This topic generated what was probably a record number of comments in the Fat Head Facebook group awhile back, so I thought it was old news.  Apparently not, since several readers sent me links to a news article this week:

State Threatens to Shut Down Nutrition Blogger

The North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition is threatening to send a blogger to jail for recounting publicly his battle against diabetes and encouraging others to follow his lifestyle.

Chapter 90, Article 25 of the North Carolina General Statutes makes it a misdemeanor to “practice dietetics or nutrition” without a license. According to the law, “practicing” nutrition includes “assessing the nutritional needs of individuals and groups” and “providing nutrition counseling.”

Steve Cooksey has learned that the definition, at least in the eyes of the state board, is expansive.

Cooksey, who was hospitalized in 2009 for complications of diabetes, created his Diabetes Warrior blog after a low-carb paleo diet proved so effective, he was able to stop taking insulin and other drugs.  In other words, he did what a lot of us have done:  after discovering a diet that worked, he decided to share the good news online.  That’s the Wisdom of Crowds at work.  Bloggers like Cooksey have probably saved more lives than all the dietitians in the country combined.

That’s exactly the problem, of course.  As I recounted in my Crisis in Nutrition speech, more and more people are turning away from doctors, nutritionists and dietitians and seeking information on the internet because they’re tired of following advice that doesn’t work.  The nutritionists and dietitians don’t like the competition.  So at least in this case, they’re trotting out ridiculous licensing laws in hopes of keeping their monopoly.  As I wrote in a recent post, that’s often the true purpose of licensing laws:  stifling competition.

The article doesn’t say who exactly decided to go after Cooksey, but it does provide us with enough information to make an educated guess:

Jan. 12, Cooksey attended a nutrition seminar at a church in Charlotte. The speaker was the director of diabetes services for a local hospital.

“She was giving all the wrong information, just like everyone always does — carbs are OK to eat, we must eat carbs to live, promoting low-fat, etc.,” Cooksey said. “So I spoke up.”

After the meeting he handed out a couple of business cards pointing people to his website. Three days later, he got a call from the director of the nutrition board.

“Basically, she told me I could not give out nutritional advice without a license,” Cooksey said.

Now why is that, exactly?  Cooksey hasn’t claimed he’s a doctor or claimed he holds degrees he doesn’t.  Far from it, in fact:

Cooksey posts the following disclaimer at the bottom of every page on his website:

“I am not a doctor, dietitian, nor nutritionist … in fact I have no medical training of any kind.”

That means the people who seek his advice know exactly what he is – and what he isn’t.

[Board director Charla] Burill said the disclaimer may not protect a nutrition blogger from the law.

“If I’ve given you reason to not worry that I don’t have a license because I have all these other reasons I’m an expert, you could still harm the public,” she said.

And what harm would that be, Ms. Burill?  How exactly are diabetics going to be harmed by following Cooksey’s advice and restricting carbohydrates?  The only potential harm here will be to the bank accounts of dietitians, who may find there are fewer people willing to pay them to be harmed by their crappy advice.

I’ve seen plenty of books in bookstores that offer nutrition advice, but weren’t written by people with degrees or licenses.  If any of those authors live in North Carolina, will the state’s dietetics and nutrition board be going after them next?  Are those of us who don’t live in North Carolina going to be threatened with fines or jail, since we have readers in North Carolina?

Burill told Carolina Journal she could not discuss the details of Cooksey’s case because his website is still under investigation, but agreed to talk about the law in the hypothetical.

It’s not necessarily against the law to give your sister or your friend nutritional advice, she said.

Not necessarily against the law?  You mean it could be?

And it’s not necessarily against the law to use a blog to tell people what they should eat.

Where it crosses the line, Burill said, is when a blogger “advertises himself as an expert” and “takes information from someone such that he’s performing some sort of assessment and then giving it back with some sort of plan or diet.”

So you can give advice to your friend or sister … well, what about a co-worker?  A co-worker of mine recently asked me for advice about his diet because his triglycerides are way too high and the low-fat diet he was advised to follow isn’t helping.  (Duh.)  He gave me a copy of his lab report and a list of his typical meals.  I’d say that means I performed an assessment. If we were in North Carolina, could I get around the law by declaring that I consider the co-worker a friend?  Would we need to submit pictures of ourselves having drinks together after work to prove we’re friends?

That’s how ridiculous these issues can become.

