Wellness warriors: Who can we trust for nutrition advice?
In the wellness world of bloggers, ‘fitspiration’ and social media stars, it can be hard to know whose advice to listen to. Healthy Food Guide editor-at-large Niki Bezzant explores how to spot fact from fallacy.
Celebrities have always cashed in on their appeal to offer lifestyle advice on everything from parenting to diets, spreading influence and making a quick buck. And now it’s easier than ever to have this kind of influence. We live in a world where anyone, celebrity or not, can present themselves as an expert. And consumers happily lap up their advice and buy their products.
The world of the wellness influencer
Recently a book was released by former The Bachelor NZ dating show contestant Matilda Rice. The Lazy Girl’s Guide to Living a Beautiful Life, described as ‘a refreshing, positive guide to life for young women’, includes healthy recipes, exercises and workouts and advice on skincare, beauty and fashion. It was a hit, with a second reprint within weeks.
Ms Rice has a large social media following. She looks like she’d be fun to hang out with. Is she an expert in exercise, diet, skincare or fashion? No, and nor does she claim to be. But she does have a following of people who are prepared to take her advice anyway.
Welcome to the world of the wellness influencer.
There’s potentially nothing wrong with this – motivation to be healthier can come from anywhere, and if a particular idea resonates with us and spurs us into action, that’s great.
But what happens when the advice so confidently given by influencers veers us off track?
Take the case of Australian chef and self-appointed paleo diet expert Pete Evans. His book for babies and toddlers included recipes health experts warned could harm infants, prompting its withdrawal by the publisher.
Questionable nutrition advice seen frequently across social media alarms many legitimately trained nutrition professionals.
So how do we know what advice to follow and what to set aside?
NZ’s nutrition qualifications
One basic tool is knowing how nutrition qualifications work in New Zealand.
Dietitians New Zealand spokesperson Lea Stening says anyone can call themselves a nutritionist – whether or not they have any training or qualifications. This means people can do a weekend-long or online course, or have no training at all and still claim the title. Conversely, the title ‘dietitian’ is protected. In fact, it’s the only nutrition health profession to be regulated by law. Registered dietitians have an undergraduate health science degree, as well as a post-graduate qualification in dietetics accredited by the Dietitians Board. Only trained, degree-qualified and registered practitioners can legally call themselves a dietitian, in accordance with the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003, and they’re subject to the board’s competency requirements and Code of Ethics, as well as legislation.
There are also registered nutritionists, who are degree-qualified in Human Nutrition with at least two years’ relevant experience. They are registered with the Nutrition Society of New Zealand in a particular field, such as Public Health, Education, Practice, Scientific Research or Industrial Research. Registered nutritionists are not regulated, but are subject to ongoing requirements for continuing education to remain registered.
The term ‘clinical nutritionist’, sounds medical but is, in fact, meaningless and not regulated by any organisation. The term ‘clinical’ in this context seems added to lend credibility.
Seeing through the sales pitches
Ms Stening warns to be savvy when seeking advice on specific health conditions from unregistered nutritionists or other ‘wellness experts’.
“Many [unregistered] nutritionists do a great job educating people to eat a healthier diet. It is when they start offering dietary treatments or selling dietary supplements that the risks to the public can begin,” Ms Stening says.
“It is very hard just to give general nutritional advice without also being dragged into some offering of treatment information.”
For instance, a person looking for weight-loss advice, who is obese, may have a cascade of metabolic issues and co-morbidities, such as pre-diabetes, elevated cholesterol or gout – all of which need treatment from a relevantly qualified expert.
When wellness experts have products to sell, such as seminars or supplements, it’s not hard to see how they can become compromised. Some offer good advice but can also be heavy on sales pitches. So why are we so open to advice from self-appointed experts?
It’s partly psychological. We’re often drawn to alternatives to traditional treatments that promise highly effective results. They’re more exciting than the ‘boring’ stuff we know about moderation and regular exercise.
There’s also evidence the demeanour of a person administering ‘treatment’ can affect how we feel about its effectiveness. How much we trust or like a practitioner can potentially affect how well we perceive their advice to work – an element of the placebo effect.
Whether a wellness expert is well-intentioned (as many are) or cynically seeking profit; we are wise to follow the old ‘buyer beware’ advice.
What about product endorsement?
There is currently no compulsion for bloggers to declare if they are posting on behalf of, or in collaboration with, a product or brand.
