In my last piece for Mamamia, I was rebuked by several readers for not having the qualifications necessary to criticise proponents of alternative medicine. After all, how would I know anything about a particular discipline unless I studied or experienced it myself?
This is true of all things. After all, we cannot say that crushing up crystal methamphetamine and rubbing it into our eyes is bad for us unless we have first-hand experience of it. We cannot say that slipping money from a cash register is bad unless we have accounting degrees. Most obviously, we cannot say that falling from an aeroplane without a parachute is dangerous unless we have a) done so ourselves or b) have a qualification in aeronautical engineering.
Thus, to silence my critics, I went out and took the steps to become a Real Qualified practitioner of Wellness.
So there. BALL’S IN YOUR COURT NOW, HATERZ.
It all started when I received an email from a group-buying website, offering me the opportunity to earn a Paleo Nutritionist diploma for the exceedingly competitive price of $29; a qualification that would allow me to “make Paleo living a career” and “become qualified to run a practice”.
What a bargain! $29 for a 150 hour diploma? That’s like 19 cents per hour of quality learning in a course that can qualify me to offer health advice, both solicited and unsolicited!
Think I’m making all that up? Have a geez at the ad.
What the hell was I thinking all those years while earning my double degree and masters to become a teacher? I was just throwing cash hand over fist in remedy of my previously unqualified status, and now I’m left with a HECS debt that rivals Greece’s and a gnawing feeling every July when I look at my never-diminishing balance! What a wasted life – but it is never too late to turn it all around and make something of myself.
After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that an incredulous woman, in possession of $29, must be in want of an online Paleo Nutrition diploma.
So earlier this week, I announced to my coworkers that I was finally following my dreams and was excited to become the new face of wellness in Brisbane. I suspect this confused many of them, given what they know of my strident advocacy of science-based medicine and own woeful and resolutely non-Paleo diet (morning: a packet of Butter Menthols, an Instant Scratchie and a Diet Coke; midday: whatever is available for free in the staffroom, so mainly Iced Vo-Vos and sachets of Splenda; evening: a sensible dinner). Nevertheless, some seemed very impressed. “That sounds extremely legitimate,” one supportive colleague solemnly declared, “and I cannot wait to be told to give up gluten.”
Heartened by this, I promised that from that point on I would only give the very most Paleo of advice, and that I would become a beacon of knowledge and health that would inspire even Lemmy Kilmister to turn back to the straight and narrow. Yes – this would mean giving up the Iced VoVos. From then on, I would not partake of even a single Vo, iced or otherwise.
Also, I had to act fast, because 380 people had already purchased this offer, and the market might become saturated with Paleo Nutritionists. My $22k HECS debt isn’t going to pay itself off, after all.
The diploma itself is offered by a UK-based institution which has such an impressive-sounding name that I was shocked and appalled to not find much about it online. I expected that the greats of scientific research – Ian Frazer, Fiona Stanley, Elizabeth Blackburn – would be alumni, but it was not to be.
I was very surprised by this: after all, this place advertised itself as a provider of excellence – not a provider of adequacy, mediocrity, or ‘That’ll Do, Pig; That’ll Do’! In fact, the only stuff I really found either linked back to the group voucher website, or to some really dodgy-sounding positive reviews that look like those Youtube videos you find when you google “are MLMs scams” – which are invariably made by the MLM companies themselves in attempt to game Google’s algorithms. Nevertheless, I was not dissuaded: I was sure that even in the absence of evidence that this was an august institution that would offer only the most rigorous and evidence-based of teachings. I wasn’t even put off by the fact that to enrol, all I had to do was give my name and an email address.
I briefly harboured thoughts that perhaps this place isn’t very excellent if it has no entry standards, like a minimum ATAR or evidence of even having passed my school subjects. But I silenced those thoughts: who has time for critical thinking when your career in Paleo Nutrition is only 150 hours away?
I excitedly downloaded my course pack – an introduction sheet, nine PDF documents ranging between 15-27 pages in length, and an ‘answer sheet’. Hunkering down with my cat, a cup of tea (no milk or sugar – exactly like how Australopithecus afarensis, our Palaeolithic ancestors, would have had their tea!) and a readiness to learn, I opened the first module, ready to be blown away.
