In what could be seen as the legislative version of a food fight, dieticians and nutritional specialists are squaring off over a bill that would specify who can legally advise New Jerseyans on what they should or shouldn’t eat.
The bill (A-2182/S-833) would require that anyone who works as a dietitian or nutritionist meet a series of criteria, including having a related college degree and completing an internship.
The diet dispute is a part of a national legislative battle between the two professional groups, which maintain different educational qualifications, as well as different membership standards and examinations. Certified nutrition specialists generally have graduate degrees but don’t have the same internship requirements as registered dietitians, which is an older credential.
Officials with the New Jersey Dietetic Association argue that the bill is a needed step to prevent untrained practitioners from misleading residents about their qualifications. In addition, they say, it would head off the chance that dietitians would lose funding under licensure requirements in the 2010 Affordable Care Act. The association represents the state’s registered dietitians, who make up the majority of nutrition professionals in the state.
But a smaller group that holds a separate qualification as certified nutritional specialists said the bill would exclude them from practicing and lead them to leave the state.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. said he sponsored the bill because of the growing recognition that nutritional guidance is essential in treating or preventing chronic conditions and avoiding preventable hospital stays and medication use.
“One of the concerns we’ve had is that folks have represented themselves as having skill or training in an area without having an educational background in that area,” Conaway said.
Dietetic Association lobbyist A.J. Sabath said patients should know that nutrition services that they’re receiving come from a credible source. New Jersey is one of four states that doesn’t regulate those who describe themselves as “nutritionists.”
Registered dieticians, in contrast, must be members of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“There’s a real public safety concern, because anyone can represent themselves as anything other than as a registered dietitian — because that is a protected title — and claim to provide nutrition education, counseling, medical-based therapy, life coach, whatever it may be,” Sabath said.
Registered dietician Patricia Davidson said that while all dieticians receive training to serve as nutritionists, not all nutritionists could be dietitians.
But several certified nutrition specialists said that the bill would allow registered dieticians to oversee the new licenses. They would instead like to see the state recognize their group’s educational standards and exams as an alternative.
Shelly Weinstock, a certified nutrition specialist, said that despite having a doctorate in nutritional biochemistry from MIT, she would be barred from practicing in the state without taking a 1,200-hour internship, which registered dieticians must complete.
Inna Topiler Mooney, also a certified nutrition specialist, said that the bill threatens not only her, but also her four employees and the various businesses that she recommends clients to.
The Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee released the bill on Thursday. Assemblywoman Nancy F. Munoz (R-Morris, Somerset, and Union) said she hopes the bill is amended to allow certified nutrition specialists to practice before the full Assembly votes on the measure.