[Editor’s note: SBM welcomes a guest contribution from Denby Royal, a former holistic nutritionist who has since left woo behind. Her story appears here as an updated and expanded version of a blog post from her website. Welcome Denby!]
As someone who has spent the better part of the last decade in the wellness realm, I have a moral obligation to do what is right. And what is right is to denounce my former beliefs, condemning an industry rife with deception.
The thing that led me to become a holistic nutritionist in the first place was my innate ability to doubt and criticize absolutely everything around me – a trait I believed I had well sharpened. Turns out, the honed sword of scrutiny I was wielding had morphed into a balloon sword. Squeaky, probably pink, and 100% imaginary. But here I was, nature-timing, walking barefoot, preaching organic, and not wearing deodorant, all the while brandishing my balloon sword in the face of all those who would listen.
Coconut oil! Squeak, squeak!
Toxins! SQUEAK! SQUEAK!
Then one day, my beloved balloon sword popped in my face.
How did this turn of events come to pass? It’s a bit of a convoluted story that I am still trying to understand. I can’t quite pin it down to one specific moment but can credit it to a series of events that dominoed my ideals. One of the first few dominos was likely laid by a ridiculous and nonsensical magazine in my local community; one of those publications full of snake oil, faith healers, Flat Earthers, and conspiracies about pretty much everything you can imagine (did you know mountains are actually just giant tree stumps?!). I was even asked to contribute my own brand of nonsense. I managed one interview before I couldn’t visualize myself being dragged any further under the hippy bus.
How the rest of the dominos fell
Another step in my development in critical thinking was a brief stint at a health food store. It was while working there I became gravely aware of the breadth and dark depths of the supplement industry. An insight, all too familiar to the readership of SBM, into a world of quackery and woo where a multi-billion-dollar supplement industry hides its lack of science and evidence from the world. An unregulated industry that definitely fooled me into believing that they have the tools to save us, peddling the sales pitch of “natural”, “holistism”, and “well-being” that portrays itself as more honest than what’s offered through mainstream medicine but is, in fact, full of dishonest products that either lack evidence or are straight-up scams. There, I was an active participant to a whole host of alternative tomfoolery and supplement-pushing to a clientele of the “Worried Well” who mistook me and my fellow employees for experts. But in reality we were just regurgitating, with the best of intent, the rubbish spewed by quacks like Joe Mercola and Silicon Valley scamsters like Dave Asprey. Beyond the pamphlets preaching the ketogenic diet and shelves of flashy boxes of cleanses and overpriced bottles of unverifiable mushroom tinctures lay the final domino to topple the queue: homeopathic remedies. In an effort to expand my product knowledge I did research on the different remedies available. I used all the best bias-confirming websites and got to work. Quickly, I found that I had fallen for the greatest weapon that homeopathy has, which is the fact that no one really has any clue what it is. But once I landed on a video by James Randi, my world crumbled like a dry piece of raw gluten-free paleo cake. Without question, I had fallen for the false language of pseudoscience where a morsel of real medicine is blended with enough nonsense and conviction to fool so many people.
Another domino was definitely placed by social media (we are all already familiar with the bubble-world of selective representation). Sometimes we find ourselves morphing into a strange amalgamation of social media influencers; people who seem to embody the exact ideals we visualize our own avatars becoming. A weird thing that happened to me, and I am sure has happened to others, was a transformation in real life, into the person the internet wanted me to be. Not necessarily the person I wanted to become, but an identity that was shaped by likes and demanded by the comment section. A world full of beautifully curated Instagram accounts of skinny yogis gathering wild herbs or making raw quiche. It’s extremely surreal to look back at photos of myself during this time. Come on, Royal, what were you thinking? Well, you weren’t necessarily thinking for yourself, that’s for sure.
I graduated from the Dunning-Kruger School of Natural Nutrition*
I will not wait until the men in white coats with their white hats tell me what I can see every day to be truth.
– Dr. Richard Mackarness, as quoted from the school’s website
*Not its real name.
During the brief education I received to become a holistic nutritionist, I was provided with a few valuable stepping stones to initiate a general understanding of how the body works – an understanding that wholeheartedly fell short of anything close to authority on the subject of health. We spent 27 in-class hours on the pathology of disease, and 30 combined hours on anatomy and physiology. And let’s not forget the whopping 12 hours dedicated to cellular biology! Consider these courses in relation to the 27 hours spent studying the mind, body, and spirit connection (yep, you guessed it, it involved chakras, human energy fields, and intuition), touted as being an evidence-based domain. During the 33 hours devoted to symptomatology, we learned the basic guidelines for detoxing—an updated course description now mentions the guidelines for fasting —with a heavy emphasis on recommending foods that are natural, alive, and organic. And of course, there was plenty of demonization of GMOs and pesticides, and underlying, yet not necessarily mentioned, opposition to vaccination (not officially instructed in the course, but the subject was addressed as a group discussion where personal options and anecdotes were given more weight than any science).
