"Holistic nutrition." You may not know the term, but you've surely heard its claims. Among other things, holistic nutritionists (or HNs, as they call themselves) may teach that fluoride and pesticides are lethal, that most diseases and detrimental behaviors are diet-related and that many people would benefit from taking numerous supplements. I've read plenty of articles by HNs in which they assert that they are disparaged by mainstream medicine and warn you not to trust modern medicine.
As a fitness trainer, I care about the nutrition advice my clients get. Health, after all, takes multifaceted effort — and more than a few of the people I work with seem to be swayed by holistic nutrition bunk.
I'm not the only one in my field to get burned up by it: Leigh Peele, a personal trainer certified by the National Assn. of Sport Medicine, coined the term "shock nutrition" to describe the scare tactics many HNs espouse.
"Fear sells well," Peele told me. "It's not that the glass is half empty — it's paranoia that the glass is going to jump off the counter and kill you."
I consulted Dr. Stephen Barrett, the retired psychiatrist and consumer advocate who operates the website QuackWatch.org, "an international network of people who are concerned about health-related frauds, myths, fads, fallacies, and misconduct." When I asked about the field of holistic nutrition, he replied: "I wouldn't call it a field — I would call it a marketing term. I've never encountered a science-based practitioner who referred to themselves as 'holistic.' I regard it as a red flag."
Barrett added that although some HNs offer solid dietary advice, the "vast majority" are more focused on "selling dietary supplements. You pay for a consultation and end up spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on pills that you don't need and which may not be safe."
He's also critical of the training HNs get, usually online. "What is missing from correspondence schools is … clinical experience," he said. Anyone studying to become a registered dietitian spends at least a year working with patients under close supervision from an experienced professional. There is no such requirement for students training to be HNs.
Barrett said no HN program he knows of is accredited by an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The Federal Trade Commission asserts on its website that, with few exceptions, legitimate institutions are accredited by Department of Education-recognized organizations.
So what do aspiring HNs study? I did some searching and was bombarded by ads for one in particular — Hawthorn University, an online school offering master's and doctorate degrees in holistic nutrition from Whitethorn, Calif. From its website:
"Students examine holistic, systemic cleansing and detoxification support options such as specific dietary and herbal protocols, juicing, fasting, hydrotherapy and the use of saunas."
(An article at MayoClinic.com by gastroenterologist Michael Picco states that colon cleansing is "generally unnecessary and at times may even be harmful"; toxicologist Alan Boobis from Imperial College in London stated on the website Sense About Science: "The body's own detoxification systems are remarkably sophisticated and versatile.... It is remarkable that people are prepared to risk seriously disrupting these systems with unproven 'detox' diets.")
"With individualized diet and lifestyle recommendations, most thyroid conditions will resolve without medication."
(When my wife, a family physician, read this she made a reference to male bovine droppings.)
"Discover how genetic engineering works, understand the health risk associated with genetically modified foods, and recognize how you and your children are at risk .... students will examine what they can do to reduce the risk of disease resulting from GM foods and how to alter the continuation of the fraud and deception within the food industry."
(Tufts University professor of nutrition Jeffrey Blumberg told me, "I would not have a problem eating them. Almost everyone in North America already does.")
Hawthorn school director Paula Bartholomy told me, "Holistic refers to taking into consideration the whole person." On supplements, she said, "students are taught that food is the first viable solution" but "students are made aware of quality supplement product lines."
Hawthorn's programs are recommended by the National Assn. of Nutrition Professionals, or NANP. But the university is not listed in the Department of Education's database of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs.
I spoke with NANP media relations advisor Jonny Bowden (who holds a correspondence PhD in holistic nutrition from the now-defunct Clayton College of Natural Health, which was accredited by the American Assn. of Drugless Practitioners and the American Naturopathic Medical Accreditation Board, neither of which is recognized by the secretary of Education).
Bowden said, "We don't want to be too worshipful of science, because there are no scientific studies that prove water puts out fire, but fire departments use it," and "doctors are getting a biased view because of Big Pharma." When I asked him whether holistic nutritionists have a similar bias from selling supplements, he said that there is good evidence supporting supplementation. "There is nothing wrong with making a profit from providing good information," he added.
Bowden provides lots of that "good information" on his website, where he offers more than 200 supplements for sale. (One is called PaleoCleanse, which I guess is for flushing out undigested saber-tooth tiger steaks.)
Barrett isn't the only one who takes issue with holistic nutritionists. Blumberg said, "Anyone can call themselves that. I am unaware of any licensing requirement and there are no standards, so it is really meaningless."
While I agree that people should focus on eating foods in their natural state rather than processed garbage, HNs take that ball and run with it into the deep end of a pool of quinoa and goji berries. Taking nutrition advice from the graduates of HN schools makes as much sense as hiring Ozzy Osbourne to drive a school bus.
I recommend science-based practitioners to my clients — such as registered dietitians, who have real degrees from accredited universities. RDs aren't always perfect either: Their professional organization, the American Dietetic Assn., has an overly cozy relationship with the food industry, receiving substantial funding from companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg's, the National Dairy Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn.
There are bad medical doctors and bad RDs, but I'm willing to bet the majority of them provide sound advice. It makes sense to listen to people who base their nutritional recommendations on science rather than those who believe that illnesses like autism, depression and thyroid conditions can be cured with vitamins and herbs.
Vitamins and herbs that they will happily sell you.
Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, Canada.