Saturday July 1, 2006
Last year I noticed that lots of the lifestyle bunnies in the press and on the internet were suddenly showing off about being “RNutr” or “Registered Nutritionists”. Registered with whom? Imagine a two-headed monster called “The Nutrition Society”. On the one hand, they are a respectable and august research body, representing some of the sharpest academics in the country, doing research work on nutrition in both people and laboratories, publishing academic journals, and so on. That’s science. On the other hand, they “run” a “register” that I suspect consists mostly of those commercial “nutritionists” who make good money peddling lifestyle advice to the public. That’s inviting trouble. I am trouble.
I found a prominent nutritionist on their register who was doing exactly the kind of thing that nutritionists in mainstream media like to do – extrapolating rashly from research data – and I decided to complain, just to see whether the Nutrition Society’s register meant anything, really. Her name was Angela Dowden (RNutr), but it could have been anyone. She is “one of Britain’s most high-profile nutritional experts” according to the Daily Mail, and a “Registered Nutritionist” in her columns in the Mirror.
The first thing I found on Google for “Angela Dowden Nutritionist” – I wouldn’t want you to think I looked very hard – was this: www.healthspan.co.uk/articles/article.aspx?Id=112. It’s a pill-pushing online store with a slightly dubious “select your condition” way of selling tablets. Dowden wrote this for them: “Eye strain: Which fruit? Bilberries. How they help: These European cousins of American blueberries contain anthocyanin antioxidants which strengthen the blood vessels supplying the retina in the eye. Bilberry extracts have been shown to treat visual fatigue caused by prolonged reading and working in dim light.”
It sounds like fairly typical media nutritionist fayre – what you might read from any one of them – and it is horseshit, as media nutrititionist fayre often is. I looked, and there was nothing, in 84 “bilberry” references on Medline or Pubmed, to support it. Bilberry extracts had not “been shown to treat visual fatigue caused by prolonged reading and working in dim light”. Dowden admitted as much (but then subsequently complained to the Guardian about me). I read all 84 very boring abstracts to make sure. She was wrong.
So is the Nutrition Society’s “register” meaningfully regulated? Almost a year after my letter to them, they managed to convene what was their first ever “Fitness To Practic” panel. I’m not surprised it was their first ever panel because at the time, as I pointed out, and as they admitted, no information was available to the public, at least not through their website, on how to complain about people on this professional register. (They’ve fixed that since I wrote about it: well done!).
Now their findings on Dowden are in, and those of you who naively believe that regulation and registers are about accountability and transparency will be disappointed. I’d love to tell you what they told me about the hearing (they did not find her unfit to practice but they do go some small way to improving the registerâ€™s dismal reputation in my eyes): sadly, their letter is headed “STRICTLY PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL” in bold capital letters, with the word “CONFIDENTIAL” one inch tall in grey watermark across the page. My lips are sealed. These are private hearings. Because the Nutrition Society have decided they should be. I look forward to a promised short report in their “Gazette” in December.
Compare other bodies. The GMC Professional Conduct Committee and Fitness To Practice Panels are fully open: they hold public hearings, and not only are the rulings publicly available (and searchable online) but the transcripts are too. People have predicted, recently, that lone MMR warrior Dr Andrew Wakefield will receive a repressive drubbing by the GMC: if you are one of these people, I heartily advise you to experience every single last gruelling colon of the hearing, and decide for yourself on their deliberations.
That’s accountability. That’s transparency. That’s regulation. The “register” arm of The Nutrition Society is something very different: that’s show business. They are currently angling to become an official register, like the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the General Medical Council, and the British Dietetic Association. I wish them the very best of luck.