But the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand ‘encourages PR practitioners to make all appropriate disclosures and request or require third parties, such as influencers or bloggers, to disclose that items have been gifted and/or payments made’.
Sorting expertise from pseudoscience
Dietitian Angela Berrill offers these tips when assessing the advice of a wellness influencer.
Don’t be swayed by a blogger’s perceived success on social media, such as their number of followers, celebrity status or physical appearance. “Just because someone is ‘successful’ online doesn’t necessarily make them qualified,” Ms Berrill says.
Check the quality of an expert’s credentials and qualifications. “A three-day online nutrition course from an unheard-of university is completely different to having completed a master’s or post-graduate degree from a reputable university.”
Look for advice based on robust scientific evidence, rather than anecdotes or one-off studies. True experts know that one size (or diet) does not fit all.
Don’t assume an overseas qualification is appropriate for practice in New Zealand. And watch for the term ‘clinical nutritionist’, which does not mean anything.
Be aware of the filter of social media. Ms Berrill says. “It’s often a very photoshopped and edited version of someone’s life.”
How do NZ wellness gurus stack up?
Message: ‘Nutritional biochemist’ whose ‘mission is to educate and inspire, enhancing people’s health and happiness, igniting a ripple effect that transforms the world’.
Good for: Message of taking charge of your health; inspiring change. Dr Weaver speaks to women and is empathetic about the stress, busyness and problems of modern life.
Watch for: Diet advice can include giving up food groups (eg. dairy) as treatment for many health conditions.
Qualifications: Australian-trained dietitian (not NZ or AU registered). BHSc and PhD in Biochemistry from Australia’s Newcastle University.
Selling: Books, seminars, ‘Beautiful You’ weekends, online courses, Bio Blends by Dr Libby range of supplements, Dr Libby eye pillows.
Message: ‘A mother of two keeping things real in the world of health, wellness, parenting, business and all that stuff that is just plain hard sometimes!’
Good for: Body positivity, mental health, alcohol awareness and self-care. Ms Carr has been very open about her personal struggles which could be inspiring for others.
Watch for: Unacknowledged paid product endorsements.
Qualifications: No nutrition qualifications.
Selling: No products for sale. Unclear whether product promotions are sponsored content.
Message: Under the BePure brand, Mr Warren claims to offer ‘scientific, holistic health’.
Good for: Inspiration to improve health; acknowledgement that a one-size-fits-all diet will not work for everyone.
Watch for: Supplements as the answer. Some ‘scientific’ statistics not tested in a NZ context. Some theories (on hormones, for example) not recognised by the medical community. Qualifications: BA in Experimental Psychology, University of South Carolina. MSc in Holistic Nutrition, Hawthorn University, US (an unaccredited online-only school).
Selling: Six-week BePure programme, clinical consultations and programmes, BePure range of supplements, ‘The Hormone Secret’ seminars.
Message: Clean Eatz NZ is ‘a progressive lifestyle blog, logging her journey on her path to a healthier lifestyle’.
Good for: Ms Elder-Holmes’ story is a very personal one. She details her own struggles with mental health, health issues and body image which could be empowering for young women.
Watch for: Although she makes no claims to be an expert, some unscientific nutrition content could be taken as advice.
Qualifications: No nutrition qualifications.
Selling: ebook, Thailand raw vegan retreat. Unclear whether product promotions are sponsored content.
Julia and Libby
Message: Two sisters with a shared vision. They believe ‘food can be more than just tasty fuel, it can be a medicine. Beauty starts from within and food can play a big part in how we feel’.
Good for: Inspiring recipes and good ideas for including more plants in the diet. The pair also raise awareness for charities.
Watch for: Some nutrition advice is not evidence-based. Qualifications: Libby has a Naturopathy degree from Wellpark College of Natural Therapies.
Selling: Recipe books. They also have a number of brand ambassadorships and appear to do sponsored social media posts.
Message: ‘Nude food’ philosophy – eat real food that comes from the ground, sea and sky, and less from the factories.
Good for: Inspiring recipes; moderate approach. Ms Lim is an approachable role model with a solid science-based nutrition background.
Watch for: Not all her recipes are healthy but that’s fine within the context of a healthy diet.
Qualifications: BSc, Human Nutrition, Master of Dietetics, Otago University. NZ-qualified dietitian, registered in NZ.
Selling: Books, My Food Bag, Bargain Box, Nadia magazine.