Alex Thomas, Founder of The Sports Nutrition Association On… Tackling Nutrition Misinformation

BRISBANE, Australia – Despite the increasingly mainstream acceptance and legitimacy of wellness practices around the globe, the industry has always been susceptible to the spread of misinformation. 

This is especially the case when it comes to spurious nutritional claims from unqualified and unregulated “experts” on social media. Hoping to stem this wave of misinformation is the Brisbane-based Sports Nutrition Association

An educational and governing body, it was established in 2017 to regulate personal trainers, exercise physiologists, strength coaches, exercise scientists and clinical nutritionists looking to add sports nutrition and supplementation programming to their insured scope of practice.

“The association exists to create best practice within the industry and help stamp out misinformation and dangerous advice that is so often disseminated online,” its accredited sports nutritionist and founder Alex Thomas tells Welltodo. 

“It educates, accredits and regulates the profession, while providing a vetted sports nutritionist database for the public to use when looking for qualified nutrition advice.” 

The association now operates in four continents around the world, helping clear up the wellness industry’s Wild West that has existed for too long. Here, Thomas breaks down the biggest issues plaguing the spread of nutrition misinformation online and how the SNA plans to crack down on it. 

Read More: The Positive Forces Working To Bring Credibility Back To The Wellness Industry

On the rise of misinformation…
With the rise of social media, there has been no shortage of dangerous advice spread online by coaches – and influencers – who promote habits and products that can lead to serious health conditions. Often this information is being given out by personal trainers without suitable qualifications or adequate insurance to cover nutrition.  

I founded the Sports Nutrition Association in September 2017 to tackle this issue head on. Before us, nothing existed to regulate the industry. There was the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), where I was an advisory board member, but it never had practising standards or offered a professional insurance policy for coaches. 

That is why I felt the SNA would be helpful for both coaches who own a business or work for themselves and their potential clients. The association is now the professional body responsible for establishing and standardising best practice in sports nutrition in Australia, New Zealand, the US, Asia and Europe.

On whistle blowing…
Aside from keeping tabs on social media, there is also a section on our website for people to report any major breaches. We can then investigate each matter and if we believe the breach is poor practice, it is reported to the relevant state health ombudsman and health complaints commissioners. If warranted, a cease-and-desist letter is sent. 

In recent years there has been a spate of high profile incidents where unqualified personal trainers have provided dietary advice to devastating effect – both for their client’s health and their own reputation. 

In 2017, disgraced Australian wellness blogger Belle Gibson, who falsely claimed she survived cancer by healing herself naturally and then misled consumers by lying about charitable donations, was fined $410,000 under Australian consumer law.

More recently, Adelaide PT Normal Low was permanently banned from providing dietary advice to clients after the Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner found he had falsely claimed to be a qualified dietitian. 

The commission found several of his diet plans lacked any scientific basis. One client, for example, was prescribed to drink 9.25 litres of water per day and stop all medication, which was found to be “a medically unethical, illegal and inappropriate recommendation”.

The Sports Nutrition Association
Image Credit: Alex Thomas, The Sports Nutrition Association

On further education…
Reporting malpractice is one way we’re helping crackdown on misinformation. 

However, our main focus is on providing education and a recognised certification for the industry. Not every personal trainer will have the time, money or desire to complete a full three-year nutrition course, so we have created an alternative for them. 

Our provisional accreditation course allows someone to first study and learn the subject matter, then practise in the space in a provisional capacity to ascertain if sports nutrition is a career for them. If confident they want to proceed, they can then enrol for further study to become fully accredited and registered on our database. 

We also aim to provide education for the general public on what to look for in a professional sports nutritionist, which has the double benefit of promoting the skill set and knowledge of those who have completed our course. 

On putting clients first…
Right now the SNA has one thousand members and we are growing by approximately 500 per year. We have also had over 2000+ high-risk medical referrals from the triage and screening process we have in place for our members, which I see as a very important metric. 

Our screening process enables our accredited coaches to identify if a client has any medical contraindications [a condition which means a certain medication or treatment could cause harm], high risk pathologies or if they should be referred to an allied health practitioner for further screening.

It is very important that a coach can identify when a member needs to see a more specialised professional, which is where part of the education that they need to do as an accredited member comes into play. 

On continued professional development…
Our courses generally last 4-6 months for those with no prior relevant sports nutrition education. Coaches will then be required to sit 3-5 exams and a case study assessment. They then need to agree to be compliant with our risk assessment process and complete annual professional development refreshers to keep their accreditation active. 

Our course material is updated every two years, so coaches will need to re-sit exams and provide updated case studies at these points to demonstrate they are up to speed. 

Once accredited, annual registration provides them with:

  • Continuing Professional Development 
  • Access to the full course after every new update
  • Discounts for additional learning resources and programs 
  • Registration on the SNA database
  • Access to SNA insurance (for a fee) 
  • Annual audits to ensure they remain compliant 

On global collaboration…
Sports nutrition regulation is rather fractured globally but we are in the process of working some things out with the Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register (SENR), an offshoot of the British Dietetic Association (BDA). 

We also have a relationship with the Sports Dietitians Australia (SDA) and Nutrition Australia, where we present at each other’s conferences and share educational information. 

It is still early days for the SNA, but we believe we can help clients better choose a trainer that suits their needs, knowing they have put in the work and that they have the most up to date information on sports nutrition at their fingertips.