• Patrick Cromb

What is a ‘Nutritionist’?

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Many people call themselves nutritionists, but what does this actually mean?

I have a few weeks left of my Master’s degree in Nutrition for Global Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Provided I receive a passing grade in my research project, I can join the UK Voluntary Register of Nutritionists. This means I gain the title Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr). This is because the course I am doing is accredited by the Association for Nutrition (AfN).

From the AfN website: “The Voluntary Register of Nutritionists (UKVRN) is a register of competent, qualified nutrition professionals who meet our rigorously applied standards for scientifically sound evidence-based nutrition and its use in practice.  The UK Voluntary Register of Nutritionists is the only register of qualified nutritionists recognised by Public Health England, NHS Choices and NHS Careers."

If I work as a nutritionist for at least 3 years I can then apply to be a fully Registered Nutritionist (RNutr). To become an Associate Nutritionist , one must complete an AfN accredited Bachelor’s or Master’s degree .This takes at least a year of full time study.  You must also do CPD (Continuing Professional Development) , such as completing further accredited training or attending conferences. So why do people who have not done so call themselves nutritionists?

Unfortunately, the title ‘Nutritionist’ is not protected by law. This means anyone can call themselves this, regardless of their training. So someone who has qualified as a personal trainer might decide to call themselves a 'nutritionist' or 'nutrition expert', even if they have no education in nutrition or have just completed a short non-accredited online course. I have unfortunately seen this first hand on numerous occasions.

This situation is even more of a minefield because there is another group of people in the UK called ‘Nutritional Therapists’, who often will use the ‘Nutritionist’ title when advertising their services. Nutritional Therapists have a ‘Diploma in Nutritional Therapy’ , or similar qualification, often from an organisation called the ‘Institute of Optimum Nutrition’. This is not a recognised university and nutritional therapy is often seen to be a part of the ‘complementary medicine’ world which has a limited evidence base(alongside homeopathy, reflexology, and so on). Nutritional Therapists can be accredited by the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) or the Federation of Holistic Therapists, not the Association for Nutrition.

Sadly, an undercover investigation into Nutritional Therapists by Which! Magazine found that some gave dangerous, non evidence-based advice and used forms of ‘quack’ analysis like Iridology. To quote Which!:

“Several of the therapists used non-evidence based testing to ‘diagnose’ symptoms.  One of the researchers – who had been trying to conceive unsuccessfully for over a year – was diagnosed with a ‘leathery bowel’ by a therapist who used Iridology – looking at iris patterns, colour and other characteristics of the eye to diagnose symptoms.”

I don’t intend to offend Nutritional Therapists, and I am sure there are many extremely competent and knowledgeable Nutritional Therapists who stick to rigorous evidence-based standards and wouldn't dream of using 'quack' methods. But as a Diploma in Nutritional Therapy is not an AfN-accredited course at a reputable university, there is little regulation over what is taught. As a result some of the content may be outdated, non evidence-based or factually incorrect. Nutritional Therapy and its origins are covered in detail in the bestselling book ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre, a very interesting read. For more information and a comparison with dieticians, see the links below.

In summary, the title Nutritionist means relatively little on its own. This is why the AfN gives the title ANutr or RNutr to those who have studied Nutrition at a credible institution and complete the necessary CPD. If you want to consult on your diet with someone who is accredited by the Association for Nutrition, just look for these letters! Nutrition is a complex and nuanced subject and in my opinion it needs extensive study from an accredited institution to be understood well. Therefore I would always recommend consulting a registered dietician, or an AfN registered ANutr or RNutr, if you are looking for personalised diet advice.

References: (Which! investigation)

( dietician vs nutritionist vs nutritional therapist)

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