The most valuable course offered at the Dunning-Kruger School of Natural Nutrition was the incredibly compact six-hour course of Nutritional Literature Research. This course looked at methods for assessing nutritional literature for credibility, accuracy, and biases. I don’t know about you, but I’ve likely spent more time inadvertently watching ZDoggMD videos on Youtube. That being said, the information I did get out of the literature research course stuck with me and helped pull me out of the pile of organic manure I was buried in for so long. But I can’t say this for many others who share my miseducation. A quick internet search can draw several examples of holistic practitioners preaching far beyond their scope of practice. In my country, many holistic nutritionists define their role as a practitioner with the ability to help clients in a wider role than that of a registered dietitian because they are self-regulated and thus unbound by science or evidence. This definition is in itself a demonstration of the lack of credibility and the cognitive bias rampant in an industry of delusional superiority. A generally accepted creed within the wellness world is that holistic nutritionists, being independent from evidence-based science, are akin to crusaders of ancient teachings that the evil scientists have deemed invalid or unworthy of attention. It’s their destiny to dismantle Big Pharma with love and light while bypassing the role of the scientific method with manifestations and coffee enemas – all with a clear cognitive disconnect from how the supplement industry actually functions.
What did I ultimately learn?
There is a reason why holistic nutritionists are legally prohibited from saying words like “treat”, “heal”, “prevent”, or “cure”, and that is because they are light-years away from being capable of even understanding what that truly entails. With what I do have from my quasi-education I can pick apart a lifestyle that needs some fine-tuning and provide guidance on how to structure a solid meal plan. That’s it. I can neither diagnose the metaphysical blockage on your thyroid nor can I detox your liver (spoiler alert: no one can). Within the limited duration of my education I developed a knowledge base that qualifies me to be only marginally closer to being a medical professional than I am to becoming a professional cricket player.
The cardinal (and rather simple) rules for nurturing a healthy human were not omitted from the curriculum: addressing sleep, recommending a variety of foods, stress management, and regular exercise. As Britt Hermes has said about her education as a naturopath: there is just enough actual science to make all the woo seems credible. By peppering a bit of pathology into the hearty dose of New Age nonsense like chakras and reiki, we thought we were gaining the tools to change lives for the better. We believed that it was the holistic world alone that possesses vital knowledge of diet and exercise, which was (allegedly) dismissed by impersonal doctors.
In total, my entire education as a holistic nutritionist took a mere ten months. Following this, I was permitted to start taking clients immediately. No residency or clinical hours were required to prepare us for the real world and interactions with real patients. Unlike registered dieticians here in Canada, who must obtain a bachelor’s degree in Nutritional Sciences and qualify to complete a 40-week internship or get a Master’s degree, my entire education as a holistic nutritionist took only 10 months. We received a certificate, and that was that. A piece of paper showcasing our ten months of nutritional know-how.
After years of self-diagnosis and preaching all my fad-diet escapades (for this, I greatly apologize to everyone I have alienated with my self-righteousness) I cannot express how deep of an appreciation I have for those on the front lines in the fight against pseudoscience, who attempt to mitigate the damage it does to real medicine. The influence of pseudoscience is not harmless and I have seen firsthand how it lures people away from evidence-based help in their times of need. I am fortunate enough that within my practice I had enough foresight to turn away individuals who required more assistance than I was capable of giving. But along the way I made many embarrassing and conjectural recommendations that cost myself, and others, far too much money and time.
The woo delusion
When I could no longer accept the world I had dedicated my career and identity to, I made the difficult decision to leave the Church of Woo. It was an ego-crushing experience to burst my own self-righteous bubble and to let go of the person I had become through a mix ignorance, misinformation, and a misguided desire to be different. I wouldn’t wish the moments of isolation I endured on anyone. I was already on a long journey of self-doubt and insecurity when I finally came across this website, along with others; a corner of the internet outside of my presiding algorithms where I found a vast world of skeptics who have been wielding swords of scrutiny for decades in the defence of science. It was similar to first reading Richard Dawkins fresh out of years of a Catholic high school education. I realized then that I wasn’t crazy and that I could find validation for the doubts that plagued my self-confidence.
Initially, and after a lot of hesitation, I wrote about my decision to leave the wellness world on my personal blog. Many of the comments included the tired accusation that I am just a ‘corporate shill’ for Big Pharma —though I would gladly accept a cheque from Pfizer, just saying— or a series of straw man arguments that I might as well start smoking cigarettes. What greatly outweighed all of this nonsense were the many comments I received from fellow holistic nutritionists, many of whom have experienced the same sense of contempt toward their limited education or have witnessed the lack of respect and understanding for real science that runs rampant in the industry. Above all else, it was the overwhelming support that I found from friends and strangers in the wellness community, who I greatly feared I would alienate, which was a far more purgative experience than any quacky cleanse on the market.