She wanted to offer a weight loss program. Mississippi health officials shut her down.
Mississippi Clarion Ledger
Donna Harris, a personal trainer from Madison, planned to offer her first two-month weight loss program earlier this year.
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The 35-year-old who studied nutrition in college would give out basic dietary advice and recipes. She set up a website and charged $99 apiece. Dozens of people signed up.
Then came the letter from the Mississippi Department of Health. It threatened fines and jail time if she continued to discuss weight loss for money — only registered dietitians could give such advice.
“I immediately thought they misunderstood what I was doing,” Harris said.
She called the department the next day, explaining she had disclaimers on her website that said she was not a registered dietitian. She only planned to give basic advice about weight loss for healthy people. But without a license, Harris said she was told, she could only offer information such as the government-approved food pyramid.
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So Harris shut down the program and refunded participants nearly $7,000. Then she sued several members of the Mississippi State Board of Health, claiming the agency violated her constitutional right to free speech.
“Conversations about what healthy people should eat to lose weight and stay healthy are older than modernity itself,” said the lawsuit, filed Friday in federal court by Aaron Rice, director of the Mississippi Justice Institute. “This speech does not lose its constitutional protection merely because it is compensated.
“While Mississippi certainly has the authority to regulate who may claim to be licensed by the state as a dietitian,” the suit continues, “it has no legitimate authority to grant licensed dietitians a monopoly on advice about what healthy adults should buy at the grocery store.”
Harris, who has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and master’s in occupational therapy, said she has no interest in becoming a licensed dietitian, which requires 1,200 hours of supervised practice in a clinical setting before passing an exam.
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She said she only wanted to help people out who’d already requested it — and mentioned they would be willing to pay. She already had a Facebook group with hundreds of members where she gave free nutrition advice. The paid version, she said, would simply offer more personal guidance.
“They’d always come to me — what do I eat for this? Very general,” said Harris, who is a personal trainer at a gym. “And people would also say, ‘Can I pay you for more one-on-one help?'”
“Maybe it was hard for them to implement and they wanted more (guidance),” she added. “I don’t really know why, but they kept asking for more one-on-one coaching. I think a big part of exercise or diet is accountability.”
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The lawsuit says beyond violating Harris’ free speech rights, the department exceeded its “scope of authority.” The Legislature, it said, has “specifically provided” that unlicensed people can offer the same type of general information as Harris planned to if they do not label themselves dietitians.
Rice said at least one other state has updated its regulations in recent years to specify that giving healthy people general advice about weight loss is not the same as being a dietitian. He said a lawsuit over a similar situation is pending in Florida. More nutrition advice and coaching should be encouraged in Mississippi — long among the most obese states, Rice and Harris said.
“We literally have a crisis in our prisons, with riots, and people escaping, and people getting killed, because our prisons are so overcrowded, and we’re talking about ways to reduce our prison population,” Rice said. “And they’re threatening to send little, sweet Donna to prison for telling people how to lose weight.”
Mississippi Department of Health officials on Friday said they could not locate a copy of the cease-and-desist letter sent to Harris, and did not immediately have a comment on the lawsuit.
Contact Luke Ramseth at 601-961-7050 or email@example.com. Follow @lramseth on Twitter.
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