When helping people eat healthier is against the law
When Heather Kokesch Del Castillo’s husband, an Air Force serviceman, was transferred from California to Florida, she planned to continue her successful business as a health coach and CrossFit trainer. But last year, Florida Department of Health officials conducted a sting operation on Del Castillo’s business, using an undercover “client” to solicit dietary advice from her. In Florida, it is illegal for anyone other than a licensed dietitian to provide dietary advice in exchange for money, and Del Castillo was assessed a $750 fine for unwittingly violating this provision.
Del Castillo eventually retained the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm, to sue the state over its dietitian licensing law. In the meantime, she’s been forced to close her business. This past session, the Florida Legislature considered a bill to fix the state’s nutritional licensing regime, but unfortunately state lawmakers failed to follow through.
While at first blush it may seem reasonable to require those providing health and nutritional advice to obtain a license, the reality is much more complex. Many nondietitians have good reasons to provide both formal and informal diet advice to clients. For instance, physical trainers and health coaches will often advise their clients on how to eat healthier.
It’s far from clear that requiring licensure for dietary advice produces healthier or safer outcomes, but licensing makes even less sense for non-dietitians such as health coaches and trainers. For one, the costs can be prohibitively high. To obtain a dietitian license in Florida, one has to complete a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, partake in 900 hours of supervised practice, pass an exam and pay over $300 in fees. Even if trainers and health coaches clear all these hurdles, many do not want to become dietitians or nutritionists because they are uncomfortable with some of the prevailing dietary guidelines in those fields. As one example, a dietitian in Minnesota recently gave up her dietitian license after repeatedly clashing with the state licensing board over its preferred diet recommendations.
By limiting diet advice only to licensed dietitians, Florida is silencing people like Del Castillo. In addition to the obvious First Amendment problems this raises — the grounds on which Del Castillo is currently challenging the law — it also lacks practical sense. Del Castillo has gone to great lengths to clarify that she is not a licensed dietitian. This means no one is being defrauded or hoodwinked when they seek diet advice from her — they are simply making a conscious decision to lead healthier lives as they see fit.
The Florida legislature considered legislation that would have fixed this problem by creating an exemption for health coaches, trainers and other nondietitians who provide diet advice. The bill, HB 1047, would have amended the law to clarify that it is legal for any individual to provide “information, recommendations, or advice concerning nutrition” so long as the individual “does not represent himself or herself” as a licensed dietitian or nutritionist. This would have converted Florida from what’s known as an “exclusive scope of practice” state to a “title protection” state when it comes to nutrition counseling.
Unsurprisingly, dietitian and nutritionist groups pushed back, invoking a parade of horribles about how unlicensed dietary advice poses a severe threat to the health of Floridians. But it’s hard to accept such concerns at face value, since the reform would still explicitly forbid nondietitians from holding themselves out as licensed professionals. It’s also worth noting that throughout history people have received diet advice from friends and family without endangering themselves or needing government approval. Likewise, numerous states do not have nutritional licensing laws and there’s no evidence that residents in these states are facing enhanced risks to their health and safety.
The reality is that licensed dietitians are mostly trying to protect their own turf: If no one but licensed dietitians are allowed to tell you how to eat healthier, then that means more money for those who are already licensed. This dynamic plays out across various industries all the time — occupational licensing laws are frequently used by incumbent professionals to block new competitors from entering a certain field.
The reform would have struck a reasonable compromise, and Florida lawmakers should pursue it again in future sessions. All Floridians deserve the chance to lead healthy lives. It’s time the government let them do so on their own terms.
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