This is something that has been on my mind for a very long time. As someone who spent a large proportion of their time in the medical environment and has a degree in nutrition, I cannot emphasise enough to recommend you to do your research before you choose to visit a specialist of any kind.
As the popularity of seeking private specialists is on the rise (Allen et al., 2017), it is more likely that you will come across someone mentioning their experience or advertising their services to make your life better. As a big advocate of “prevention is better than treatment”, I believe that it is great when you make a decision to improve your health and wellbeing and go the extra mile to see someone who will help you.
But choosing the wrong specialist may cause you more harm than benefit, therefore small research can prevent a lot of complications including wasted resources. I recognise that this may often seem very complicated so I created this simplified list of various nutrition-related professionals, so you can easily decide which professional you would like to work with to achieve your goals.
Let’s begin with the simple - from often public to private, Dietitians are currently the only professionals protected by law. They obtained their title by studying a degree in Dietetics, which ensures that they have experience of working in the NHS setting, where you are more likely to find them. They also cover a large proportion of scientific subjects including biochemistry and physiology, as well as trained to communicate and support their clients.
They become Registered Dietitians (RD) after proving that they are competent in professional and clinical fields by the British Dietetic Association (BDA).
So there’s the catch - the title Nutritionist is not currently protected by law and therefore various practitioners can call themselves a ‘Nutritionist’. To ensure that your practitioner has a relevant background of biochemistry and physiology, the easiest way is to check whether they’re registered with The Association for Nutrition (AfN); which provides a voluntary registration for Nutritionists.
What do they do
Nutritionists don’t tend to work in clinical settings or there are exceptions when they work in a team with Dietitians. They work with healthy people and they do not practice therapy through reversing health conditions. However, many conditions can be improved through diet and lifestyle, which Nutritionists can underpin and help you to achieve with their evidence-based advice. They will recommend NHS approved supplements if you are proved to be lacking some vitamins or minerals (BDA, 2014).
UKVRN (UK Voluntary Register of Nutritionists) also provides an opportunity for credible nutrition practitioners with relevant training and skills to be distinguished to protect the public from practitioners without the relevant background essential to their practice. Furthermore, UKVRN registrants declare that their practice is in line with the AfN Standards of Ethics, Conduct, and Performance, which further protects you as a client (Association for Nutrition, 2019).
Why is this important
A so-called Nutritionist may still have a relevant background in subjects related to health and science, however, the registration with AfN ensures that their knowledge is relevant to their profession and requires up-to-date knowledge, as well as their ongoing professional development. Their registration suggests that they graduated from a scientific-based degree in nutrition accredited by the AfN or graduated from a non-accredited degree but were able to prove their relevant background through the strict standards of the AfN accreditation.
Therefore, it is important that when you look for a Nutritionist, you will work with someone who’s specialisation fits your preferences the best but is also able to apply their scientific knowledge of physiology to their practice so they won’t put yourself in danger, even though they mean no harm.
Where to check Nutritionist’s registration
Again, this is not a law protected title hence any practitioner with no relevant background in nutrition can call themselves by anything like Nutritional Therapist, Nutritionist, Lifestyle Coach or even Clinical Nutritionist.
A Nutritional Therapist who has completed a higher education degree is often a graduate from a BSc, PGDip or MSc Nutritional Therapy course (UCAS, 2019), which prepared them to be able to carry consultations and deal with clients with some physiology and nutrition background. They also may have a foundation degree in Nutritional Therapy, which is sufficient to consider them to start a recognised degree in Nutrition.
A Nutritional Therapist is not allowed to be registered with the UKVRN/AfN or the Health Care Professions Council however, they can register with the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC).
What do they do
Nutritional Therapists and similar practitioners offer various treatments, which are not based on evidence such as detox, extremely high doses of supplements or suggest various food allergies that are not tested via scientific evidence-based methods. They also provide advice which is related to their beliefs and their personal opinion, which is not based on evidence. They use non-NHS approved supplementation products, which they may sell themselves.
Why is this important
As different Nutritional Therapists may be closely specialising in other disciplines that they further connect with their nutritional advice, it may often be affected by the principles of their additional practice, which often may not be based on any evidence (BDA, 2014).
If you seek a Nutritional Therapist and you are attracted by their additional practice and its connection to nutrition and lifestyle, you can check whether they are registered with the relevant body; e.g. an acupuncture practitioner would be registered with the British Acupuncture Council.
Both registrations for Nutritionists and Nutritional Therapists are not compulsory however, this is the only way to protect you as the consumer to check whether your practitioner is qualified within their field.
Where to check Nutritional Therapist’s registration
The advice in health food and supplement stores
I came across many health food shops staff members giving advice regards to diet and supplementation. They are perfectly fine to give advice regards the good they’re selling, share their experience and their knowledge about the products however, it becomes slightly tricky when it comes to supplements.
I personally witnessed more than once advice which could seriously endanger someone’s life (e.g. a customer was already on a high dosage of Iron prescribed by their GP and was advised by an unqualified staff member to take supplements which had a further high dosage of the same mineral).
The staff of these stores may have a great personal experience and safe knowledge of the products they’re selling. They can also be well trained in product knowledge and usage, but they are still rather retail advisors than nutritional professionals (exception - some stores have their actual nutritionist). Remember the life-threating advice I mentioned? That came from a health food store manager (!), which claimed themselves to be “a nutritionalist”. This is a perfect warning sign, as a real nutritional professional would at least not misspell their title.
It is less likely that you will overdose on food. Supplements are very much different as they are concentrated forms of vitamins, minerals, and other substances; which makes it easier for them to bring you benefits as well as detriments. If you are recommended a supplement or suggested to buy a supplement from a Nutritional Therapist, check with your GP to ensure the product is relevant to your health improvement.
In a nutshell
• Check whether the practitioner’s specialisation fits your needs
• Check their qualifications and registration
• If you’re diagnosed with a food allergy or intolerance, check with your GP
• Always check with your GP or the NHS website the supplements prescribed
• Do not purchase or take supplements if you’re not sure why
Allen, L., Carter, J., Hicks, F., Hilson, I. and Jones, E. (2017). A private choice: The changing face of the UK health market. [online] Gkstrategy.com. Available at: https://gkstrategy.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/A-Private-Choice-UK-Health-Market.pdf [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].
Association for Nutrition (2019). The UK Voluntary Register of Nutritionists (UKVRN). [online] Association for Nutrition. Available at: http://www.associationfornutrition.org/Default.aspx?tabid=76 [Accessed 14 Nov. 2019].
BDA (2014). Dietitian, Nutritionist, Nutritional Therapist or Diet Expert? A comprehensive guide to roles and functions. [online] The British Dietetic Association. Available at: https://www.bda.uk.com/publications/dietitian_nutritionist.pdf [Accessed 14 Nov. 2019].
UCAS (2019). Nutritional Therapist. [online] UCAS. Available at: https://www.ucas.com/ucas/after-gcses/find-career-ideas/explore-jobs/job-profile/nutritional-therapist [Accessed 14 Nov. 2019].