On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Student Seeks Nutrition Program

DEAR DR. BLONZ: I am researching distance-learning programs in nutrition. My goal is to get educated and then build my own practice, where I can offer individuals nutritional expertise and coaching to help them achieve optimal health, energy and a natural body weight specific to their body type. One place is an academy that is accredited and offers a particular type of diploma in comprehensive nutrition. Do you have any knowledge of schools that provide long-distance training in this profession? -- S.F., New York City

DEAR S.F.: I remain skeptical of distance-learning programs’ ability to provide the training needed to serve as an expert in nutrition, or in any area offering medical advice.

Learning how to provide health guidance is a multi-layered undertaking. Many questions need to be asked, and advice needs to be carefully tailored to each person. The individual’s physician often needs to be in the loop to ensure that medications, preexisting health conditions and other relevant factors are considered.

For example, registered dietitians are given theoretical and specialized training, in addition to their four-year college degrees. They often become part of a medical team working with patients and individuals in real-world situations, with instructors providing the requisite guidance. To retain their registered status, dietitians have to participate in continuing education, and many go on to receive additional graduate degrees.

Whatever you decide, be sure to check the instructors’ and administrators’ credentials at any prospective institution. Seek out those with graduate degrees from traditional brick-and-mortar universities, as well as experience in teaching and research. Their training must be in the areas they teach: Someone having a Ph.D. in the arts, for example, should not be portrayed as an expert or “doctor” in the sciences. Be skeptical of institutions where instructors are primarily graduates from that institution or other distance-learning organizations.

Next, consider what doors, if any, that diploma will open for you. These are undergraduate degrees and may only cover basic concepts. Please don’t get me wrong: It is absolutely essential to understand basic concepts. But the complexities of individuals’ problem situations are what lead them to seek expert advice. The key is to keep learning, and build on that foundational knowledge with experience and expert guidance from appropriately trained instructors.

When I lecture, I often state that most people know more about an automobile or major appliance they’re considering purchasing than they do about things relating to their own bodies, health and well-being. The body is a complex interaction of genetics and life experiences. Diet and lifestyle are important players, but much has to be considered when making recommendations to others. Granted, you don’t need a Ph.D. to decide what to have for dinner, but there is a difference between foods as sustenance and the use of foods and dietary supplements to treat or help prevent a particular problem. Those who would come to you for professional advice will be operating under the assumption that you understand their particular “big picture.”

One of the most important concepts is to appreciate your knowledge’s limits -- that is, to recognize when a particular problem is beyond your training. It is perhaps more important to know what you don’t know, than what you do. Professionals must grapple with this all the time.

I wish you the best, and hope that you can find a program that will move you along the road you seek.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.