An investigation of the fashion for food therapy found patients are given poor advice, sold dubious products and are not referred with potentially serious illnesses to their GPs. Nutritional therapists charge up to £85 for advice on diet and often sell supplements as well.
One of the most dubious products was "Aerobic Oxygen", costing £16.95, which contained salt water exposed to air and would have provided no more oxygen than a glass of drinking water. In another case a therapist recommended carrot juice as a good source of calcium, although it contains little.
The Health Which? inquirysent researchers to therapists in Cambridgeshire, Gloucestershire, London, Oxfordshire and Sussex. Therapists examine symptoms and lifestyle and look for effects of nutritional deficiencies, food allergies and toxins. They advise on and treat conditions including irritable bowel syndrome, skin problems, migraine, cystitis, thrush and joint problems.
Anyone can set themselves up as a nutritional therapist. They may also call themselves a diet therapist, nutrition counsellor or nutritionist. Some are in the British Association of Nutritional Therapists but there is no requirement to register.
The five investigators consulted 14 therapists and posed with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), including bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and abdominal pain. They said they had busy, stressful lives typical of sufferers. Consultation details were recorded and assessed by a state-registered dietitian, a GP and a registered nutritionist, who found them "inadequate", "haphazard" and "inconsistent". Most of the dietary advice was too general and eight therapists suggested such changes as eating two cooked meals a day, impossible for the kind of life the investigators led.
Almost all the therapists recommended or sold pills and potions but only two were of any use: probiotic acidophilus powder could encourage growth of "friendly gut bacteria" and psyllium husks could also help digestion, although the package sold to the investigator was over a year past its expiry date.
The panel said the worst feature of care offered was the failure of five therapists to tell patients to see their GP to exclude more serious problems such as bowel cancer. Overall, those registered with the British Association of Nutritional Therapists were no better than those who were not.
Sue Freeman, the Health Which? assistant editor, said: "Be wary of therapists who don't encourage you to see your GP if you have medical problems or don't attempt to tailor the advice to your needs."
A spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association, which represents stateregistered nutritionists, said members could be struck off for giving wrong advice. Patients needed a referral from their GP to see members on the NHS but they could also be consulted privately through the association. She said IBS resisted most attempts to deal with it, orthodox and unorthodox. "You can't cure it, though you might be able to hold it in check."
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