Year after year, Missouri scores among the worst states in America when it comes to the health of its citizens. It currently ranks as the tenth-most obese state, with nearly one-third of Missouri adults qualifying as obese. It has also continued its decade-long slide—now down to the bottom 10—in the United Health Foundation’s annual health rankings of each state.
It therefore may come as a surprise to Missourians that their state also has some of the strictest nutritional laws in the country, given that many people would expect strict standards to lead to better health outcomes. The reality, however, is the opposite. Missouri’s legal regime currently prevents many qualified health professionals, such as health coaches and personal trainers, from providing commonsense and critical nutritional advice to clients and customers that want to eat healthier. Missouri lawmakers recently considered legislation to fix this counterproductive system, but unfortunately special interest priorities appear to have stopped any progress.
Under current state law, only licensed dietitians can provide nutritional assessments and counseling to paying customers. While the concept of professional licenses may seem like a helpful way to ensure safe diet advice, it actually works instead to lock out many qualified professionals from advising clients on how to eat healthier and live better.
In truth, many types of health professionals have good reasons to provide diet advice to clients. For example, a personal trainer or a health coach may want to tell a client to eat more veggies and less carbs, an action which is currently illegal in Missouri. Even lifestyle bloggers could potentially find themselves ensnared in Missouri’s law, depending if on they are dispensing individualized advice.
The result of these restrictions is that many health professionals are barred from helping their clients, which means Missourians are barred from obtaining the information and help they need to make healthier decisions. Oftentimes individuals are not able to afford working with multiple professionals at one time—such as both a personal trainer and a licensed dietitian—or they simply prefer to work with a professional they already know. In other situations, people may choose health coaches that specialize in certain types of diets that work best for them.
Because of how these restrictions hurt well-meaning Missourians, lawmakers considered legislation that would have allowed non-licensed professionals to provide diet advice, so long as they did not claim to be a dietitian—meaning that licensed dietitians could still maintain their licensing system, but others would at least be free to provide nutritional advice.
Unfortunately, rather than embracing common-sense reforms like this, licensed dietitians have opposed them in many states. Dressing up their concerns in warnings about consumer safety, licensed dietitian groups are quick to invoke images of non-licensed individuals dispensing quack diet advice to uninformed clients. The problem with this argument is that the data utterly fails to back it up.
Dozens of states allow non-dietitians to provide nutritional advice, and there has been no rise in negative health outcomes in any of these states. In fact, there has yet to be a single complaint about bad results from non-licensed nutritional advice in Missouri or anywhere else. This means that rather than genuine health and safety concerns, licensed dietitians are mostly just worried about protecting their monopoly status as the only group that can provide nutritional services in states like Missouri.
The ultimate losers from this short-sighted protectionism are everyday Missourians trying to eat better. This makes the need for future reform all the more pressing.