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?