Beware the self-appointed expert

Paleo poster boy Pete Evans has been in the news again in Australia, and he’s really getting some criticism this time.

Pete has stepped well outside the food realm and has made some claims about sunscreen. He doesn’t use it, he says, even though he’s outside every day, because it contains “poisonous chemicals”. Pete prefers to use the natural protection of his year-round tan to protect him from the ravages of the sun and potential skin cancer.

Most of you will realise that this is ridiculous and potentially dangerous (for expert views on sunscreen and the chemicals in it, this is a good summary. It’s especially dangerous advice in a part of the world with shockingly high rates of skin cancer. And even some of Paleo Pete’s fans have had a hard time with this particular piece of advice from him.

But there’s a bigger issue here. What this particular mini-controversy highlights is in the age of social media, anyone can portray themselves as an expert, and can become, for better or worse, influential.

That’s fine – and harmless, and maybe even fun – when it involves decorating tips or ‘life hacks’ to make your phone charge last longer. But when it comes to things relating to our health, we ignore true experts at our peril.

Just because I’ve been on a lot of planes doesn’t mean I know how to fly one. Having been in hospital doesn’t give me the skills to dispense medical advice and do surgery. And just because we all eat doesn’t mean we are all nutrition experts.

Much of the online nutrition hype – including that generated by Pete Evans – is in the vein of “it worked for me”. I think reading someone’s personal story; seeing how they’ve improved their health and the things that have helped them along can be inspiring and interesting. But it’s a big, and some would say irresponsible, step, to go from that to “now I’m giving the advice, and this is the way YOU should all eat”.

True nutrition experts would never say that. That’s because they know that different individuals need different food and nutrition. Different people have different lifestyles, personalities, family situations and health issues. And true nutrition experts, degree-qualified dietitians and nutritionists, know that because they are trained in the science of nutrition. They spend years studying the science, then they spend years in clinical practice in hospitals or other settings. To be registered they must have a certain amount of professional experience and competency, and to stay registered they have to keep studying and developing their skills and knowledge. And they are accountable in everything they do to professional bodies who keep track of them (unlike the self-appointed experts, who are accountable to no-one).

Just as I want the person flying my plane or performing my surgery to be capable to a high, monitored standard, I want my nutrition advice from someone who’s required to be current and competent. We only use these kinds of nutrition experts at Healthy Food Guide. We trust their advice, and I’d encourage you to look for these kinds of experts, too, whether you’re in a clinic or on Facebook. Your health is too important to entrust to someone who doesn’t understand or ‘believe in’ science. Or someone who doesn’t wear sunscreen.


First published: Jul 2016

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