Anyone that knows me will have heard some variation of this at some point in our friendship, as my biggest pet peeve with the fitness industry has always been nutrition, or more specifically the abundance of dodgy products and people making false claims to part the public from their hard-earned money for a taste of the miracle cure to all their problems. From multi-level marketing schemes to “personalised” diet plans, the fitness industry is packed with snake oil salesman and soothsayers looking to cash in at your expense.

If I had a pound for everyone who has approached me asking for me to sell their Aloe Vera based shakes and kale smoothies, I’d probably be able to pay someone else to write these blogs for me. But alas the only people who actively benefit from these schemes are the cult leaders at the top; and a cult they are. Time and time again I’ve watched as people I respect have been sucked in to these schemes, taking the empty promises of a little extra wealth if they just offer X brands miracle product to their clients at face value, only to be chewed up and spat back out again when their personal coffers run dry and are left with a garage full of “super foods” that nobody wants.

The problem is that although most personal trainers and nutritionists are wonderful people that genuinely want to help others, most of them aren’t trained scientists and are easy targets for pyramid schemes; whoops I mean direct marketing schemes, that are looking for a healthy optimistic individual to peddle their knock off “health products”, or will go that extra step and try to advise their clients on which supplement’s will help them achieve their goals and write meal plans in an attempt to be more supportive.

I hate to blow my own trumpet as I don’t see myself as anything special, but what’s always helped me stand apart from the rest of my industry was that I did an Ecology degree where I learned how to do “proper” research and learned a thing or two about food chains, farming and biology that most of my colleagues wouldn’t understand. Studying Ecology made me both a better personal trainer and a better nutritionist as I’m a professional sceptic and love to read around a subject and trawl through the latest research in an attempt to stay at the top of my game. On several occasions that ingrained curiosity has prevented me from falling into the same traps as my colleagues and honestly left me a little disillusioned with the industry as a whole.

You see I’m a consummate professional and a stickler for best practice because I come from a field where cutting corners would cripple your career. When I was first told that the role of a nutritionist was to offer general advice and educate others, I naturally assumed that was how the world worked and that everyone would adhere to the guidelines as closely as I do, alas back then I was much more naïve than I am now.

What is a nutritionist?

The most shocking lesson I learned was that in the UK anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, or some variation of the title as the term isn’t protected, and although many of us have formal qualifications in the subject, the waters are still pretty murky with a lot of cowboys trying to sign you up to their latest scheme. So if you see a fancy title such as clinical nutritionist, nutritional therapist, dietary nutritionist etc,. take it with a pinch of salt and don’t fall for the buzzwords.
A nutritionist is supposed to be a professional that can offer you general food advice and teach you how to improve your diet through applied knowledge. When I used to work with clients and go through nutrition with them it was mainly a case of sitting them down and teaching them about how to keep food diaries, phase into better eating habits through SMART goals and generally educating them about which foods contain which vitamins and minerals and how to cook food in such a way you preserve as many nutrients as possible.

Nutrition is about food, and my job is to teach people to think about what they put on their plate. I’m not a preacher who will tell you it has to be done my way and I’m not going to force a product on you that will result in me getting a back hander from another company, but alas not every nutritionist is as up front as I am and instead will promise a quick fix rather than the hard work that is really required to make meaningful change.

The weird thing about nutrition qualifications is that they are often written with nefarious individuals in mind, likely because the industry leaders know that people are going to break the rules anyway so it’s a good idea that they know something about the products they will inevitably try to sell in future. My first experience of this approach was when I did my first qualifications on nutrition and a representative from a leading supplement company came in to teach us about protein shakes and said to our faces, “We know our product isn’t exactly healthy and you can do better by eating properly but we’re the best of a bad bunch,” before telling us that as nutritionists we shouldn’t advise people to take supplements.
This theme of, “You shouldn’t advise clients to take these supplements and it’s better to get it from natural sources such as food anyway,” continued as I continued my education and began taking specialist qualifications such as performance enhancement, which had an entire module dedicated to the different supplement’s available to athletes, and was basically a case of “This is how they work, this is how you apply them properly to training, and this is how you determine who needs them, but under no circumstances should you recommend anything but caffeine unless you’re a dietician” which I found pretty surreal.

What is a dietician?

Dieticians are the real pros, and usually have a Master’s Degree in the field, and much like GP’s their job title is protected and has to be earned. Whereas nutritionists such as myself are there to educate, dieticians are there to clinically test for nutritional deficiencies and prescribe the appropriate supplement or create a bespoke meal plan that will safely help you accomplish your goals.

The only pet peeve I have about dieticians is how they often get treated by others in my industry who rely on crass remarks to try and discredit their hard work and question how much they know because they haven’t spent their lives living and working in a gym. In my opinion dieticians should be the gate keepers of the nutrition industry and if I had my way over the counter supplements would be a thing of the past and only available on prescription. But as things stand dieticians are still someone to be looked up to and as the obesity epidemic continues to rise, we’re going to need more of them.

Meal plans the good and the bad.

As previously mentioned, the only person who should ever give you a meal plan is a registered dietician because they are the only ones qualified to do so. Yes we all enjoy food and yes a nutritionist usually knows how to build a balanced meal, but putting that knowledge into practice on a personal level and applying it to another is completely different and I’ve seen first-hand how the best of intentions have put people’s health in danger due to human error.

To be blunt a lot of personal trainers just aren’t trained scientists, and although they are great at what they do and can help client achieve amazing results, asking them to deal with complex issues that boil down to a practical application of biochemistry is not a good idea, and just like you wouldn’t ask your hairdresser to perform brain surgery you shouldn’t trust your personal trainer to plan your plate. Yes both nutritionists and personal trainers know a thing or two about food and are usually the paragons of health, but we’re an odd bunch and we often obsess over our health to the point it becomes unhealthy and often assume everyone is like us at heart.