Well… something blew, anyway. And it wasn’t my mind.
The first thing I noticed were the absence of references or footnotes. In fact, there were none. It took me until module 3 until I found the first reference to any kind of studies whatsoever. What I eventually found was a paraphrasing of six studies – all with fewer than thirty participants and no author details – which showed a benefit in a short term trial of the Paleo diet over other diets. Elsewhere, vague allusions to blogs by Paleo proponents like Robb Wolf (not to be confused with the pedlar of gobshite supreme David Avocado Wolf) and Loren Cordain were what sufficed as evidence – not even direct quotes from them! This was not going well. This was not Paleo-riffic. This was decidedly not excellent.
It also didn’t help that the information throughout the course was contradictory. Module 1 told me how dairy contained beneficial fats that are important for health and vitality (at which point I hurled my disgusting, worthless, unhealthy black tea against the wall, causing the cat to flee the general vicinity). However, in the next module, I learned that palaeolithic people didn’t have dairy, and to be strictly paleo I would need to eschew it altogether. I mourned the loss of my phytonutrient-rich, detoxifying brew.
What was most concerning was that the assessment amounted to little more than a Q&A sheet where you had to regurgitate, a la Alicia Silverstone’s baby-feeding method, whatever you’d read in that particular module. At this point, I realised that being a Paleo Nutritionist might not require skills any more advanced or complex than being able to master CTRL+C and CTRL+V.
(I entertained, for a minute, getting my Year 7 English class to do the modules for me, knowing that they are adept at basic MS Office functions, but then thought better of it. This material was not nearly educationally challenging enough for them.)
A hundred and fifty hours of study? Try four and a half – because once I worked out that I could copy and paste directly from my PDF files into the answer sheet, I didn’t bother reading past the third module.
To be honest, it was about as demanding as I thought it would be: only slightly more demanding than writing erotic fan fiction about Pete Evans, and slightly less demanding than writing erotic fan fiction about Christopher Pyne. It would have been just as unrigorous, laughable and unbelievable had it been for any other diet type, mind you. I am sure that if it had been a nutrition diploma in the Mediterranean diet, raw veganism, or the ‘Japanese Porn-Star Diet’ from the TV show 30 Rock (“you can only eat paper, but you can eat as much paper as you want!”) that it would have been … er, just as excellent.
But not everyone doing this diploma is doing it to take the piss, like I am. I would put down at least a pineapple that of the 380 who bought this course, at least half are doing it sincerely, and that’s a pretty scary thought.
At this point, I can imagine some indignation from readers: well, obviously she found a hokey online diploma! She’s not like REAL nutritionists or alternative medical practitioners who have REAL qualifications! Who does she even think she is???
There are a couple of issues to address here. Firstly, the general public, especially those without university experience or a baseline level of scientific literacy themselves, are often unaware of how widespread yet terrible these shonky colleges are. Remember the infamous TV nutritionist, Gillian McKeith, inventor of Horny Goat Weed and host of You Are What You Eat (otherwise known as ‘That Show Where the Angry Scotswoman Yells At Fat People’s Poo’)? She was legally compelled to stop referring to herself as ‘Dr McKeith’ after UK sceptics pointed out that she was neither a qualified physician, nor a holder of a PhD. In fact, her ‘PhD’ amounted to little more than a 15,000 paper on the benefits of superfoods, which she earned from the non-accredited Clayton College of Natural Health.
Fifteen thousand words may sound like a lot, but to put it in perspective, it is roughly how much you’d write in less than a year of first-year undergraduate arts subjects. Nevertheless, it is still far more rigorous than the Doctor of Philosophy in Holistic Nutrition on offer from the University of Natural Health in the USA, where one can complete a ‘doctorate’s thesis’ of three thousand words. That’s only 400 words longer than this article!
The second big issue is this: there are already completely unqualified people offering nutrition advice, calling themselves nutritionists and ‘wellness experts’, in Australia who have massive followings. At the height of her reign, Belle Gibson had over 200k followers on Instagram, despite only being a high school graduate. In fact, before I did my diploma, I was legally allowed to call myself a nutritionist. In Australia, ‘nutritionist’ is an unprotected title, and there is no requirement for me to be registered, accredited or qualified in calling myself such. (In fairness, there are many legitimate, evidence-based practitioners who call themselves ‘nutritionists’ and who are highly qualified and reputable. If anything, they are equally harmed by shonky operators who are weakening the value of the title and who muddy the waters with nonsense.)
