It starts innocently enough. You see a couple of turmeric lattes on Instagram, thanks to a recipe posted on Goop. Then, a YouTube video posted by British Vogue features the perennially glossy Emily Weiss – founder of the New York it-girl make up brand Glossier – saying she carries it in supplement form in her teeny-tiny Chanel purse. Next thing you know, someone’s offering turmeric injections, so you can benefit from the spice’s supposedly anti-inflammatory properties in its purest form.
Except there’s just one problem: there’s no scientific evidence to suggest turmeric has healing properties. In fact, a study in the science journal Nature noted in January that curcumin, the supposedly-curative molecule found in turmeric, was a “chemical deceiver”. But that didn’t stop a 30-year old woman dying after being injected by the compound, which medical examiners say caused an adverse reaction that resulted in cardiac arrest.
So how did we reach a point where something like turmeric can go from tasty ingredient in a homemade curry to high-risk intravenous substance? According to a trio of trainee dieticians studying at King’s College London, the lack of delineation between medically trained, science-based practitioners and self-styled “experts” in the field of nutrition and diet advice is a big part of the problem.
In November, the women launched a petition online asking the government to make “nutritionist” a legally protected title. So far, it has nearly 9,000 signatures; it needs 10,000 by May 4 to warrant a government response.
“The main problem that we see is wellness gurus and self-described health experts who are giving out nutrition advice that isn’t based on science or evidence and sometimes it can be dangerous,” says Caroline Day, a co-founder of Fight the Fads (FTF), which the women formed before launching the petition. “So, the focus of our petition is making sure that anyone who is giving out nutrition advice and using the title of nutritionist is properly qualified.”
It’s a modern-day capitalist equivalent of snake oil, which kind of sounds like something a wellness blogger would hawk
Day and her collaborators, Elisabeth Cresta and Harriet Smith, are training to be registered dieticians (RDs), which in the UK requires a minimum of a BSc in Dietetics and is regulated by a body known as the Health Care Professions Council (HCPC). Similar to being a doctor or a lawyer, Day explains, it’s difficult to pass off being an RD if you’ve not done the requisite training. The murkier category their petition focuses on is nutritionists. Reputable registered nutritionists (RNutrs) are generally registered with a body known Association for Nutrition (AFN), which she notes has stringent criteria and requires science and evidence-based training or coursework to be considered for membership. However, plenty of people call themselves nutritionists, nutritional therapists, or nutritional experts, without training or a scientific background of any kind—just an Instagram bio, e-book, or a website. The problem is that the public doesn’t know the difference.
The team behind FTF says they were motivated to start their campaign and the subsequent petition because they noticed so many people are confused about what to eat in order to stay healthy. And it’s easy to see why. Should we be dousing everything we eat in coconut oil? Or is it too high in saturated fat? Should we eat five servings of fruit per day? Or is that too much sugar? Instagram will tell you both.
All of which begs the question: we’d never trust a “legal expert” who didn’t go to law school, so why do we trust unvetted wellness bloggers? Probably because their brands are designed to be aspirational. They tend to look suspiciously like models, with a just-back-from holiday glow and a kitchen that boasts enviable natural light. So when they endorse a product like bone broth – often in exchange for payment from a brand, which makes their advice even less trustworthy – we’re not actually buying into that, but the larger lifestyle ideal they offer. It’s a modern day capitalist equivalent of snake oil, which kind of sounds like something a wellness blogger would hawk.
Because wellness has come into the fore rather recently, Day notes that there is not yet any data to suggest that the rise of untrained nutrition experts has an adverse effect on people’s health. However, she does point to anecdotal evidence from practicing dieticians that indicates people who follow wellness bloggers are more likely to get orthorexia, defined as an unhealthy fixation on righteous eating.
The FTF trio say petition or not, if you are taking dietary advice from a nutritionist – particularly if you’re paying for it – you can look up if that person is registered with the AFN, which will indicate they had evidence-based training. They also suggest being more critical of what you see on Instagram and adhering to the age-old advice that if something sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.
“Try and be critical when you look at accounts on Instagram. Remember when you look at a post, that it’s only one part of their day,” Cresta said. “Food is very important part of life, but it doesn’t mean that everyone always gets it right with food and needs to be perfect on the time. It’s much more complicated than that – and that’s fine.”