On 31 October 2016 the job title dietitian became a legally protected term in Ireland, with only those qualified and verified by Ireland’s health profession regulator CORU allowed to boast this status.
This follows a two-year transition period within which over 800 dietitians registered.
Under the changes, those who fail to register but continue to use the job title could now be liable to six months in prison or a class A fine, which can reach up to €5,000.
'Dietitian' and 'language and speech therapist' are the latest job titles to be legally protected under Ireland’s Health and Social Care Professionals Act 2005.
The legislation currently lists 15 professions that will be regulated by CORU, with registration already opened for nine of these including occupational therapists and physiotherapists.
The Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI) said it welcomed the move it hoped would give the public more confidence when visiting dietitians.
However communications manager Louise Reynolds told us the regulation was not enough to banish phoney practitioners from the marketplace since the term nutritionist remained unregulated, as is the case in the UK and Northern Ireland.
Spot the difference
She said qualifications of nutritionists could vary from a PhD in nutrition to just a few months' online course.
Yet either individual could be giving advice to the public about its health and charging up to €100 for the consultation.
Reynolds stressed that many of these under-qualified nutritionists may have taken such online courses in “good faith”.
The term dietetics will also be protected under the new arrangements and therefore courses inappropriately claiming to teach this should now be snipped out.
Everyone’s an expert
However she said most under-qualified practitioners set up as nutritionists not dietitians, and therefore this legislation change would not rein in the problem.
“It’s a good idea we welcome but unfortunately it’s probably not going to stop all the quackery,” said Reynolds, who worked previously as a nutrition researcher at Trinity College Dublin as well as a project co-ordinator at Danone Baby Nutrition.
“The whole Instagram and social media space is teeming with ex-models and celebrities calling themselves nutritionists. There we can only try to point out inaccuracies.”
Reynolds envisaged highly qualified nutritionists would now be lobbying for a distinction to also be made within their profession.
‘No plans to regulate the title of nutritionist’
Some INDI members had lobbied for the job title nutritionist to also be regulated by CORU, but this currently comes under the remit of the Irish Department of Health (DoH).
The Irish DoH told us it had “no plans to regulate individuals using the title of nutritionist”, with its "immediate priority" the full implementation of the health care act and the possible extension of this to counsellors and psychotherapists.
A spokesperson added that sound dietary advice was available from dietitians registered under the newly enforced act.
"As a result of recent regulation, only registrants of the Dietititans Registration Board are entitled to use the protected title of dietitian. This will allow people to make informed decisions about nutrition professionals and will recognise the high standard of care provided by appropriately qualified and recognised dietitians."
The fact remains though that some people do still rely on advice from those not qualified to give it.
Dietitian and health writer Dr Carrie Ruxton told us the issue had potentially disastrous consequences for unsuspecting clients of these unqualified quacks.
“This is a problem as unqualified people can set up clinics and give potentially dangerous advice to the public,” said Scotland-based Ruxton.
She cited a case in England last month where a four-year-old autistic boy nearly died after taking 12 alternative medicines prescribed by a naturopath (natural health practitioner) to help ‘treat’ his autism, according to the mainstream media reports that followed.
The child was said to have developed vitamin D toxicity and hypercalcaemia after taking the supplements, which reportedly included vitamin D, camel's milk, silver and Epsom bath salts for a number of months.
INDI’s Louise Reynolds echoed this, saying advice based on media trends like free-from diets posed a particular risk to children.
“An adult might manage [with strict exclusion of certain foods], but for younger children it’s really quite dangerous.”