Invariably, the conversation gets around to food. Who’s eating this; who wishes they could stop eating that; your friend’s neighbour’s cousin selling a NEW cleanse™. Coming out of lockdown is around the corner, are you feeling that you want more than diet hearsay and nutrition chatter? What can you look for and what are the questions to ask if you want to talk to someone about food and nutrition?

First off, qualifications could be important. Its logical that someone who feels qualified to speak to you about food, should be eligible to do so. Your first question might be “What and when did you complete your nutrition training?”. It is worth doing a little digging to find out if their training matches up to what you would expect. You may see practitioners referring to levels of training, in the UK, level 2 training is the equivalent of GCSE, all the way up to level 8 for PhDs. Next up, further training and continual professional development is especially important for nutrition since it is a constantly evolving field. It follows that a nutrition professional would want to continue to develop their understanding. So, a further question could be, “How do you continue to improve your knowledge and practice?”. Lockdown has provided so many more webinars and training events (perhaps overwhelmingly so) as well as improving our global access to nutrition courses, so finding out what further training they have completed will also give some insight into their interests and specialisms.

That being said, professionals with the highest of nutrition degrees may not necessarily be right for you and your needs. Similarly, not everyone without years of training is bogus. Either way, it is your right to be informed about the level of training your potential nutrition guide has. Do expect them to be transparent about their qualifications and they should be able to direct you to more information about their education so you can decide for yourself if they are right for you.

However, here’s the rub, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. Unlike ‘dietitian’, ‘nutritionist’ is not a protected title. So, the next step would be to look for their registration with a professional body. ‘Registered’ in their title means exactly that – they are registered with a professional body and with that usually comes a set of requirements and a code of conduct. This is different to being a member of a society. The Nutrition Society for example is a great resource and you could expect a competent nutritionist to be a member, but the society does not place requirements on its members. A nutritionist could promote they are a member of the Nutrition Society, pay the annual fee and use the NS logo, but then have no further engagement with what the society does. It is tricky, but ask specifically, “Are you registered with a professional body?” and then have a quick search of who they are associated with.

Presumably, all those working in food and nutrition have good intentions and want to do good work. Therefore, they should also be fully aware of their responsibilities, limitations, and scope of practice. This is where professional indemnity insurance and supervision is critical. Insurance is essential to protect you from the potential of poor advice. In addition, professional supervision provides nutritionists with comprehensive support in order to fully support you. You could find out by asking, “Do you have current professional indemnity insurance cover? Do you seek supervision and support from another health care professional?”.

So, if your prospective nutritionist has sufficient training, is registered with a professional body, has supervision and insurance, then you can be confident of a level of expertise, professionalism, and protection.

That all sounds rational, reasonable, and you should be good to go. But apply this to the real-world nutritional soup of all the health coaches, dietitians, nutritionists and nutritional therapists out there, it is easy to get caught up in the elevation of the status of some practitioners over others. Should it matter whether you are listening to nutritional advice from a personal trainer or an NHS dietitian? A health coach or a nutritional therapist? Add to this the influencers, celebrity endorsement and wellness gurus, it is no wonder nutrition is so noisy. The problem, as I see it, is the fight to own, monetize and control knowledge and in this case, to hold power over people and the very natural act of eating. Lucy Aphramor (Radical Dietitian and Poet) has written about this recently, they observe that those at the top of the nutrition-know-how tree, with their bona fida credentials, are untouchable which reinforces binary thinking and creates the Other as inferior. I am trying to take this in. I am listening and thinking. I want to be exposed to the roots of scientism and supremacy that find their unwelcome way into the depths of my mind. I want to do the doing and be the being of the work to dismantle systemic oppression.

Perhaps this is where the art of nutrition, food and eating comes in. Yes, I have a master’s degree in Applied Human Nutrition, which says a lot about the privilege of time, money and resources available to me. What does my education tell you of my lived experience, of my core values, my commitment to person-centred, trauma-informed care? Registration with a professional body says nothing about the connection and the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of what you feel about one nutritionist to another. Yes, what a nutritionist says is important, but what will it actually be like working with them? Will they respect your voice? Will they come alongside you or is their approach more top-down instruction? What would you prefer? These are deeper questions you could also consider, “What has brought you to work in nutrition? What do you hope to do for your clients and why?”. You cannot tell from my credentials, but for me, nutritional advice is as much about harm reduction as it is about the joy and healing of food and eating. I do not offer the ‘before and after’ model of body transformation nor do I prescribe the ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ of eating.

So, what does this look like in practice? Back to your friend’s neighbour’s cousin. If they say to you, “It’s not a diet!” and then commence to sell you a 30-day ‘lifestyle’ plan complete with food dos and don’ts, shakes and smoothies, you can ask, “What is it about this diet that isn’t a diet?” Above all, ask yourself, do you feel you have a connection with what they are offering and how they are offering it? So, perhaps the question is, what do you look for in a nutrition professional and what do you really want to ask?