Eating Disorder: The Market for Dietary Advice Is Being Flooded With Amateurs

Nutrition ‘experts’ with no officially recognized degree and as little as just a few weeks of training are risking clients’ health and cheapening the profession, say angry dietitians.

Tomer Appelbaum

All kinds of nutrition experts can be found everywhere, but if you are looking for dietary advice, and are wavering between a dietician, a nutrition expert and perhaps a nutrition coach – you’d better be wary.

The difference between someone who is truly certified to advise the public and someone who purports to be an expert is liable to cost dearly, in money but mainly in health.

Under the 2010 health business law passed to ensure “a reasonable level of professionalism” of health-related businesses and “protecting public health,” a nutritionist or dietitian is “someone who was awarded a nutritionist-dietitian certificate that requires a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, practical training for a period set by regulations and passing Health Ministry examinations.”

The law also forbids making pretenses by using degrees that could mislead the public by using the term “nutrition.” Many holding such titles work in private clinics, beauty clinics or athletic clubs.

Idan Abuhav.
Zeev finkelshtein

“The law’s goal is to draw a red line dividing those who are eligible to provide treatment and those who aren’t in order to protect public health,” says attorney Idan Abuhav, of Atid, which was founded in 1998 as a professional organization for dietitians in Israel.

“Today noncertified pretenders operate in the market, misleading the public,” he says. “There are colleges that offer short courses of a few weeks to a few months, which offer certificates and generate another ‘nutrition expert,’ whom the public is liable to think is a certified nutritionist.”

One such college offers “three experiential months of personal training and correct nutrition,” which it markets as “the only course in Israel that combines the fundamentals of coaching and healthful nutrition in every meeting.” Acceptance criteria are simple, just a personal interview with a school’s guidance counselor.

The course is described as aimed at anyone interested “in developing a career in the field” – but does provide a caveat that “the course does not train its participants for a nutritionist or dietitian career” according to the law. The course costs 3,300 shekels ($850), and the diploma given for it is solely from the college. The Council for Higher Education and Health Ministry do not recognize the certification, as the college notes.

“The market is full of courses and non-academic degrees under the title ‘nutrition,’ many of which are not based on science and research but rather on widespread opinions that are probably good for one person, but not necessarily good for another and may even do harm,” complains Ronit Zioni, a certified nutritionist with a bachelor’s in dietary sciences from Tel-Hai Academic College and a master’s degree in medical sciences from Tel Aviv University.

Certified dietitians like her furious with the so-called nutrition experts flooding the market because of their influence on the reputation of the field and the danger to public health.

Endangering clients

“Clients’ lives become endangered because of irresponsible diets that harm them physically and mentally, especially when they are promised ‘a thin, beautiful body,’” says Yasmin Hitab, a nutritionist who graduated from the Hebrew University. “Diet and nutrition are not tied solely to losing weight. Illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure also require supervision by a certified nutritionist. Someone who is not certified, who does not now how to read blood tests, is liable to cause destructive results.”

Yasmin Hitab.
Lamsa Media / Ausnat Eldin

“There are many holes in the field,” says Abuhav. “Many ‘nutrition experts’ received their diplomas from non-academic colleges even before the law went into effect, but the law is retroactive, meaning they have to change the way they present themselves that does not include the word nutrition, such as healthy lifestyle coaches.

“Nutrition is a complex profession that takes four years to learn just the basics, not to mention specializations afterward,” says Zioni. “I am not thinking about stealing another’s livelihood, but it would be proper not to make false pretenses to the public because it undercuts certified nutritionists. “

Hatib takes a graver view. “I feel often that we nutritionists are alone in this battle,” she says. “We need a strong, authorized body that gets involved, that explains to the public more about the situation and what our position is on the matter.”

The nutritionists’ demands have not fallen on deaf ears. The Health Ministry is working together with Atid, mainly through the Investigative Committee on Misleading Advertising in Israel. The committee identifies fraudsters, mainly by examining misleading of people and businesses marketing vitamins or nutritional supplements that attribute medical properties to their products.

The committee will apporach any person suspected of misleading the public and ask to see his or her formal credentials. A request like that is often enough to deter people and make them rewrite their claims.

Enforcement lagging

Still, a Health Ministry official who asked not to be identified admits the ministry falls short when it comes to enforcement.

“The Health Ministry has a nutrition division that works according to the law and sets criminal sanctions, through which the committee against misleading the public operates,” a spokesman says. “However, enforcement in practice operates minimally. The committee can, for example, give an order to a college to change the name of the degree registered in the certificate it gives from ‘nutrition coaches’ or ‘nutrition advisers’ to ‘healthy lifestyle coach.’ Even if it does this, it is insufficient.”

The ministry official says that private people open unsupervised colleges or courses, offer diplomas and do damage to their students, who are unaware of the complexity of the field and think they are recognized and authorized by the Health Ministry.

“Damage is also caused to the public, which turns to the same ‘coaches’ and is liable to think that they are certified nutritionists,” the official says. “The term ‘nutrition coac’h creates a kind of sleight of hand. Most of the public doesn’t check, and they are sure they are working with a certified professional who can advise them, for example after receiving blood tests. Everyone can pay for every treatment he freely chooses, but people need to know what kind of treatment they are truly getting.”

The official says enforcement is difficult mainly because the deceptions are borderline in many cases. “The public needs to know how to distinguish between a certified nutrition and one who isn’t,” he says. “It is important to ask before receiving treatment where the nutritionist studied and if he has an academic degree from Israel.”

The Health Ministry replied: “The ministry works constantly through the Investigative Committee on Misleading Advertising to locate misleading advertising in medical health technologies. The ministry examines public inquiries in everything related to attributing health and medical properties to health products and forbidden advertising by medical professionals and those who those who pretend to deal in the health professions.”