I am becoming a Qualified Paleo Nutritionist – just to obnoxiously make a point

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.

paleodiplomablog

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.

Unknown
Not paleo.

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.

Just try and stop me.
Just try and stop me.

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.

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97 thoughts on “I am becoming a Qualified Paleo Nutritionist – just to obnoxiously make a point

  1. Excellent and agree with every word. A family member is a proper 4-year uni-trained dietician, so I can see clearly the distinction.

    Yet … I can’t stop myself pondering the media outpoutings of those whose qualifications may or may not be dodgy. I say to myself, “This might help me? Or this might help me?” To the point that I will experiment on myself IF, and only IF, I’m sure it will do no harm. Thankfully, no fad diets get the nod. The big win for me has been improving probiotic and gut biome management. Loving the impact.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi again!
    probably prompted by your article on nutritionists I have some BBC programmes running in the background as audiotrack while sitting at the drawing board and PC, trying to get some cartoons finished. The titles of the TV-series are “The truth about calories”, etc. and offer a number of interesting facts, that still have to be evaluated as according to “The truth about looking young” you are supposed to avoid carbs like the plague, another “truth” programme advocates eating carbs before major exertions, however avoid eating proteine before long-lasting sports activities. Despite a former sprinter feeling his life energy and muscle mass draining away whilst on a veggie diet. Not long ago I watched another programme involving a celeb chef who likes his meat, but the study showed that between the crossover groups of veggies and meat-eaters, vegetarians turned out fitter after the prescribed regime of regular sports.
    The only conclusion I was clearly able to draw for myself is that the word c a l o r i e s alone sends the wee brain into crave mode!
    Because there is one main reason to think about food, like money: – whenever it’s in short supply – meaning talking and thinking about food, it must be in s e r i o u s short supply, thus it is of the utmost importance to gobble up all you can while it’s still there and then bolt!
    uh, sorry, am not allowed to bolt. back to the drawing board instead.
    I may as well blog the cartoon about my midriff crisis.

    snacking out
    blaustift

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  3. This kind of pseudoscience is really dangerous. Here in the US, we have a set of parents refusing to vaccinate their kids based on the findings of a single medical journal report that has since been discredited and a lot of natural healing nonsense. I’m sure there are home remedies out there that work, but these diet fads are just ridiculous.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m new to this whole writing thing – but that was actually entertaining and the length of it killed my whole bus journey. Thanks for raising the bar jack ass 😂

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  5. I read it and of you are right , and if I were studying alternative wellness it wouldn’t be with a twenty dollar online certificate… But I haven’t fallen for paleo either. I think we can integrate alternative and western medicine because of course it matters what we out in our bodies. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water.

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    • And what part of evidence-based medicine suggests that ‘what we put in our bodies’ doesn’t matter? Just because alt-med has done a good job at convincing the public that they’ve cornered the market on preventative lifestyle measures doesn’t mean it’s true: it’s demonstrably not true, in fact, and an insult to the doctors and scientists who guide people in making better choices in their practices every day.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Paleo-riffic (yes, I copied and pasted that term) blog post. It’s bad enough that the large nutrition studies with proper controls contradict each other or are unclear. Then we have all the schlock science shrieking advice at us. Sheesh! It’s enough to drive a person to the cookie (biscuit) cupboard.

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  7. Lol. The main argument against paleo is that, guess what? We are not in paleo Era anymore and we can’t find anything from it in our daily lives. .. I’m pretty sure all plants have radically changed since then. Doh!

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  8. When paleo diets were the only ones available to people, the average life span was about 30 years. I’ve always wondered what the benefit of going back to that situation is. I’m old now, with that diet I’d been dead for 40 years.

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    • Erm, no. When infant mortality and accidental deaths are removed from the statistics, life expectancy goes up to 70-80 years. For context, the average life expectancy in the US in 1900 was 29. It’s too bad that age doesn’t really impart wisdom.

