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Scrutinize Training, Education : Nutrition Quacks Pose Danger to Consumers

January 16, 1988|ARTHUR HELLER, M.D. | Arthur Heller, M.D., is an assistant attending physician in medicine at New York Hospital and an instructor in medicine at Cornell University Medical College in New York City

Nutrition has evolved into a highly sophisticated science, and today we know more about it than we ever did. Nevertheless, nutrition quackery is alive and well in America--fueled by hucksters and charlatans who make their fortune selling food fakery. As P.T. Barnum once said, "There's a sucker born every minute." When shopping for nutrition advice, your watchword should be caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).

A nutrition specialist is someone who can weed out sound nutrition advice from harmful misinformation and who can assess your diet and nutritional needs to fit your lifestyle.

This specialist should have reliable training and experience from an accredited institution or university. He or she is also required to pass a state medical exam and should hold membership in at least one or more of these organizations: The American Society for Clinical Nutrition, the American Institute of Nutrition, the American Board of Nutrition or the American Dietetic Assn.

Most people can obtain the nutritional advice they need from a registered dietitian (R.D.)--a person with extensive nutrition training who has passed a state certification exam. Those with complex medical histories, chronic health problems, unusual eating habits or other complicating factors should seek out a physician specialist in clinical nutrition. In addition to medical training, a physician specialist undergoes further training in basic science and clinical nutrition and is a "nutritionally aware" physician.

Not Necessarily Expert

Be wary of self-styled experts. A Ph.D. does not necessarily a nutrition expert make.

Many quacks hold "Ph.D." degrees from diploma mills--unaccredited correspondence-school courses of little scientific validity.

Many others have legitimate doctoral degrees in fields unrelated to nutrition, such as economics and mass communication.

Who should see a nutritionist? Anyone interested in learning more about his nutritional health and those at increased nutrition risk.

The latter category is quite comprehensive and includes infants (especially premature babies); children and adolescents with poor eating habits; women with eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia; the obese; pregnant and lactating women; anyone on a variety of medications (including birth control pills); the chronically ill; habitual alcohol and tobacco users; strict vegetarians who exclude all animal and dairy products from their diets (a strict vegetarian diet can be quite healthful but requires careful planning and expertise to fulfill daily nutrient requirements); the elderly; the postsurgical patient; and anyone with chronic kidney, gastrointestinal or liver disease.

See Your Regular Doctor

If you suspect you have an illness that's related to nutrient deficiencies, first see your regular physician to rule out other medical factors. Many doctors take it upon themselves to become well versed in sound nutrition, so a specialist might be unnecessary.

Be wary of people who are out just to sell you supplements. Appropriate supplementation is indicated in certain instances, but avoid those who push vitamins, minerals or herbs (crude preparations of drugs). Also, steer clear of those who claim that all disease is the direct result of a bad diet. Things are rarely that simple; diet may be just one of the many contributing factors to illness.

If your "expert" promises quick, dramatic and miraculous results and backs up his claims with testimonials and case histories, go elsewhere for nutrition advice. Very few miracle cures have a basis in scientific fact.

The best way to avoid health quacks is to be nutritionally aware. While more and more people today are motivated to learn the basics of sound nutrition, there's a lot of misinformation out there. So consider the source, be careful and, in the words of Hippocrates, "Let truth be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food."

Standard procedures performed by all legitimate nutrition specialists include a work-up of diet and medical history, a physical examination in which height, weight and percent body fat are checked, and a lifestyle evaluation, including eating and exercise habits. When necessary, the specialist will order appropriate laboratory tests, including analyses of blood and urine.

The following tests are not valid for diagnosing nutritional deficiencies and are not prescribed by legitimate specialists. If any "nutrition" expert recommends any of these tests, get up and leave his office fast!

- LivCell testing: This test purportedly detects diseases by examining crystal patterns formed in saliva by copper chloride solutions.

- Sublingual (under the tongue) analyses.

- Certain applied kinesiology tests (muscle-strength testing for nutritional imbalance).

- Hair analysis: This test has technical problems and is inaccurate in detecting levels of vitamins and most minerals.

- Computerized nutrition questionnaires: computers used for such tests are programmed to recommend supplements for virtually everyone.

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