Vulnerable mental health patients are being put at risk by unregulated “eating disorder coaches” who do not have the necessary qualifications, experts have said.
As demand for eating disorder support soars – hospital admissions for eating disorders increased by 84% in the last five years – more people are filling gaps in NHS care.
So-called eating disorder coaches are charging as much as £1,000 a month for sessions to offer support to others despite having little or no training and expertise.
Many eating disorder coaches advertise their services through social media and ask those interested to complete an online questionnaire with medical questions about their weight and how regular their periods are.
One coach promised to help clients “banish binge eating forever”. Another said that “full recovery is possible”, noting that people will learn to live “free of guilt” around eating.
Coaches offer video calls, nutrition and exercise guidance, text support and help with shopping and meal planning. The cost for help can range from hundreds to thousands of pounds, with many clients expected to sign up for a minimum two-month period.
The Guardian has found that many coaches cite short courses, which are intended as professional development for psychologists, as a qualification to practise.
The National Centre for Eating Disorders (NCED) offers a number of professional training courses, accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS). The Guardian found a number of coaches were using these courses to claim they were qualified to offer professional services to people with eating disorders.
Agnes Ayton, chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eating disorders faculty, said she was “amazed” to see people “advertising themselves as experts after going on one course”.
“Eating disorders sit between physical and mental health so the risks associated with eating disorders can be physically debilitating and potentially fatal,” Ayton said. “I don’t know why there is not better regulation on that because there is lots of regulation for a medical professional – but therapy is the first line of treatment for eating disorders, and if it is not delivered properly, it can be harmful or misleading.”
Approached by the Guardian, the BPS said these courses are approved as professional development for psychologists, and “as learning opportunities as opposed to a qualification to practise, which always requires the grounding in psychological knowledge that comes from being a chartered psychologist or HCPC-registered practitioner psychologist”.
Deanne Jade, founder of the NCED, said when people do the course they are told they “absolutely” cannot claim to “have eating disorder expertise”.
“Especially since we do it on Zoom and half of those involved have their faces blocked out,” she added. She raised concern about people operating without having the correct background, saying: “We know someone right now who is claiming to be doing an advanced diploma in eating disorders and diversity. I have written to them and said: ‘In what respect can you claim this is an advanced diploma?’”
Prof Tony Lavender, workforce and training lead for the British Psychological Society’s division of clinical psychology, said that what people were doing was “simply fraud”.
Counselling is not a government regulated profession, which means the title of “counsellor” is not protected by law, so a person with minimal training can call themselves a counsellor.
There are two main types of regulation for counsellors. The Professional Standards Authority approve a statutory register of those who mainly work in settings such as the NHS, and if you say you’re registered with them and don’t have the right qualifications then you are committing a criminal offence. Another type of registration is PSA approved but non-statutory, including organisations such as the UK Council for Psychotherapy.
Voluntary registers are not regulated by law in the same way statutory registers are, although the Professional Standards Authority provide a level of assurance by accrediting some of these registers.
Hope Virgo, author and campaigner, said eating disorder coaches preyed on a people’s vulnerabilities. “We need to crack down on these clinics and private practice making sure it is properly regulated.”
• This article was amended on 24 March 2023 to remove a specific reference to dietitians from the text; all dietitians are regulated by the Health & Care Professions Council.