The world of nutrition can be pretty confusing, even to people who study it for a living. 

The health and wellness industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and it has its own share of scammers and grifters selling both dreams and harmful approaches to health.

While there is some concerning information floating around out there, there are also so many quality resources for nutrition information – more on that at the end of this post. 

The point of this article is so encourage you to keep your guard up when stepping into the world of health, nutrition, and fitness so that you can feel and be empowered to make the most evidence-based and informed decision for you.

As a side note, not all of the following absolutely means something is a scam, however it might be a smart thing to investigate a little further before jumping in.

And just like we always promote, context is important.

Sound good? Alright, let’s jump on in!

Signs of Red Flags:

1. Use of words like “miracle”, “scientific breakthrough”, & “revolutionary”

Although we don’t know everything in nutrition (nutrition research is an ongoing and growing field of research), we do know health foundations and what ‘works’ in terms of promoting health and medical nutrition therapy. 

If something truly is a miracle, revolutionary, or huge breakthrough, trust that you will hear about it from a wide variety of reputable sources.

2. Fear-based marketing; promoting ‘Fear of Missing Out’

Fear-based marketing is based on producing anxiety in potential customers in order to sell the answer to their worries and problems. 

A campaign using fear-based marketing to encourage people to use seat belts? Generally considered a good thing. 

A campaign using fear-based marketing to encourage people to cut out all sugar from their diet to be “healthy”? Not evidence-based and potentially harmful for one’s relationship with food.

3. Whole groups of food cut out

Unless there is a medical nutrition therapy need for, or out of preference, exclusion of specific foods, we don’t need to exclude food groups to support health.

While there is can be a difference in the variety and quality of nutrients we can get from various foods, there is space for all foods in a healthy diet. 

Also, cutting out whole groups of food isn’t very sustainable for most – and the goal is to be able to implement actions and habits for long-term.

4. Requires a specific supplement(s) to do the program

Similar to the first point, we know what to do to support health…and that doesn’t include speciality supplements.

There may be specific supplements you need – but that is an individual need. And if there is an individual need, a great question to ask is if you can get the recommended supplement without purchasing through the program leader(s). It’s not necessarily a bad thing for providers to make some additional income with affiliations, but if they are adamant in purchasing through their link or affiliate code, consider doing more investigation if you really do need it.

5. Replaces solid foods with teas or low calorie shakes

This is another one that requires some nuance. Sometimes liquid meals are the best option for people to get in energy (i.e. calories). 

Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Those going through chemotherapy
  • Those on certain medications that reduce hunger as a side effect
  • Those who are dealing with specific digestive health issues that require consuming liquid calories to meet overall calorie goals
  • Those who may not feel like consuming solid food after a heavy workout, but know they need nourishment

While liquid meals are essential for some, it’s not generally needed for those who can consume enough solid foods to meet calorie and nutrients needs. 

Many diets promote the use of liquid meal replacement shakes as they are typically very low in calories (compared to solid meals), and therefore promote quick weight loss. The problem is that some of these meal replacement shakes are not only too low in calories, but too low in macronutrients (typically carbs and fat) for a balanced meal. And once people get off the program and stop using those meal replacement shakes, any lost weight typically comes back.

6. Relies on before & after pics (they are usually cherry-picked)

This is a huge one!

  • Health is a mix of physical, mental, social, and emotional well-being. Before and after pics really tell us nothing about the true health of the person (labs, energy, sleep habits, fitness level, etc.).
  • They can further promote the internalized societal belief that the ideal body should be slim and “fit”, regardless of HOW they got there and how truly healthy those actions were. 
  • They promote the idea that the “after” body is better than the before one, or that one shouldn’t be happy in a body similar to the “before” one, or should want to change it.
  • They are easily manipulated by posture, tan, hydration level, lighting, clothing, etc. Many people contour abs with makeup (surprisingly common tactic for social media).
  • They promote the idea that body change is more important than habits and actions. 
  • When tied to a program or product, they inherently tell a story of “do what I did to achieve this look”, when in reality, you can eat and exercise in the exact same way as someone else and end up still looking different, have a different body fat percentage, muscle mass, etc.
  • People often will get praise for weight loss before and after pics. This can mess with someones mental health when no longer at the body size where they were getting that praise. And in a similar way, people will sometimes comment on someone’s body along the lines of “you look so good”, when is reality, that person could not be eating because of stress, depression, illness, etc. Hearing that they “look good” when they really aren’t able to nourish well is harmful. 
  • Lastly, these are typically cherry-picked from a variety of clients, rather than the average outcome.

7. Promotes products and programs for a life-long client

Truly empowering programs should have a goal of equipping clients with the tools they’ll need to learn and continue practicing actions that promote and support whole health. 

While there may be some flexibility in time-lines, the coach’s goal is to get the client going on their own by giving them the skills and tools needed for long-term success around having a healthy relationship with food, and improved health and performance in and outside the gym. Check-ins here and there after a more structured timeline makes complete sense, but if a program is based on keeping you as a client forever, consider investigating why. 

8. Sold in multi-level marketing structure by “coaches” who just pay a fee to sell

Multi-level marketing has one main goal: to recruit as many distributors as they can. If that wasn’t their main goal, team building wouldn’t be required to making it to the top levels of companies. 

When the goal is to recruit as many distributors as you can, truly helping people, and seeing people as individuals with individual needs, goes out the window. 

The truth is that not everyone will benefit or even need the same product and programs – but MLMs typically try to sell their products to everyone, often leaving distributors feeling desperate in making health claims in order to reach more people. 

So…who can you trust?

There are so many quality registered dietitian, nutrition coaches, and other health professionals out there. When searching for a fit for you, consider the following:

  • Those that use evidence-based information, rather than promises of deeply held secrets that ‘others aren’t telling you’.
  • Those that don’t base their marketing off fear.
  • Those that take don’t eliminate unnecessary groups of food; think about what this will be like long-term.
  • Those that don’t make you purchase specific supplements (excluding ones needed for medical nutrition therapy purposes, typically provided by a licensed health professional).
  • Those that promote solid food over meal replacement shakes (unless needed for a specific reason).
  • Those that don’t try to sell based off before and after pics. Remember, those aren’t everyone’s results.
  • Those that don’t have a lifelong payment requirement to stay healthy.
  • Those that aren’t part of MLM.

Do you have any other red flags you look for when investigating health programs and products? Let me know below!