if you don’t have an intolerance. Last year I asked if bread really was the enemy, looking at all the factors that could be causing you bloating after a slice of toast -you can read it here.

Then we come on to the subject of experience. Previous work in kitchens, or perhaps some watertight reviews can give professionals an edge, even if they haven’t completed their studies. Before training at the IIN, Madeleine Shaw worked in health food kitchens in Australia, and has a fair bit of experience working in professional kitchen. She is also continuing her studies in nutrition, albeit at a holistic naturopathic school rather than a university. Personally, I would like to see more courses than aim to bridge the science of dieticians with the holistic approach of naturopathy. Up and coming health food brand Primrose’s Kitchen is based on naturopathic principles and has a very tempting range of products.

When it comes down to it, you need to make the decision for yourself about who’s opinion you value, and whose you might not. Whether you are looking for a nutritionalist for a private consultation, or are surfing the health blogs, don’t be afraid to research the diets and foods that they recommend to gather your own opinion, or to ask questions. Different needs require different expertise and in taking the initiative to delve deeper, you can improve your own understanding, and build better communication with each other… be you talking to a blogger, nutritionalist, health coach or dietician.