The blogger who cried nutritionist

Adam Daly

Instagram has become a popular market for businesses to advertise, with 80 per cent of Instagram users now following at least one business page. These statistics come from Sprout Social, but they don’t include bloggers and influencers. Who in their own right, are businesses.

Health and fitness bloggers of Instagram are trying to make commercial gain out of their celebrity status, with most not having adequate nutritional training from a university, according to Dr Mary Rose Sweeney.

Real nutritionists and dietitians are working in an academic setting with international collaborators, operating from the perspective of what the evidence says works, Dr Sweeney, Senior Lecturer in the School of Nursing and Human Sciences in DCU, explained.

‘’A strong grounding in nutrition is needed but also in things like biochemistry, anatomy, physiology and genetics but above all in research. You need all these skills to advise others on what the evidence says. A sample size of one, of what works for you, is not evident of what will work for others’’ Dr Sweeney said.

The Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute warn of people who claim to be nutritional therapists. The increase in the number of self-proclaimed nutrition practitioners emerging from informal courses, which are not recognised by the state or Irish universities, is on the rise.

Nutritional therapists can be found online but also in private clinic settings. Some may offer nutritional tests such as food intolerance testing which is not evidence based within conventional medicine. Some may also offer treatments such as supplements, detox diets, and food exclusions for which there is little scientific evidence.

Since 2015, only those who have applied or registered with Coru, Ireland’s multi-profession health regulator, are entitled to practise using the title Dietitian. If someone does misuse a protected title under this law, it is a criminal offence and on conviction, they may be liable to a Class A fine and/or six months imprisonment.

However, as Dr Sweeney points out this law does not cover the use of the title of a nutritionist. There is currently a campaign underway to change the law surrounding that title.

Dr Sweeney has a PhD in nutrition and has worked in that area since 1996, with international peer-reviewed work. Before taking the advice of a nutritional therapist people should check if they have a BSc or MSc in Public Health Nutrition, Human Nutrition or Nutritional Science, Dr Sweeney warns.

Rosanna Davison Nutrition, the website run by the former Miss World, offers a host of recipes and meal plans. The Instagrammer is also the author of the cookbook Eat Yourself Beautiful.

Davison recently posted to her 147k followers on Instagram to thank the University of Limerick for inviting her to speak about nutrition as part of Mental Health Week. Davison graduated from University College Dublin with an Arts degree in sociology and art history. A few years later she obtained a part time degree in nutrition therapeutics.

The thing that Dr Sweeney wants people to remember is that online influencers are able to put every moment of everyday into losing weight and staying lean in order to obtain their brand. “The average members of the public have to work or raise families. They have responsibilities. They can’t obsessively exercise.’’

When it comes to online personal trainers, proteins in powder form can be a big part of their agenda. From a safety point of view, Dr Sweeney says orthodox trained nutritionists and dietitians would not advocate that.

“We like people to eat real food, in the right amounts, to get a blend of nutrients. There is a risk of over-consuming powder protein which puts extra strain on your kidneys, as it has to be broken down by the body.’’ she said.

The use of celebrity to endorse products is something that Dr Sweeney thinks should be used to promote healthy living.

“Paul O’Connell’s ad for the Irish Dairy Council has been quite successful, maybe we need to work with celebrities who will spread our message rather than their own.’’

But for now, most Instagram feeds are full of endorsements for detox teas.

Teas that Dr Sweeney says are full of caffeine which increases the body’s metabolic rate resulting in a quick fix to losing weight.

Many people to turn to social media for nutritional advice to lose weight because if you are in any way overweight it is a lot more difficult to put yourself out there and go to a professional dietitian or nutritionist. But this is something that professionals are aware of, Dr Sweeney said.

RTÉ’s Operation Transformation is something that Dr Sweeney recommends watching for someone who may not want to go see a professional but who still wants to lose weight healthily.

“The advice is evidence-based, with a lot of good tips and menu plans there. It’s a safe way to lose weight. They recommend one to two pounds a week, rapid weight loss we all know isn’t sustainable.’’ Dr Sweeney said.

Adam Daly

Image Credit: Elsa Anderling