Sham nutritionists are practitioners who hold themselves out to the public as qualified in nutrition and dietetics, but who do not practice on the basis of nutrition science or standards of conduct observed by ethical practitioners. Sham nutritionists are characterized by (1) their use of bogus credentials to feign expertise; (2) their use of invalid methods of health or nutrition assessment; and, (3) their inappropriate prescription practices (see Jarvis, "Recognizing today's nutrition quacks," Nutrition & the MD, 1985;11:(12):1-2).
Sham nutritionists generally obtain their credentials from certification or diploma mills. The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education defined a diploma or degree mill as "an organization that awards degrees without requiring its students to meet educational standards for such degrees established and traditionally followed by reputable institutions. A degree mill either receives funds from its so-called students on the basis of fraudulent misrepresentation, or it makes it possible for the recipients of its degrees to perpetrate a fraud on the public." [U.S. Office of Education. Pollution in Higher Education: Efforts of the U.S. Department of Education in Relation to Degree Mills. 3/74.]
NCAHF uses parallel criterion to label as "certification mills" those organizations that sell certifications which declare recipients to be "nutritionists" or "nutritional consultants" without requiring them to meet established educational standards. People who obtain spurious credentials do so for the purpose of misrepresenting themselves as qualified experts. They may use such credentials to go into the nutrition counseling business, or to obtain employment in health or nutrition agencies. Sometimes well-meaning people inadvertently patronize these mills because out of a mistaken idea that the purveyor is a legitimate off-campus study program. The main clue that should serve as a tip-off is that the course of study is relatively easy. Beware of schools that are only "authorized" or "approved," but not accredited.
Accreditation itself may also be open to question. NCAHF has found a number of "accreditation mills" -- organizations that sell bogus accreditation to degree mills! One way to check the validity of a program is to check with the registrar of a state college or university. They have an up-to-date reference book that is used to determine the validity of credits being transferred from other schools by incoming students. The most egregious degree mills are the counterfeiters of legitimate diplomas. These scam artists print phony degrees bearing the names of Harvard, Yale and other prestigious schools. The FBI shut down a number of such operations in a project known as Dipscam in the 1980s.
A publication that tracks unusual and bogus sources of degrees is Bear's Guide to Earning College Degrees Non-Traditionally (C&B Publishing. P.O. Box 826, Benica, CA 94510; Tel: 707-747-5950). NCAHF advises against obtaining any nutrition degree by correspondence if the intent is to serve as a nutrition counselor. It is not possible to obtain a quality education in this manner that will enable a person to function as a competent nutrition counselor. This is because for many people nutrition advice is tantamount to medical advice with a potential for serious health consequences. At best, correspondence courses can provide basic nutrition knowledge.
Sham nutritionists often use hair analysis, muscle-strength testing ("applied kinesiology"), iridology, electronic body scanning devices (e.g., Dermatron, VEGA, Interro, Electro Acuscope), computerized dietary questionnaires, herbal crystallization analysis, live cell analysis (blood smear viewed through microscope by video), sublingual tests, and many more, to convince their clients that they need dietary supplements. Some tests resemble legitimate clinical tests, making it difficult for non-experts to discern that they are not appropriate.
Sham nutritionists typically prescribe costly dietary supplements, whereas ethical nutritionists emphasize changes in lifestyle (i.e., food selection, preparation, exercise, etc). Sham nutritionists generally either sell supplements directly to their clients or send them to health food stores.
For help in locating a Registered Dietitian who does nutrition counseling call the American Dietetic Association's Nutrition Hotline at 1-800-366-1655.
© 1994, National Council Against Health
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