They ignore alarming symptoms, rely on risibly absurd tests – and charge you a small fortune: The nutrition therapists who put your health at risk
The therapist peered at my tongue.
‘Should I be worried about bowel cancer’ I asked her.
I’d told her about my changed bowel habits over the past six months, weight loss, fatigue and dark stools.
Last month an alarming report by the consumer organisation Which highlighted the risks posed by rogue nutritionists
All are classic symptoms of bowel cancer that, to a GP, would flag up the need for further investigation. I’d even mentioned that my father had died of the disease.
But the therapist seemed unconcerned: ‘Oh, you don’t need to worry about having cancer,’ she said.
‘I can tell you’re quite well. You’d be much better off thinking about changes you can make to your diet to help you prevent cancer.’ She recommended I cut out sugar (‘because cancers feed on sugar’) to reduce my risk.
We were in the dining room of her home in a leafy Home Counties village.
A sign outside said she was ‘a specialist in food intolerance’. Certificates boasting her many qualifications, including a ‘diploma in holistic nutritional practice’ and her affiliation with ‘the Federation of Nutritional Therapy Practitioners’, covered her sideboard.
I’d found her after an internet search of local nutritional therapists. But she seemed little interested in hearing about my digestive complaints: instead, she gave me an ‘electrical food intolerance test’.
This involved my holding a metal rod attached to a machine as the therapist dropped tiny glass vials containing potential allergens (such as foods and chemicals) into a slot in the device.
She then touched the end of my finger with a metal pen to create a circuit.
The variations in the ‘bleep’ the machine made would apparently help her pinpoint my intolerances and nutritional deficiencies.
I suffer from hayfever and cannot tolerate milk. The machine, however, failed to spot any reaction to pollen or lactose.
Instead, I was told to stop eating prawns and tomatoes — both of which I eat happily.
I was also low in iron and omega-6 fatty acids, the therapist insisted. And a clear pink patch on one side of my tongue indicated my spleen was under undue pressure.
The therapist went to a bookcase packed with supplements and made her selection (she urged me not to bother with cheap supplements from supermarkets).
She recommended probiotics and aloe vera juice to improve my gut health, B vitamins and iron — at a total cost of 60 for one month’s supply (on top of her 60 consultation fee).
Good nutrition is being seen as an increasingly important tool in medicine
‘It might be worth you having a chat with your GP,’ she then added. Not, however, to be screened for possible cancer, but to check my hormones for signs of the peri-menopause (I’m 47).
‘Fluctuating oestrogen levels can affect the bowels,’ she said.
The next day I went to see another therapist whose advert in the local paper said she was trained to offer nutritional advice.
As I lay on the treatment couch in a tiny bedroom of her house, I saw that as with the previous therapist, her wall was covered in framed certificates including a ‘Kinesiology Federation Approved Certificate in Nutrition’.
I repeated my list of bowel cancer symptoms but she, too, seemed unconcerned.
‘Muscle testing’, she announced, would identify the cause of my problems.
Muscle testing seemed a uniquely brilliant diagnostic tool, requiring the therapist simply to push against my forearm to measure ‘resistance’ as she read out a list of possible physical and emotional problems.
She spent another ten minutes with her hands resting on my abdomen to channel ‘powerful universal energy’, then released my body of the many ‘fears’ she said were blocking my energy channels by standing beside me with her hand on my forehead while I silently repeated phrases such as ‘fear of pain’.
A loud yawn (hers, not mine) indicated each time the channel had been successfully cleared.
At the end of the 90-minute session, my body had instructed her it would take two sessions (at 50 a session) a month apart to restore me to health.
But in fact, I wasn’t ill at all: I’d booked these appointments as part of an investigation into the world of nutritional therapists. The picture that emerged was deeply worrying.
There is no doubt that good nutrition is being seen as an increasingly important tool in medicine, with researchers studying the impact of certain foods on a range of conditions including arthritis, Crohn’s disease, dementia, high blood pressure and even multiple sclerosis.
To the lay person, it seems common sense that food would play a key role in health and illness, but it’s not something a GP will typically discuss.
This is one reason why increasing numbers appear to be seeking the help of nutritional therapists.
You have to pay, of course, but many people take comfort from the fact that a nutritional therapist will spend 60 to 90 minutes with you asking about every aspect of your health, and will come up with natural solutions.
But how good are nutritional therapists And how safe
In one shocking case, Dawn Page from Wantage, Oxon, was left permanently brain damaged after following a diet recommended by a nutritional therapist.
She’d been advised to drink six pints of water a day as a ‘detox’ to lose weight, and ended up with hyponatraemia (the medical name for a water overdose).
The same therapist gave lectures claiming she’d successfully treated a case of thyroid cancer through diet and a compress of urine and castor oil.
Last month an alarming report by the consumer organisation Which highlighted the risks posed by rogue nutritionists. It sent undercover researchers with real medical conditions to 15 different nutritional therapists and found the advice given was dangerously poor in many cases.
One Which researcher who’d been struggling to conceive was diagnosed with ‘bowel toxicity’ and a ‘leathery bowel’ — meaningless terms in medical understanding.
A researcher who had breast cancer was told to delay the surgery and treatment recommended by her oncologist in favour of a sugar-free diet.