Likewise, just because someone says that they’re a member of a professional organisation, it doesn’t mean the organisation itself is any good. Ben Goldacre, a UK-based medical journalist and the author of the books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, had his dead cat accredited as a professional member of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants – a dodgy group with a deceptively official-sounding title. (This is the organisation that Gillian McKeith herself was a member of.) There are plenty of groups like this with beguilingly trustworthy-sounding names: the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons is a pseudoscientific front-group for psychotic neoconservatives who entertain the pseudoscientific hypothesis that “shaken baby syndrome” is a conspiracy to hide vaccine injuries. (No, really, this is a thing, and it is TERRIBLE. Thanks, Natural News, for promoting it!) Let’s not even go into the Australian Vaccination Network – a group with a name so deceptive that they were forced to changing their name to stop confusing the public.
The final issue is that we have equally dubious courses here in Australia too, offered by institutions that can charge FEE-HELP for their courses. And they are just as problematic as the diploma I earned; just as unrigorous, just as full of debunked pseudoscience, and just as unscrupulous in their entry requirements as the place where I got my diploma from.
For many of these courses, there is no guarantee of rigorous entry standards, and there are potentially significant conflicts of interest. To get into a Bachelor’s level course in naturopathy, holistic nutrition or complementary health at some Australian colleges and universities, all that is required is to have finished Year 12: there’s no minimum ATAR, and no prerequisite subjects. As non-Commonwealth Supported courses, enrolments are quite lucrative for these institutions. These two pieces of information are important together: what incentive do these providers have to be academically rigorous, or to fail or exclude underperforming students, if there is no evidence that their incoming students have even passed high school Maths or English?
Given the Four Corners investigation into Australian universities earlier this year, it is not an unreasonable question to pose. Prestigious institutions like even the University of Sydney were found to have issues with academic standards and integrity in the assessment and course requirements for full-fee paying students. If they have issues, what about colleges and institutions with lesser reputations? After all, the University of Sydney doesn’t offer courses in flower essences or homeopathy, which are notoriously debunked and laughably pseudoscientific disciplines that serve to undermine the academic integrity of any institution that offers them. (Those full-fee Australian colleges and institutions offering courses in natural health do offer them, however. I would argue that this does cast a damning pall over their entire course offerings – even in degrees where they are not studied.)
And the harms are real. Not only is public trust eroded when unqualified practitioners get media airtime or offer themselves as comparable peers of legitimate allied health professionals, but lives are endangered. Marilyn Bodnar, a NSW naturopath, was arrested earlier this month after giving dangerous advice for the treatment of childhood eczema, which resulted in the patient becoming dangerously malnourished. Unqualified, self-proclaimed ‘experts’ advising the public on what to eat (or what not to eat) are particularly dangerous – especially for groups in the population who need carefully designed eating plans which are best left to accredited dieticians. Children with special needs, people with severe allergies, coeliac sufferers, and cancer patients are all targeted by quacks giving nutrition advice. They stand to lose money, quality of life, social inclusion and in some cases even precious, limited time with their loved ones – not to mention losing their lives, for a minority of very sick people.
I can’t twist your arms behind your back and force you to ask for a refund for that aromatherapy TAFE course, or to cancel that appointment with the naturopath. What I can do, however, is encourage critical thinking and evidence-based decision making. I can ask enough questions, and be enough of an abrasive pain-in-the-arse, that the odd reader might apply a little scepticism to their lives. I certainly will continue to buy ludicrously cheap and obviously fraudulent online alt-med qualifications in an attempt to make a ridiculous point, enabled by my financial privilege and advanced ability to copy and paste stuff into a word document.
And in the event that you still want advice from a soon-to-be-qualified Paleo Nutritionist, here it is: an Iced VoVo, dunked into a cup of sweet milky tea, will cure all that ails you.
Just kidding. Now go see a real doctor or DAA-accredited dietician, you muppet.