DEAR DR. BLONZ: I have an unusual request that I hope you can help me with. My wife has been on a healing journey for a long time now, and has made great strides through nutritional and activity changes.
She now wants to start a "health consultant" business, since many people already call her up for advice. I'm not sure what qualifies one to be a nutritionist, so perhaps there are even more basic facts we need to research. I think she is primarily interested in making sure she has covered the basics, and wants to find some degree or accreditation that lets people know she has studied the subject. -- S.F., Tulsa, Oklahoma
DEAR S.F.: The questions you pose hit some thorny issues. One difficulty is that there is no official definition for "nutritionist"; many call themselves this with little or no formal training. Most good nutrition is nothing more than common sense. However, we can run into complexities regarding the relative efficacies of supplements and herbs, not to mention potential interactions with any given person's health conditions and medications.
There is a need to be able to read and interpret complex research data, evaluate evidence and new discoveries, and see how all the relevant information applies to an individual's health and daily life. It is not an easy task, and there's no shortage of acolytes foisting "miracles" on an anxious populace.
Social media provides a complicated platform: Charlatans often make compelling arguments on well-designed websites, while those with genuine expertise tend to be limited by evidence and professional ethics. Online, I have observed off-the-wall scary advice, but also some quite logical statements. As you would imagine, the field is a "buyer beware" wildcard.
We must not turn a blind eye to progress and breakthroughs, and many of today's mainstream tenets were thought to be nonsense when first proposed. So how does one tell the difference? Unless one can read and understand basic research -- i.e., published, peer-reviewed scientific journals -- it is challenging to examine discoveries with a critical eye. It takes years to develop such skills. And even then, one's knowledge has limits, which must be acknowledged and respected.
If your wife is serious about nutrition, more sophisticated training would be needed to help her fully understand and integrate cutting-edge experimental science. A good first step would be to look into community colleges offering basic and advanced nutrition courses. Identify scientific organizations and health professionals in the community, and consider employment or volunteer work to get a broader perspective on how the profession works.
There are also nutrition videos online, but be sure to stick with sources that have academic credentials and positions. This is critical, because there are pay-to-play organizations that sell you "expert" certificates with little, if any, substantive training. Someone touting themselves as a "board-certified" expert may have nothing more than a piece of paper they bought.
Always be mindful of the limits of your understanding, and build relationships with genuine experts to whom you can refer clients when something is beyond your training. Best wishes and continued good health for your family.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.