All but one of the 15 therapists offered either potentially dangerous or misleading advice.
These are hardly isolated examples, says Catherine Collins, principal dietician at St George’s Hospital, Tooting, South-West London, who was involved in the Which report.
‘As dieticians, we are seeing increasing numbers of patients having problems as a result of advice given to them by nutritionists and nutritional therapists,’ she said
When I asked Dr Rachel Pryke, who speaks on nutrition and health for the Royal College of GPs, to look at the advice I’d been given by just two nutritional therapists, she was shocked.
Not only were the diagnostic ‘tools’ they used highly dubious, but their diagnoses were entirely invalid, she said.
‘Your actual allergies they missed; nor would we typically attribute bowel symptoms to fluctuating oestrogen levels; and low iron levels should be explored,’ she said.
Indeed, low iron could be a sign of anaemia, which can be linked to bowel cancer, among other things.
The problem is that anyone can set themselves up to offer nutritional advice, and trying to find the legitimate practitioners is a bewildering process.
The wide variety of practitioners offering nutritional advice is astonishing, and it doesn’t help that they use so many different terms to describe what they do.
At the authoritative end of the spectrum there are dieticians. This is a legal term and only someone who’s taken a recognised four-year university degree or a postgraduate diploma in nutrition and dietetics is allowed to use the title.
Then there are the nutritionists with university degrees in nutrition and postgraduate qualifications similar to those gained by NHS dieticians.
They tend to belong to one of the government-approved ‘voluntary registers’, which insist on certain qualifications, character references and insurance, and can therefore offer the public a degree of reassurance.
For instance, a registered nutritionist (with the government-approved Association for Nutritionists) must have an approved university degree or postgraduate course with the emphasis on ‘evidence-based nutrition science’.
Then there are nutritional therapists. These may have a degree or diploma in nutritional therapy.
Qualified nutritional therapists can register with BANT (the government-approved British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy), and although registering is less rigorous than for dieticians or registered nutritionists, it does involve passing an assessment of their qualifications, character and insurance status.
However, all of the therapists highlighted by Which were BANT members.
‘The evidence-based distinction between nutritionists and nutritional therapists is important,’ says Dr George Grimble, a biochemist from the Centre of Gastroenterology and Nutrition at University College London.
‘Evidence-based means scientifically proven, and scientific studies are what tell you whether something works or not, and whether it could do any harm.’
At the other end of the nutrition advice spectrum are the ‘lifestyle nutritionists’ who put their faith in unproven methods of diagnosis such as iridology (the study of the iris), muscle testing and tongue analysis.
And as the Which report highlighted, therapists often use these tests to market supplements costing up to 70 a month.
One online correspondence course I found boasted you could call yourself a ‘qualified nutrition consultant’ after 80 hours of study, which could be completed in ‘as little as two weeks’.
This wouldn’t qualify you to join one of the recognised registers, but there would be nothing to stop you setting up your own nutrition consultancy.
‘The big danger is that people see the word “nutritionist” and assume that the practitioner is qualified,’ says Dr Pryke.
Catherine Collins likens it to ‘playing Russian roulette with your health’.
‘You could get someone who knows what they’re doing, or someone who is one textbook ahead of you and has just trained over a weekend,’ she warns.
It really is hit and miss, as I discovered when I took myself to a third nutritional therapist — this time one I’d heard about through a friend.
She boasted a three-year diploma in naturopathic nutrition from the College of Naturopathic Medicine, and BANT registration.
When I revealed my ‘symptoms’ and fears, she asked further questions. (Did I have pain Had I seen blood in my stools Had I been trying to lose weight)
But then she said she didn’t see any red flag signs of cancer — ‘so I don’t think there’s any need for you to be referred to your GP’.
She said my tongue (which with another nutritional therapist had registered ‘spleen dysfunction’) showed my liver to be ‘struggling’.
Her written report suggested my changed bowel movements might be ‘steatorrhea’ caused by an insufficiency of pancreatic enzymes. She recommended a ‘liver detox diet’ (lots of fruit and veg, and no wheat, dairy, sugar, caffeine or processed foods).
While the line of questioning was reassuring, says Dr Pryke, if steatorrhea (fatty stools) was a problem, it should be mentioned to a GP. She also said a diet that removed whole food groups was worrying.
But then I hit lucky with my fourth visit. My fictitious symptoms clearly alarmed the London-based BANT-affiliated practitioner I contacted.
When I called to make an appointment, she refused to see me until I’d seen my GP first.
‘It’s free — and that’s what they’re there for,’ she said.
So what if you do want to talk to an expert about nutrition Dr Pryke recommends anyone with health concerns talk to their GP or check out the NHS Choices website first.
When we contacted BANT, a spokesperson said: ‘BANT recognises that nutritional therapy is not a protected term, and as such anyone can call themselves a nutritional therapist.
‘Regardless of the Which article, BANT is still confident to recommend that anyone wishing to investigate the potential of nutritional therapy should consult a BANT practitioner.’
The spokesman added that BANT is regularly called upon to submit evidence to Government committees and work groups: ‘In December 2011, BANT submitted evidence to the House of Commons Health Select Committee inquiry into education, training and workforce planning within the health sector.