Why "Nutritionist" Licensing Is Important

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

During the past 60 years, perhaps 50 individuals without valid credentials have pretended to be medical doctors and actually managed for a time to practice. Only a few people have ever been exposed as a fake dentist, podiatrist, optometrist, or even chiropractor. But in nutrition, nonaccredited correspondence schools and other organizations have issued thousands of "degrees" and certificates which suggest that the recipient is a qualified expert in nutrition. These documents are promoted as though they are equivalent in meaning to established credentials—which they are not.

During the 1980s, the most prominent nonaccredited school was Donsbach University of Huntington Beach, California, whose president, Kurt Donsbach, D.C., has been involved in dozens of questionable health and nutrition ventures. Most "textbooks" required for the school's basic curriculum were books written for the general public by promoters of dubious nutrition practices. A typical "degree" program took less than a year to complete. "Graduates" typically refer to themselves as "nutrition consultants," a term also used by some reputable nutritionists. In 1987, Jacob Swilling assumed ownership of Donsbach University, which was renamed International University for Nutrition Education but soon went defunct. Some "graduates" of these schools are still in practice.

Bernadean University, of Van Nuys, California, offered "nutritionist" and "cancer researcher" certificates, "master's degrees," and "Ph.D. degrees" in acupuncture, reflexology, iridology, naturopathy, homeopathy, and nutrition. Dietitian Virginia Aronson took the "nutritionist" course and reported that she got high grades on all tests whether she put down correct answers or not. In 1982, Bernadean was ordered to cease operations because it was not authorized by the state. However, it has continued to operate and for a while used the names Burney Universitatis and Burney University. Today is refers to itself as "a school of natural medicine and health science grounded in divine principles." Most of its degrees are in religious subjects but it offers "AB," "MA" and "PhD" degrees in "natural healing." Bernadean's most prominent alumnus is "Dr." Richard Passwater, author of Supernutrition and several other books.

Clayton College of Natural Health, of Birmingham, Alabama, offered home-study courses leading to "degrees" in "natural health," naturopathy, "holistic nutrition," and "holistic health sciences." At various times it claimed to have been accredited by the World Association of Universities and Colleges (WAUC), the American Association of Drugless Practitioners and the American Naturopathic Medical Accreditation Board. However, since these entitles were never recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education, Clayton's accreditation claims had no academic significance. Clayton claimed to have produced more than 25,000 graduates. In 2008, Alabama, which had been a haven for substandard schools, began implementing a new rule that private, degree granting, post-secondary educational institutions must be accredited by a recognized agency or be a candidate for accreditation. As of October 1, this requirement applied to any such institution that applies for initial licensure or renewal. Clayton was able to remain licensed temporarily by becoming a candidate for accreditation by the Distance Education and Training Council for a new program that would lead to a bachelor's degree in nutrition. However, in 2010, it abruptly closed.

Columbus University, formerly located in Metairie, Louisiana, offers degrees in more than 125 subjects. Louisiana shut it down in 2001, but it relocated to Mississippi. About ten years ago, it offered " doctoral degrees" in naturopathy, hypnotherapy, holistic health, and nutrition counseling and claimed to be accredited by the WAUC. Today, its Web site does not list these courses and says nothing about accreditation.

Columbia Pacific University (CPU), founded in 1978, offered programs leading to bachelors, masters, and doctorate-level "degrees" in various subjects. It was never accredited but managed to operate in Novato, California until December 1999, when the Marin County Superior Court ordered it to cease operations within the State. In February 2001, when the appeals process ended, the proprietors were ordered to pay a civil penalty of $10,000 and provide refunds to recently enrolled students who requested them. By that time, however, the school had moved to Missoula, Montana and changed its name to Commonwealth Pacific University. It's most prominent alumnus is John Gray, who has written Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and other books on relationships and personal growth.

"Nutrition consultants" who wish to acquire additional "credentials" can join the American Association of Nutritional Consultants, which issues certificates suitable for framing. During the 1980s, its "professional membership" application asked only for the applicant's name and address plus $50. Several investigators, including me, have enrolled household pets as professional members. During the 1990s, AANC became less active and the National Association of Certified Natural Health Professionals arose.. Other groups issuing similarly dubious credentials have included the American Nutrimedical Association and the National Academy of Research Biochemists.

In response to the flaunting of dubious credentials, dietitians have gained passage of laws to regulate nutritionists in most states and the District of Columbia. Some make it illegal for unqualified persons to call themselves dietitians or nutritionists, while others define nutrition practice and who is eligible to practice. The most basic requirement is completion of accredited training. Opponents claim that bills of this type are motivated by greed and an intention to create a monopoly for one school of thought. The real issue, however, is public protection.

It is unfair to expect people to check the credentials of every practitioner they encounter. Rather, it should be government's role to set licensing standards and to prevent individuals who don't meet the standards from representing themselves as equivalent to those who do. Licensing does not offer complete protection against all forms of nutrition practice conducted privately between consenting adults. (It does not, for example, protect people from the poor advice offered by many chiropractors, acupuncturists, naturopaths, and health-food retailers.) But it can deter untrained individuals from widely advertising that they are experts.

For Further Information

This article was revised on August 16, 2011.

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