“Nobody thinks I’m a licensed dietitian, this is just general nutrition advice.”

She’s just trying to help people be healthy but Mississippi dietitians thought she posed a risk to her clients. 

Donna Harris is an occupational therapist, personal trainer, and aspiring nutrition educator with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition. Urged by her personal training clients to give them nutrition advice on how to lose weight and keep it off, Harris wrote up a program to serve her clients. 

Her program translated public nutritional advice into practical information, explaining what a good meal looks like and a healthy recipe would include, in terms of carbs and proteins. 

Harris was very clear in all her materials that she was not a licensed dietitian. She was only offering general nutrition advice and weight-loss tips for healthy people, not those with medical problems. She also served as an accountability partner to help her clients learn and maintain a healthy lifestyle. 

But, before she could even start the program, a licensed dietitian reported her to the state board. Harris received a cease and desist letter in the mail threatening 6 months in prison and/or a $1,000 fine. 

Harris originally began working as a personal trainer because her schedule as an occupational therapist didn’t allow her to spend much time with her daughter. Personal training gave her the flexibility to be more available for her family. 

As she explained, “This could be a way to contribute income, have flexibility, and do what I love.”

Adding nutrition coaching was a natural next step. Her clients wanted just such help. She received an overwhelming response online when she made it available. But the state said “no.”

Occupational Licensing 

States require many professionals to go through educational programs and training before they can work with the public. The licensing requirements can vary widely from state to state: some require hours of training to obtain a license, when some states don’t even bother to require a license for that profession. 

Mississippi requires that all who wish to become licensed dietitians to obtain either a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree from an accredited program. Then, candidates must complete a minimum of 1200 hours in an accredited dietetic internship. Finally, candidates must pass the Commission of Dietetic Registration Exam for Dietitians before they can legally work as a licensed and registered dietitian. In other words it’s a tremendous investment of time and money. 

But Harris wasn’t presenting herself as a dietitian. As she put it: “Nobody thinks I’m a licensed dietitian; this is just general nutrition advice.” 

The Mississippi Justice Institute explained, “Dietitians give medical diets to patients to treat medical conditions. But Harris isn’t trying to treat medical conditions.”

Upon receiving the cease and desist letter, a frightened Harris called the regulatory board. She was told that state regulations allow anyone to give general nutrition advice. But regulators couldn’t tell her what exactly that meant, suggesting that she was limited to pointing people to government nutritional guidelines such as the food pyramid and myplate.com. After multiple attempts to update her website and marketing materials to clearly reflect that she was not licensed and that she was just giving general advice, the state still shut her down.

Clearly, the state isn’t just trying to protect its citizens, it’s keeping people from helping others live healthier lives. 

Health coaching world is a fast-growing occupation for women. It’s a way for people to help their families, friends, communities and others. Many people need to learn how to eat healthier diets and live healthier lives. Learning simple tools such as counting calories and how to decipher nutrition language would be an important step toward a healthier life, but unnecessary government regulations are working against those like Donna Harris who are just looking to help. 

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