How do we know what to believe when it comes to nutrition information from those health and fitness pros at gyms or on the internet? It used to be that the only nutrition information the average person got came from their doctor or books (maybe I’m showing my age here). Now we have massive amounts of nutrition information not only available at our fingertips, but actually coming at us on a regular basis. With all the health and fitness professionals or influencers on social media sharing loads of conflicting information, how do we know what to believe?
I recently wrote the blog post How to Know What to Believe About Nutrition Information From Headlines and Studies. Then I realized I needed to expand on that. It’s really important to know how to verify the validity of a nutrition science study. But it’s equally important to know how to decide if that nutritionist, personal trainer, health coach, or just plain influencer you follow on Instagram is credible.
Why is there so much conflicting information?
In 2019 the health and fitness industry was worth about 159.10 billion dollars. I’ve been part of this industry since 2015. If there’s one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty it’s that when money is involved, you can expect to have a lot of misleading fitness and nutrition information to sift through. Just like every other industry, the health and fitness industry is full of people/companies competing for business. Many different approaches are taken in that competition and you can’t count on all of them to be in your best interest.
A sincere belief in what worked for them or a lack of education
Anyone can write a blog, anyone can run a social media account, and anyone can call themselves an authority on a topic. While some people offer nutrition information based only on their experience and call that like it is, others will call it fact and claim it will work for everyone. Then you have educational programs and certifications that run a wide spectrum of cost/value/credibility, many with their own biases toward specific camps of thought. So even if a person does have some credentials to speak of, that doesn’t always amount to much.
Unaccredited nutrition education resources
Most people you come across who are sharing nutrition information are not Registered Dieticians and do not have a nutrition-related degree. But a person cannot be discredited by the lack of those qualifications alone. There are some very legitimate, accredited programs that provide certifications for nutrition education. An accredited organization or course is approved or officially recognized as legitimate by a third-party organization. I am one of those people who are certified through an accredited organization.
An unaccredited course or organization will be developed by a company or individual without approval against regulated standards. Accreditation is a sign that the content of the organization’s programming is reliable, well-founded, and widely accepted as truth. These programs/courses tend to be longer, more difficult, require rigorous testing for certification, and are also much more expensive than most unaccredited programs. The shorter, cheaper, less difficult programs/courses are tempting to those who may need a less expensive option or who just want a quick, however meaningless, credential to speak of. These programs/courses are not limited to nutrition, there are many of them in personal training, life coaching, health coaching, yoga, group training, etc. You can find the best of the best and the worst of the worst in any area of education, in and outside of the health and fitness realm.
You should be able to find an organization’s accreditation information easily on its website. For example, the organization I received my Holistic Nutritionist certification from, American Fitness Professional and Associates, has received many accreditations, which you can view here. My personal training certification comes from the American Council on Exercise and you can view their accreditations here.
Some unaccredited programs/courses may be just as legitimate as accredited programs/courses. I’m not making a blanket statement that all unaccredited programs/courses are incredible. Accreditation is not a requirement for nutrition certification programs. It’s basically self-regulation and if an organization opts to participate, it gives it more credibility because of its willingness to be critiqued and its tendency toward transparency.
The truth is out there and more and more it’s actually starting to show up right in front of our faces. The problem is that people don’t know what they’re looking for. Plus, it’s not as attractive as what the fitness industry or the influencers are promoting. It’s not attractive because it’s not quick, it’s not easy, and it’s not nearly as popular.
How to know a credible health and fitness pro when you see one:
Now, before we go further, is it totally possible that a person can have zero credentials and have learned legitimate nutrition science from their own research and self-study? Absolutely, but how will you know? If you are trying to learn from someone, you need proof that they are providing well-founded information because you don’t know the right answers yet.
On the other hand, even if a person/professional passes all the “tests”, you still need to question what they say about nutrition. Especially those who haven’t studied the actual science of nutrition in a formal setting. If you read any of my content regularly, you know that I say to question everything you’re told. Even the things I tell you!
Here’s what the credible people don’t do:
This is a short and general list. I could and probably will make a longer and more specific list at some point. But these are big red flags that should be easy to spot, almost at first glance.
They don’t promote a quick fix
At the first sign of someone telling you something like you can have X body in X number of days using their system, program, diet, whatever…forget it. Nutrition is a complicated science, but the lifestyle basics of nutrition, health, and weight loss are actually pretty simple. Still, simple doesn’t mean fast, easy, or convenient. It just means not complicated. Quick fixes are nothing but empty promises. You may experience results but they’ll usually require extreme measures and they’ll be short-lived.
They don’t present their personal opinion as fact
There are so many opinions in this world, as there should be. People are entitled to their opinions. But opinions aren’t facts and shouldn’t be presented that way, especially when it comes to nutrition and health. A true professional with your best interest in mind may share their opinions, but they will note that it is their opinion and/or experience, not necessarily facts. This leaves you to decide for yourself with your own critical thinking and review of the evidence, as you should be encouraged to do.
They don’t present images of their body/looks with messages about health
What would you think if I told you that a visible six-pack doesn’t equate to a healthy body? What would you say if I told you that people who are using their own physical appearance in person or online to sell you fitness training or nutrition coaching are not selling health, they’re actually selling vanity?
True overall health is much deeper than appearance. For example, the extent that a person must go to and maintain in order to get a low enough percentage of body fat to get visible 6-pack abs is often (not always, depending on the person) too extreme to maintain true health, mentally and physically. Any extremes are typically not healthy, at least not in the long run.
They don’t promote weight loss diet trends
You should not find a professional who is educated in nutrition promoting a weight loss diet trend. Weight loss diet trends are focused on weight loss in the present, absent any concern for the long-term side effects on health in the future. I would argue that a person educated in nutrition science will promote health first and weight loss as a result. There are definitely some who do not, but if health isn’t the first priority, I would suggest you pass on that person.
They don’t present absolutes
There’s no single thing that is making you fat, no single thing that will make you skinny, no single thing that you cannot eat, and no single thing that you should eat the most of. In nutrition for health and weight loss, it’s all about variety and balance for both physical and mental well-being. A credible professional will never present absolutes because they should be trained in the nuances of human biology and experience.
Why it matters
Invalid or misleading nutrition information from anyone is unsafe. It may not seem like a huge deal because we eat whatever we want all the time, most people don’t give it much thought, and we don’t just keel over dead right away. But diet and nutrition have longterm effects and depending on how extreme the advice is that you’re taking, you could have some issues develop that you aren’t expecting.
Poor nutrition advice can result in:
- Failure to seek necessary medical care and deferral of a possible early diagnosis and treatment, which could be lifesaving.
- Failure to continue necessary treatment, instead replacing that treatment with a natural remedies without notifying their doctor.
- Nutrient deficiencies or toxicities: too much or too little of what is needed.
- Unexpected nutrient-drug interactions.
- Interferance with a balanced diet for good overall health.