“Health Club Sued Over Member's Death.”

Sound like a bad dream? This headline could become a reality for a reason you might not suspect.

It's 6:00 a.m. Monday and Jan is covering the front desk. Her greetings often turn into casual conversations with members about nutrition. Jan, who thinks of herself as a nutrition buff, has read many books and articles on the subject, and delights in passing on friendly tips. “You really should start taking zinc to boost your immune system,” she says to a member who is suffering from yet another cold.

It's 6:00 p.m. A client is discussing his chronic headaches with Paige, his massage therapist. He's thinking about going on a detox diet and asks her opinion. Paige is unfamiliar with detox diets, but she can't think of any reason why he shouldn't give it a try. “Go for it,” she replies. “It can't hurt.”

These staff members had every intention of being helpful. Yet, they unwittingly provided information that was not only inaccurate but also potentially dangerous. Scenarios like these play out in clubs across the country daily, and management may be in the dark about the gravity of potential outcomes.

The cost of employees providing nutrition-related misinformation is steep. According to the American Dietetic Association, several states have documented cases in which improper nutritional advice from an unqualified individual has resulted in harm.

While some nutrition education is within the scope of practice of fitness professionals, ethical and legal boundaries must be established. Three questions to consider include:

  1. Where are fitness staff members getting their nutrition information? Without extensive training in nutrition science, fitness staff may not know where to find reliable sources of information, or how to distinguish solid information from fads and hype. If staff members are relying on unregulated Web sites and lay magazines rather than peer-reviewed research journals, misinformation is likely being passed on.

  2. What is the depth of their nutrition training? Without extensive additional training, fitness professionals often lack the comprehensive knowledge of nutrition science, biochemistry and medical nutrition therapy needed to evaluate or interpret diets and dietary products or to explain their effects to clients. Without in-depth training, fitness staff may be making uninformed and unsafe recommendations.

  3. What is their motivation? Fitness staff may be tempted to advise clients to purchase certain nutritional products for financial gain. The dietary supplement industry is a $13.9 billion business and growing. While fitness professionals may believe in the products they recommend, selling or endorsing supplements is risky business. Staff may be unaware of interactions between dietary supplements and prescription medications, vitamins or minerals, and medical conditions. Inappropriate supplement use has been linked to stroke, heart attack and sudden death. Even vitamin or mineral misuse can lead to complications, including hemorrhage, reduced immune function and nerve damage. If staffs rely on supplement manufacturers for information rather than on solid resources, they could be putting clients, themselves, and the club at risk.

Because of these concerns, 41 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to prevent non-sanctioned practitioners from providing nutrition counseling. States have taken the lead, and clubs should follow. Employing a staff dietitian can set a precedence at your club. As the “go to” resource for nutrition-related matters, a staff-registered dietician (RD) fills a critical niche. Members want and need accurate, timely and safe information about nutrition and nutritional products. By deferring questions to the dietitian, the staff is no longer put into the precarious position of working beyond their scope of practice, thus eliminating the possibilities of harm and liability issues for clubs. Jan at the front desk can check out what she reads with the RD before passing information on to members. Paige can refer her clients to the RD for individualized expert advice. Solving the case of the missing dietitian can protect your staff, your members, your club and your reputation.

Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., M.A., R.D., L.D./N., is a registered dietitian and co-author of the book, “Your Diet is Driving Me Crazy.” She is a media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, an adjunct professor at the University of South Florida, and maintains a consulting practice in Tampa, FL. Cynthia can be reached at 813-679-6450 or at SassConsulting.com.

Qualifications of an RD

In order to be recognized as a qualified dietitian in most states, a person must possess a baccalaureate or higher degree in nutritional sciences from an accredited college or university, satisfactorily complete a program of supervised clinical experience approved by the Commission on Dietetic Accreditation of the American Dietetic Association, pass a national credentialing examination and maintain continuing education.