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Had dodgy advice from a nutritional therapist? We have!

Have you ever visited a nutritional therapist? In this month’s Which? magazine we investigated the profession and found some worrying practices, such as therapists advising against going to your GP.

One therapist advised our researcher, who was posing as a cancer sufferer, against having conventional treatment (a lumpectomy and radiotherapy), saying that she should try for three to six months to rid herself of the cancer through diet (by cutting out sugar).

Nutritional therapy can be big business; therapists charge up to £80 for a consultation and often prescribe expensive supplements on top. So we wanted to investigate whether it was worth the money.

How our investigation worked

We asked five undercover researchers to each visit three therapists. Each researcher was provided with a scenario.

One researcher (in her early 30s) had been trying to conceive unsuccessfully for over a year. Two (in their 50s) had been suffering from severe tiredness for the past three months. And two women (in their 40s) had recently been diagnosed with DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ), the most common type of non-invasive breast cancer.

A panel of experts (a dietitian, a GP and a Professor of Pharmacology) then assessed recordings of the visits and any other information the therapists provided to the researchers, including prescriptions for supplements.

Are nutritional therapists worth the money?

Our expert panel concluded that visiting a nutritional therapist wasn’t worth the money – and in some cases could have actually endangered the health of the researcher. Six of the fifteen consultations were rated as ‘dangerous fails’.

This could have been down to a number of reasons:

  • The advice given by the therapist could have potentially harmed the researcher.
  • Therapists were diagnosing conditions without relevant testing (even though their Code of Practice says they shouldn’t diagnose).
  • Researchers were advised not to visit their GPs about the problem, recommending unproven testing such as hair mineral analysis, and the case above, advising against cancer treatment.

Of the remaining visits, eight were rated as ‘fails’ and only one was graded as a ‘borderline pass’. Our experts were disappointed by the advice given by therapists and concerned at their poor knowledge of the body and how it works.

The experts were also worried by some therapists using non-evidence-based testing to diagnose symptoms. These tests included iridology (studying the patterns, colour and other characteristics of the iris), hair mineral analysis and a researcher being given several liquids to hold in his mouth before being told he had a chromium deficiency.

Are the recommendations right?

Twelve of the therapists prescribed supplements to the researchers, costing up to £70 a month. Researchers were told not to buy them from Boots or other high street chemists as they weren’t ‘pure enough’ and you were effectively ‘flushing your money down the loo’. Instead, they were asked to buy them from the retailers recommended by the therapist.

Of course, there is benefit in following healthy dietary advice, but most of what was provided by the nutritional therapists is freely available on websites such as the NHS site.

Plus, most of the therapists in our investigation recommended quite restrictive diets that excluded several foods (predominantly dairy and wheat) and taking expensive supplements.

If you do have a medical condition that you are concerned about, your first port of call should be your GP. If necessary they can then refer you to a dietitian. We have contacted the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) with our findings and concerns.

People who have visited nutritional therapists emailed us to say that they found the diets recommended to them difficult to maintain over a long time and eventually gave up.

Have you visited a nutritional therapist? What was your experience like – do any of these findings ring true or did you have a more positive experience?

Comments
Member

I must say, I’m utterly shocked and appalled that a therapist recommended a reduction of sugar to rid a researcher of cancer.

A better diet can no doubt improve your quality of life and make you feel better but by god, never advise against seeing a GP.

Member

There is a real difference between nutritional therapists and Registered Nutritionists (RNutr), who are assessed by the Association for Nutrition (AfN) and can only be on the UK Voluntary Register of Nutritionists if they are qualified and competent in nutritional science and practice and uphold the highest professional and ethical standards through a comprehensive code of conduct.

Registered Nutritionists who consult on an individual basis would only do so under the supervision of a suitably qualified practitioner, such as a GP, if there is a pre-existing medical condition.

There is a response to this investigation on the AfN website, http://www.associationfornutrition.org

Member
Angie says:
16 January 2012

It makes me very sad to read about so called therapists cashing in on what can be a beneficial approach to health when combined intelligently with help and advice from GPs. It gives nutritional medicine…and by that I mean eating healthily and supplementing where absolutely necessary, a bad name. I treated myself for depression and anxiety years ago. Effectively, by altering my diet and taking Passiflora and using relaxing aromatherapy oils. Without the Ativan (subsequently found to be addictive and unhelpful) which I was prescribed by doctors. But such unscrupulous practise labels a good and balanced approach to health as quackery. Shame on them!

Member
Lorna says:
16 January 2012

My Mum visited a naturopath for dietary advice while fighting secondary breast cancer in 2010. On the advice of the naturopath she delayed a chemotherapy treatment which she had been advised to begin by her consultant. This was in order to try and ‘treat’ the cancer through a combination of diet, expensive dietary supplements and self-administered enemas.

The diet restricted her daily routine and failed to help. By the time she began the chemotherapy regime a few months later she was significantly more poorly and suffered an extremely bad reaction to the drugs.

She died in April 2011 and although I don’t put this down to the advice of the naturopath – she
was extremely ill with advanced cancer – I believe that the therapist was negligent in her advice and should not be allowed to treat cancer patients as such.

It is also worth mentioning that the naturopath in question works by signing clients up to a monthy direct debit after asking them to sign a contract which also presuambly acts as a kind of disclaimer.
My Mum continued paying this for months despite being too poorly to use the naturopath’s services.

I was extremely concerned at the time but didn’t want to upset my Mum by intervening. I also discovered there was no regulatory body I could actually raise my concerns with either.

Member

Hi Lorna, what a sad story – I’m so sorry to hear what your mum went through, and particularly shocked to hear about the payment methods, which sound very underhand. Thank you for sharing – hopefully stories like these will encourage those reading to research different therapists thoroughly before deciding whether to take their advice or not.

Member

Hi Lorna

I am so sorry to hear your story. Unfortunately it shows that the findings of our research are not a one-off.
We have written to Anne Milton, MP with our concerns and to ask the government to address the need for more effective regulation of this industry.

If you know the name of the therapist you could check to see if he/she is registered with BANT and submit a complaint.

Member
HR O. says:
16 January 2012

Hi Lorna, this is very sad and I really feel for you. I too have had close family die of cancer and I know how painful it is to find the right balance between all the different options. I think nutrition has an indisputable role in the management of any disease, but where we fail is to see it as just one more factor, so it’s not just nutrition, or just chemo, or just radiotherapy. Surely every case is different anyway, but what applies to them all is the fact that by covering as many different angles as possible and being integrative and holistic ultimately it is the patient that benefits.

I too would be happy for nutritional therapy to be more regulated but only because it would allow these professionals to work alongside doctors, nurses, consultants, etc, and really help create a National Health System where the patient gets the best care possible.

On a slightly different note, I don’t believe BANT registers naturopaths, as naturopathy is a different discipline.

Member
Louise says:
19 January 2012

May I just say that Naturopathy is a different profession to nutritional therapy and are not regulated by BANT

Member

The Code of Practice link in the introduction is not a code but a brief curriculum – details of the content of a taught course.

Member

You’re right, Wavechange that isn’t quite the right info. Unfortunately, we can’t actually find the Code of Practice anywhere online so we’ve removed that link – sorry about that.

Member

Thanks Hannah. Feel free to delete my message.

Member

The Nutrirional Therapy Core Curriculum doesn’t appear to be brief as you say – it’s over 40 pages long and appears quite extensive!

Member
Alan henness says:
16 January 2012

It’s very odd that BANT don’t seem to make the Code of Professional Practice Handbook available on their website. How are the public meant to know how their members are supposed to behave?

The latest issue of their Code seems to be Issue 1.1 March 2011, but an older version from 2005 is available here: http://www.dcscience.net/bant-code_of_ethics.pdf It makes interesting reading.

Member

JSB – I was trying to alert Which? to the fact that the linked document was a curriculum and not a code of practice. The curriculum does give information about course content and does not provide details of the depth of coverage. That is not a criticism of the curriculum, but I should not have used the word brief.

Member

It is important to note that there are people in EVERY profession who do not adhere to the rules that are imposed on their industry.

As a nutritional therapist I would NEVER advise a client to go against the wishes of their doctor and cease conventional treatment. I would NOT diagnose, use unproven testing and suggest that a client spends a large amount of money on expensive supplements. I take my clients’ health and budgets incredibly seriously and would NEVER endanger anyone.

Many of my clients are referred by previous clients who have had very positive results after visiting me for advice.

I would welcome stricter regulations within my profession as I operate to a very high standard.