It’s a fine line between what’s legal and what’s not when it comes to talking about nutrition.

“Anyone can talk about anything they want,” Burill said. “That’s a First Amendment right, so to speak.”

So to speak?

For example, a person could write a blog advocating vegetarianism, she said.

I’ve heard that could happen.

“Now if you advertised that you’d taken classes in nutrition, you’ve worked at [the federal government’s Food and Nutrition Service] for three years, and you say ‘I believe everyone should be a vegetarian, and I’m here to help you if you want to change your diet’ [that could be crossing the line],” Burill said.

No, you flippin’ idiot, the “crossing the line” part would be advertising that you’ve taken nutrition classes or worked for a federal agency if you haven’t.  That’s called fraud.  Prosecuting fraud is a legitimate function of government.  Prosecuting people for stating their opinions about what constitutes a good diet isn’t.

“A vegetarian diet would be a little bit harder [to prosecute] because a vegetarian is not really like a medical diet.”

True, a vegetarian is not really like a medical diet.  A vegetarian is more like a person who doesn’t eat meat.  But plenty of vegetarians write online about the wonders their diet has done for their health, and plenty of them offer advice too.  What the @#$% is the difference?

Declan McCullagh, a CBSNews.com correspondent who writes about online free speech, says the board probably is violating Cooksey’s First Amendment rights.

“In general, I think that as long as someone is very clear that they’re not a licensed dietician, state officials can probably find better uses of their time,” he said.

You’re right about the First Amendment, Mr. McCullagh.  But as for state officials finding better use for their time … naw, I don’t think so.  This is exactly the kind of petty nonsense they live for.  To make better use of their time, they’d have to leave government and get a real job.

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59 Responses to “Dietitians Go After A Blogger”
  1. LXV says:

    “Programmers may try to get a licensure law passed, but they probably won’t succeed without convincing the legislature that there is a compelling public interest at stake beyond the economic protection of programmers. ”

    Horse[poop].

    Depending on where you live here’s licensing for nail technicians, salon stylists, interior designers (the kind that hang curtains, not the kind that knock out walls), cosmetologists, referees, and janitors. How is it in the public interest to have a licensed interior designer? Does an improperly shabby-chic kitchen have an increased chance of causing salmonella?

    Considering that legislators in Illinois made it illegal to braid hair for money without a license, I don’t think a “compelling public interest” is a requirement.

  2. (NM says)”This is where Utopian libertarianism fails, I feel. What about the “choice” of those into whose houses the incompetent, untrained pilot crashes? Whenever I’m feeling the refreshing winds of Libertarian idealism, another read of Hobbes’ Leviathan brings me back to earth.”

    (TN reply) “Then the incompetent, untrained pilot should be held liable, same as a licensed driver who causes a crash. ”

    Also held liable would be whoever rented the plane to the untrained idiot, creating a strong market incentive not to let idiots rent planes; and whose insurance carrier would no doubt have a strong opinion on whether their clients should rent planes to unlicensed idiots. An idiot who built or bought their own plane, assuming they weren’t a suicidal nutjob, would also have a strong incentive to not wreck said investment, along with their own personal person, and budget for some lessons along with the props and ailerons.

    And somehow, before the FAA was created, people still expended above average effort to keep from crashing themselves and their planes into various landscape elements, despite no regulatory apparatus being in place to discourage the practice.

    Of course, we’ve had instances where dedicated suicidal nutjobs are somehow able to get planes and crash them into buildings even though there are in fact laws, rules, and regulators all designed to keep that from happening.

    This is where Big Government Utopian statism fails. And if you ever think you’re feeling the refreshing winds of more bigger better government idealism, just pick up a newspaper!

    Cheers

  3. Pam says:

    We had another interesting case here in North Carolina maybe a year ago where a group of neighbors asked and asked for a stop sign (I think) to be installed at a dangerous intersection — with no response. One resident took the trouble to draw an extremely accurate and detailed map to help show the appropriate agency exactly what the danger was. Their response? They took him to court for practicing engineering without a license! He got off with a warning from the judge not to do it again.

    Oh my lord … for drawing a map?

  4. Stephanie says:

    I hope the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition go after Costco next.
    It occurred to me that they have at least half a dozen people giving out nutrition advice every day (in each location) with the free samples of all of the “healthy” items they sell.

    Wow. I’d pay for a ringside seat for that one. My experience is that bureaucrats like those aren’t usually real big on the “pick on someone your own size” philosophy.

    – The Older Brother

  5. wmdwfprez says:

    Is it possible that we can get an update on this gentleman that tried to tell the truth about the broken system. I for one would like to know if this innocent man ended up in prison for speaking and following the truth.

    It got enough bad publicity that the North Carolina board issued a press release saying Cooksey was in substantial compliance once he expanded this disclaimers on his site that he was not a trained or certified nutritionist, and stopped accepting fees for helping individuals. So he’s off the hook.

    So you can still exercise free speech, as long as it’s free. If you accept compensation, which would make it profitable to compete with the credentialed incompetents in the nutritional realm, they can still bring the big stick back out.

    Cooksey felt that was his best deal instead of taking on the state.

    – The Older Brother

  6. hausfrau says:

    I know I’m butchering this but i believe it was Tacitus who, observing late roman law, said something like “the more laws a nation has the more corrupt the government is”. If anyone knows the quote please feel free to give me a more accurate version.

  7. hausfrau says:

    “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.” Found it. You may also like this one…..
    “They have plundered the world, stripping naked the land in their hunger… they are driven by greed, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor… They ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretenses, and all of this they hail as the construction of empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace” ahhh Tacitus….such a timeless observer.

  8. Cherie says:

    When do citizens get to prosecute dieticians for their harmful advice? I have a friend who for the last 8 yrs has had high triglycerides. She is a fit person and works out 5 or 6 days a week. She is not overweight although she has tried for many years to lose 10 pounds gained since her last pregnancy. She has her bloodwork checked frequently by her endocrinologist because she has a problem with losing calcium. The doctor sent her to his dietician on several occassions and the dietician told her she needed to eat more carbs. Said she wasn’t getting enough and instructed her to buy Stacy Pita chips to break up and put on her salads. She already had a carb heavy / low fat diet thinking whole grains were good for her. She felt continually hungry and had to stay between 1200 to 1400 calories per day to keep from gaining weight. She had started to develop unexplicable hives.

    I told her about the mechanism of how fat is stored and had her watch Fat Head and read Good Calories, Bad Calories. Because nothing was working that she had been instructed to do by a dietician, she decided to try it. The hives are gone. She’s not hungry. She lost 5 pounds in 2 weeks. She feels great. In another 3 months she’ll redo her bloodwork and I’ll bet her triglycerides will be normal. When will she be able to go back and prosecute her dietician who led her down the wrong path for so many years?

    I think Gary Taubes and Dr. Eades, etc should be sending free books to as many fat politicians and politicians with cholesterol problems as they can. The only way change is going to occur will be in the same manner low fat became the dogma of America … you need some believing politicians to push it through. Then the guidelines will change and hopefully it will be the dieticians who start getting threatened with prosecution for giving bad advice.

    People have been approaching this from the wrong angle of trying to PROVE that low carb / high fat is better to get the gov. guidelines to change. They need to focus on the people with the right connections and power … especially the fat/sick ones. Make believers out of them with a diet that is actually sustainable rather than a semi-starvation diet and you won’t have to convince them to question the standard guidelines … they’ll do it because they personally KNOW the results from change.

    Suing dieticians for doling out fraudulent advice and causing incredible harm to individuals and society is not going to happen. They have air-tight alibis — degrees, state credentials, thousands of studies, accepted standards of care. All absolutely wrong, of course, but those credentials are “get out of jail free” cards for those promulgating the government-approved drek.

    I understand your frustration, but if the only way this changes is convincing a bunch of politicians to change, we can’t win. Even if Taubes sent all of the politicians his book, do think he could stuff each one with a few million dollars in campaign donations to help them understand the hard parts?

    The wrong angle is thinking it’s up to the politicians to fix things. That’s how we got where we are.

    The solution is you, doing what you’re doing. Make what you know available to one person at a time when you can, groups when they’ll listen, and be willing to stand up and say “BS!” when you hear it.

    Once things turn around, the pols will run to around the front of the line and tell everyone they’re leading.

    It’s ok. That’s what they do. You helped someone — have an extra piece of bacon! We’re glad you’re on our team. Smile.

    – The Older Brother (sitting in for Tom while he’s on the Low Carb Cruise)

  9. BREAKING NEWS!

    The Institute for Justice has just taken up Cooksey’s cause and filed a suit against the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition today.

    This should be fun.

    Cheers!

    Outstanding!

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