When raw gurus give dangerous advice

Bananas - landscape

After its recent undercover investigation of 15 nutritional therapists, the consumer group Which? concluded that some of the advice given “could seriously harm patients’ health”.

In brief, Which? sent researchers feigning a range of health problems to the therapists, and the researchers secretly recorded the sessions.

After listening to the recordings, Which’s panel of experts evaluated six of the consultations as “dangerous fails”, eight as “fails”, and just one as a “borderline pass”.

As a result of the investigation, Which? is calling for tighter regulation of nutritional therapists.

It is relevant, however, that Which’s panel of three experts was made up of two (David Colquhoun and Catherine Collins) who are vocally opposed to all things alternative, and a GP – making this not the most unbiased panel.

As Which? has not named the therapists in question nor released the recordings, it is impossible for the rest of us to comment on the specifics behind the panel’s decisions.

But to comment in general terms, the two things that come to mind are:

(a) Thousands of UK patients die every year due to medical doctors failing to diagnose life-threatening conditions, overprescribing drugs or making other mistakes, and tens of thousands more are seriously harmed.

(b) I’ve heard a lot worse from the world of alternative nutrition advice than the examples Which? gave in its report, and I do agree the field should be more tightly regulated.

That may surprise you.

But I think you’d feel the same if you’d seen and heard the things I was privy to during six years as editor of a holistic health magazine.

I could tell you about the raw guru – let’s call him “Guru A” – who “treated” a patient suffering from M.E. and multiple diagnosed nutrient deficiencies with a diet of just bananas.

She was (predictably) even more drained than usual for the fortnight she was on it. In fact she was practically bed-bound – something she hadn’t been for years. When told, Guru A was unconcerned: “Carry on, it’s just detox, that shows it’s working”.

Needless to say, her M.E. was not cured – on the contrary, it took her months to feel as “well” as she did before this episode.

This is definitely not a typical experience – many raw gurus and coaches are extremely responsible in the recommendations they make – but it’s not an isolated one, either.

I’ve heard similar stories too many times over the years.

I could tell you about someone else who rang me having been bed-bound with M.E. and other health challenges for over 10 years. For a long time she’d been eating nothing but fruit, half an avocado a day and a little green powder, on the advice of someone we’ll call Raw Guru B.

But she was only getting sicker so she consulted Raw Guru C. The advice: “Carry on with that diet, only cut out the avocado and green powder. Those are the problem.”

When she rang me she was several weeks into this fruit-only diet, and predictably, her health had deteriorated further.

I could tell you about the reader who had multiple health challenges and whose weight was teetering just above five stone after several years on a very spartan raw vegan diet.

She booked a consultation with Raw Guru D and was told she was eating too much, and to eat less and cut further foods out of her diet.

You’ll notice I’m not naming names. If you think you know who I’m talking about, you probably don’t, as I’ve taken care to conceal identities. I also choose to assume that the gurus in question were acting with good intentions when they made these recommendations.

But good intentions don’t change the fact the advice is dangerous.

It is true that in many cases of ill health a cleansing diet would be one good step (of several) towards getting better.

But if you have already spent years on a very cleansing diet – as the three patients above had – it’s highly unlikely that more detox is what you need.

A little-known fact: detoxification burns through certain essential nutrients at a rate of knots. So does stress. So if you are either over-detoxed or over-stressed, the last thing you need is to be put on a super-restrictive diet that is missing key essential nutrients, so guaranteed to further deplete your nutrient reserves.

A strict raw vegan diet is deficient in the essential vitamins B12 and D, and the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA. The more restrictive it is, the more likely it is to also leave you dangerously short of B vitamins, magnesium (and any detoxifying diet massively increases our need for this mineral), zinc, choline, and other essential nutrients.

This is why it is now widely recognised in the field that raising children 100% raw vegan is hard to do right and therefore a high-risk endeavour, and that a high-raw diet is a safer bet.

