/ Health

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?


I would like to know if WHICH has run a check on other health professionals before now, and/or if they have any plans to do so, such as those mentioned by Helen ie: Dieticians or Medical Doctors; because if not, then this should help to balance the equation of any suspect impartiality, and look forward to a response from WHICH if they care to respond.

I also think that this investigation/observational study has far more serious implications than just investigating “car service agents” or “best-buy washing machines” etc.

Chloe says:
5 March 2012

I believe you have made a very important point here Chris. Everyone, professionals and patients should be allowed to have their say about any medical/health care they have received or have an opinion/knowledge about. It would help to balance the equation

Selina Import says:
5 March 2012

I agree in part Chloe and Chris that it would balance the equation, however, I like Dr Patch Adams way.

“I am asking for a white flag of peace and an atmosphere in which we can all work together. Competition among healers is not healthy. This is no sport or game, The AMA is not an enemy and other kinds of healers are not quacks.” With closed-mindedness uncharacteristic of true scientists, many physicans condemn unconventional therapies without ever taking a closer look at them. Yet if they were to get to know a sincere practitioner of an alternative therapy and speak with his or her patients, I believe many skeptical physicians would aee the value of that therapy and perhaps would even refer their own patients.

“We must not make our techniques a religion that we follow even when they don’t help. We are healers: caring, empathetic, thoughtful friends to our patients.” “If a treatment helps, does it matter why?” “There are great healers in all phases of health care. If all these systems work together, a patient’s care could be entrusted to an active partnership. This would be beneficial for the allopath, the alternative healer and the patient.”

“Lets face it: a huge number of patients are out there. Even if every healer of every variety were available there would still be a tremendous amount of work to go around. Besides, our individual skills are so incomplete that we need to ask help of other kinds of healers. People are so unique and diseases so multifactorial that we need hundreds of approaches in order to find the right ones and to keep the patient’s hope alive. Since there are miracles in all the healing techniques, why can’t their proponenets work together?”

“On the other hand, surgery and pharmceuticals can be gloriously effective; in their defenceivness, alternative healers sometimes condemn them, echoing the same condemnation they have received from allopaths.”

“We need forgiveness and goodwill ambassadors to draw treaties of reconciliation between opposing camps. Anger and name-calling will only widen the gap.” Doctor Patch Adams 1993

This Conversation has now been closed. Regrettably many of these comments have stepped away from our commenting guidelines and T&Cs.

If you would like to talk about our nutritional therapists investigation we will be publishing a new Conversation in due course. I will come back and post a link once it’s live. Thanks, Patrick.

Hello everyone! I’m pleased to say that we have published a new nutritional therapists Conversation, with a round-up of some of the comments. Hopefully it provides a balanced selection, but we couldn’t include everyone!


Please come and join in, but remember to stick to our guidelines. I hope there will be no need for us to come in and moderate. Thanks.

Lynn says:
16 March 2012

In your article you said the therapists offered unnecessary and unproven advice such as avoiding margarine as it is ‘two chemical bonds away from pure plastic’. If this is true it is not unnecessary but very important as our bodies are not able to digest plastic and it must have a very negative effect and even cause fatal diseases. In this instance ‘unnecessary and untrue’ doesn’t mean it is rubbish. I would expect Which Magazine to further investigate the ‘Margarine’ and let the readers decide wether the information is unnecessary if it is proven one way or the other. Otherwise you are being biased and giving your opinions without investigating the truth. I am actually very disappointed with your biased views and would like to have seen a scientific investigation on what you call unnecessary and unprove. Not impressed as I have lost my sister to cancer and I also have biased views – lets get to the truth please.

The fact that our bodies cannot digest materials does not make them harmful. We cannot digest cellulose and some other carbohydrates, but the undigested material (which we refer to as roughage) is an important component of our diet because it helps keep our lower bowel in good working order.

I don’t have the Which? report to hand, but it may refer to trans-fats in margarine. These are generated by partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils to convert them from a liquid to a solid. Consumption of large amounts of trans-fats is believed to be harmful and these are progressively being eliminated from margarines and other spreads, and from other foods.

Comparisons of chemical structures are not very helpful, but I don’t want to embark on a chemistry lesson. 🙂

I agree with you Lynn.
The advice to avoid margarine is a sound one, because in order to make margarine, vegetable oils need to go through a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation is the process of forcing hydrogen atoms into the holes of unsaturated fatty acids. This is done with hydrogen gas under pressure that is bubbled through the vegetable oil with the help of a metal catalyst, such as nickel, platinum or some other metal. When the hydrogen atoms combine with the carbon atoms, the oils becomes saturated or hardened. If this process continues, you can make blocks that are so hardened, you could build houses with the end product.
When this occurs, this new product ( margarine) no longer resembles the original oil. It is now a dark and rancid mess. Nickel is also toxic heavy metal and some amount will always remain in the margarine at it‘s completion. To make this unpalatable gloop appeal to the masses ( that would be you and me) deodorants and coloring agents are added to disguise the rancid smell and to hide the disgusting grey color of the unappealing slop. Much like a magicians sleight of hand, this slick trickery of bleaching, filtering and deodorizing goes on behind the scenes, and we are none the wiser.
Jacket potato anyone?

John Lyons says:
17 March 2012

I thought this conversation had been closed?

It is, please come and join us on the new nutritional therapists Conversation: https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/nutritional-therapists-comments-which-investigation/