An example of this is a personal trainer I know where they offer bespoke meal plans for each of their clients and advertise it all over their website and social media as a way to attract unknowing customers. Is this shady? Yes it is, but alas our whole industry is unregulated. Anyway I spent some time looking through their website and found a copy of the meal plan they put together for one of their weight loss groups and I was shocked to see the whole thing was based around white carbohydrates, meal replacements and intermittent fasting which is a sure fire way to guarantee failure, and the more I looked the more of these schemes I found being peddled to the public.

The final kick in the teeth for me was when I talked to a friend about this who, by the way, is a brilliant personal trainer but lacks any formal nutritional qualifications, and he began telling me about the advice he gives his clients. I could have screamed, and that was before he began telling me about this new meal replacement product he was selling and that if I wanted I could sell them too for a little extra income over lockdown and if I got 3-5 others to do it for me I’d get a share of their sales too!

The truth about weight loss groups

Now is the point where I would try to get a little more serious and offer some practical advice. However I’m saving that for the next three blogs on the subject. So instead I will continue pointing fingers at the nutrition industry without opening myself up to legal repercussions by mentioning anyone by name.
We all know of a local weight loss group, run out of the local community centre or church hall and usually run by someone with a haircut that screams I want to speak with the manager. These groups are the evangelical preachers of the nutrition world and peddle both false hope and supermarket approved micro meals with more salt than a pint of sea water. “Health” sells stock, and most of us just want a quick fix to a problem that will help us prepare for our summer holiday, rather than putting in the long-term effort that actually works.

These groups revolve around a pack mentality where you eat points approved meals in an attempt to be the biggest loser at the weekly weigh in and quickly dump the pounds that crept up on you over the past few years as you say to yourself “once I reach my goal, I’ll be able to eat normally and keep it off easily”. Sadly, this is just not true, as unfortunately your body will have different ideas, as do those that started the group in the first place.

The problem with these groups is that if you actually succeed and never go back they’ve lost a paying client, and although they want you to lose enough weight that you tell all your friends how wonderful it is and they all sign up too, their business model would collapse if no one relapsed as they would run out of clients to sell to. To combat this, the diets these groups push are designed to help you quickly drop weight and reach your target just long enough that you tell everyone about it, then gain it all back again over a few months. This is what we call the Yoyo effect. The yoyo effect is basically your body’s starvation response kicking in as you’ve dropped body fat so quickly it thinks you’re in a famine and it needs to rebuild its reserve to even greater levels than before to protect you.

Then when you’ve gained back all that weight and start looking at losing it all over again for the next holiday you will remember how effective the weight loss group was before and sign back up, swearing to yourself that this time it will be different and you will keep the weight off this time around. Practically speaking any diet that revolves around a deficit of more than 500kcal per day is going to fail in the long term, which essentially means if you’re losing more than one pound a week you’re going to suffer in the long term for the price of short term gains. Remember sustainable weight loss is a marathon not a sprint and one pound a week is still between three to four stone a year.

Supplements and meal replacements

Unless a dietician has told you differently, both supplements and meal replacements are a waste of your hard earned money. Protein shakes are made from the dried out husk of cheese whey, baked at high temperatures until it becomes a bland powder which itself causes some of the essential amino acids to be lost, and the end product lacks the fats needed to absorb the protein properly anyway, without even mentioning the concoction of additives required to make it palatable.
Vitamin supplements are often made in labs and slap on fancy terms such as essential multivitamins and then formed into pills that resemble popular cartoon characters. This is a way to convince you to give them to your children when a banana would be of more benefit and concoctions made up of “super foods” such as acai berries, aloe vera and kale are just marketers looking at manipulating the English language to trick you into buying their mediocre meal replacement.

“Healthy Marketing”

Try as they might, the Food Standards Agency is constantly fighting an uphill battle with food marketers looking at exploiting our changing attitude towards health to sell their products to the public.
We are naturally attracted to terms such as low fat, low sugar, high protein and diet as these buzzwords resonate with our preconceptions of what healthy means. The problem is that those behind the campaigns know that too, and will apply terms as loosely as possible in an attempt to use our own misconceptions against us. Most “health foods” are far from healthy and every perceived boon usually comes at the expense of something much more dangerous. For example when the public became aware of MSG and its addictive properties we cried out and began to look for alternatives, so it was replaced with its natural form which is just as addictive and can be found in most commercial plant and yeast extracts.

What should I do to eat healthier?

To avoid falling for marketing gimmicks and buzzwords my advice would be to learn how to read food labels, and read up on what marketing terminologies actually mean. After all, a little knowledge goes a long way and it’s much easier to improve your diet when you know how to see through all the sales pitches. For most people nutrition advice can be summed up in a few key points:

  1. Stop eating takeaways every week
  2. Avoid processed food
  3. Cans of pop are unhealthy even when they contain the word diet.
  4. Don’t starve yourself
  5. You don’t need to take a fancy supplement
  6. Eat a piece of fruit
  7. Drink more water

Yes, nutrition is a complicated subject and the world is full of false and anecdotal information trying to convince you to buy the appropriate branded products endorsed by a celebrity but at the same time its core concepts are fairly simple: Cook your own meals and remember to eat your vegetables, after all it’s worked throughout the whole of human history and the last time I checked we’re still the same species.

If you haven’t guessed by now, this month’s theme is nutrition and if you take anything away from this post let it be that the quick fixes don’t work and everyone wants your money. If you are inclined to hand it over you should make sure it’s on something actually useful. Over the next few weeks we will be cooking up some practical advice to help teach you about the subject, after all I’m a nutritionist and education is what we’re meant to do.