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  9. I was simultaneously crying tears of laughter and nodding along emphatically (thankfully hubby is not home from work yet – otherwise I’m sure he would have been worried about the crazy lady in the lounge room!).

    Hokey diet advice is one of my pet peeves. I loved the way you approached this, and your writing about it just took it up to the next level. My two favourite sentences:

    “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.”

    “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’!”

    Seriously. I think you deserve a trophy for this piece. It’s informative, SO humorous, and makes you think about an important issue almost without a conscious decision to do so.

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    • One quick note on naturopaths though. I see a fantastic one, who helped me with my digestion and immunity when all my doctors and specialists had given up. She is a trained clinical naturopath, but she doesn’t have a $29 online degree. She’s not only studied and trained in all the subjects a regular GP studies, she’s done further studies in nutrition, digestion, hormones, and more. She’s all about science – ordering different tests to see what’s actually going on in the body. And, not only is she not expensive, she does her absolute best to keep test and treatment costs to a minimum – only ordering things that are absolutely necessary.

      The multiple doctors and specialists I’d seen before had no idea why I couldn’t eat without it sending me to hospital in an ambulance, why I was losing so much weight, why I was so malnourished that my body was literally breaking down my organs to use their nutrients. I spent a year and a half living on rice cereal and milk – it was the only thing that wouldn’t make me ill. Then I found her. She’s the one who ordered the test that showed that my body doesn’t make digestive enzymes (so when I eat food, it just sits in my stomach and rots). She’s the one who ordered the test that showed all the good bacteria in my digestive system had died off. She’s the one that ordered digestive enzymes capsules for me, and found me a stronger probiotic. It’s because of her that I can now eat lamb, and chicken, and avocado, and apples. It’s because of her that I haven’t had every cold and flu that was going around over the past year.

      I certainly wouldn’t lump her together with the naturopath at the local Uni, who will give you a container of green powder to add to your morning smoothie, to ‘help you balance your chi’ when your eczema gets bad.

      I would encourage people to judge medical professionals on their knowledge and qualifications, rather than the title of their profession. I’ve met some dodgy general practitioners too – but I certainly wouldn’t swear off seeing all of them. Where would I get my scripts? Who would I see when I had an ear infection? If you find a dodgy medical professional – move on, and find a better one!

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  10. I`ve studied for five years (incl. access course) to become a naturopathic nutritionist, and I feel my hard work and qualification cheapened by “diplomas” like this.

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  11. I was horribly disappointed to find out that the degree in animal psychology I saw in your blog post was not an ad, rather it was just a joke. I was truly hoping to find out what was going on in the craniums of our local squirrels. Are they nuts or what? Oh. Just to clarify a point, anti-backers come in conservative and liberal whack-a-doodle flavors, and they are both annoying.

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  12. I found this course for standard non-Paleo Nutritionist certification for $29. (https://www.groupon.com/deals/the-fitness-training-company-20)

    This of course is evidence that all of nutrition and nutrition “experts” are frauds as we all know that if a person or industry finds a way to profit from a legit practice, that practice instantly become illegitimate. I mean, forget the thousands of truly qualified people supporting it and just focus on the one that keeps you from looking like a fraud. 😉

    The original criticism remains, you’re not qualified. This is not because you didn’t take a $29 course, but because you’re uneducated and willfully ignorant.

    Just once it would be nice if people who criticize Paleo took the time to learn what it really is, what it really represents, what its tenets really are instead of responding to the media’s best sound bites. If you want to be seen as educated, try getting educated. Pick up an expert Paleo text, from a medical doctor, a dietician, a biologist, a physiologist, etc. Your article wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining, but at least it would be accurate,

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    • Well, it’s a good thing I said the following in my article:

      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 please, don’t let that prevent you from thinking you slayed me.

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  13. Yeah, these courses are total nonsense, I too downloaded it – waste of $29.00 just to see what they included. As a degree qualified nutritionist (Post Grad diploma human nutrition) who has actually done a post graduate research project on the paleo diet and rheumatoid arthritis, I really hate the cheapening of any qualification or training in my area. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

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