Sadly, I could also tell you about raw gurus who claim they are raising their children 100% raw when they’re not; selling advice on how to raise children raw when they don’t know how to because they haven’t done it themselves.

Scary, isn’t it?

I could tell you that both myself and a close friend – a fellow holistic health junkie – have, in our time, accidentally visited “herbalists” we assumed were qualified. Silly us for thinking that because they were out there formulating, prescribing and selling herbal medicines, they must be.

Don’t do as we did and assume – it’s necessary to check.

My friend’s experience was a few years before mine. She ended up in hospital, delirious and coughing up blood, after the “herbalist” she consulted prescribed her double the safe dose for a patient of her size.

I got off lightly with my stomach blowing up to “seven months pregnant” in as many days, then quickly subsiding when I followed this friend’s advice to stop taking the herbs.

So what’s my point?

If you’re seeing a herbalist make sure they’re qualified. And if it’s nutritional advice you’re after, it depends on your situation.

If you’re in good health and just looking to lose some weight, have more energy, or get advice on upgrading your diet, there are many coaches out there who don’t have official qualifications in nutrition, yet are highly knowledgeable and can be safely consulted about any of the above.

But if you have a serious health challenge you’re looking to address with nutrition, you need to visit a nutritional therapist who is (a) qualified, (b) registered with a recognised body, and (c) able to run the medical tests that will pinpoint what the problem is.

Even then it can be hard to find a really good one – as Which’s investigation highlights – but you’re a lot more likely to get the results you’re looking for if you insist on the above credentials.


  • How long before one of these raw “nutritionists” is sued?

    While they’re out there giving dangerous advice do they know that in 2008 a qualified nutritional therapist was sued for allegedly causing brain damage in a patient she put on a low-sodium diet and six pints of water a day (which is 3.4 litres) (so advice that is a lot more conservative than the examples in your article.)

    According to the media reports like this one the diet caused the brain damage, which is why the patient received damages of over £800,000.


    So I hope the banana-wielding, anorexia-cheering raw gurus you’ve referred to here have insurance, but at the same time doubt it.

    View Comment
  • So do I, David. But as far as I know a practitioner can only get insurance if they are at least qualified and possibly also a member of an accredited body. That case should be a warning to anyone practising nutrition in an alternative way, and especially those whose advice is not responsible nor backed up by any credible science.

    View Comment
  • Well done Sarah, at last someone has had the courage to stand up and speak out about this! I too have heard horrendous stories about people put on crazy restrictive raw diets and becoming so ill that they end up in hospital. Surely when these so called experts give nutritional advice to anyone they should consider, age, previous history of medication and operations which they have had, but most just don’t. I truly believe this is an accident waiting to happen, so again reinforcing your advice do a complete search on these self made gurus before like me you end up with no improvement and even less bank balance.

    I have at last found a practitioner who is getting excellent results using tests you can’t argue with at a totally realistic price, she gives you time and you come away feeling totally uplifted and certainly not ripped off, so they are out there, the trouble is it can take such a long time to find a good one.

    Sarah keep on doing what you do so well, it’s so good to have someone in the health movement you can totally trust.

    View Comment
  • Excellent article… Took me two years to come to this conclusion. Being a firey Leo I really did radiate for a couple of years on very high fruit diet.. I was convinced it was the best ever, got deeply into natural hygiene AND the raw food elite who raved about the high fruit!!! After two years, I took a huge, heavy and depleting slump!! and it took me a good few months to find body harmony and balance again. WELL DONE for sharing. xx Ruthie

    View Comment
  • Good article Sarah.

    Did you read the copy of Raw Food Controversies we sent you?

    Frederic has been blowing the whistle on bad health advice in the raw food movement since 2002.

    A lot of the people who are interested in spreading health information mean well but just are not qualified and promote their dogmas too enthusiastically.

    We’re pretty put off by the 100% strict raw food idealism and don’t recommend it to the majority of people or follow it ourselves. High raw is better and has many more advantages for us.

    View Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *