A Madison personal trainer was threatened with fines, jail time for offering a weight-loss program without a dietitian’s license.

Weight-loss coaches are now free to offer their services in Mississippi without a government-issued license. This comes after a lawsuit filed by the Mississippi Justice Institute in 2020 following the threatening of a personal trainer in Madison by the State Department of Health.

Donna Harris, a personal trainer from Madison, was threatened with fines and jail time for offering a weight-loss program to paying customers without a dietitian’s license. She was offering a two-month weight loss program after many of the participants in her group fitness classes asked her to.

In 34 other states, no dietitian’s license is required for similar weight-loss programs.

Harris set up a website and planned to offer basic dietary advice, recipes, and encouragement to her customers. Some 70 participants signed up immediately, paying $99 each.

But then, Harris received a cease-and-desist letter from the Mississippi State Department of Health threatening her with up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, criminal charges, and a civil suit if she continued to discuss weight-loss strategies for money. The department said only registered dieticians could do that.

Harris, who has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and master’s in occupational therapy, does not want to become a licensed dietitian, a profession that treats medical conditions through diet and requires 1,200 hours of supervised clinical practice, passing an exam, and paying a $300 fee. In 2024, a bachelor’s degree will no longer suffice for a Mississippi license, so Harris would have to get another graduate degree.

Instead, Harris intended to help people who wanted to slim down but were otherwise healthy. She had already started a Facebook group with hundreds of members where she gave free weight-loss advice. Her paid program would simply provide more one-on-one coaching to those who were interested.

Harris called the department and explained that she did not plan to treat medical conditions and had disclaimers on her website that she was not a registered dietician. But she was told that, without a license, she could only point people to government-approved information such as the food pyramid.

Harris shut down her weight-loss program and refunded her customers. Then she sued the department for violating her constitutional right to free speech with the help of the Mississippi Justice Institute (MJI).

The lawsuit argued that the department’s interpretation of the Mississippi Dietetics Practice Act amounted to government censorship of speech on the age-old topic of weight loss.

In response to the lawsuit, the Mississippi State Department of Health has now amended its regulations to allow unlicensed people to offer non-medical weight-loss advice as long as they do not claim to be a dietitian. The new regulation will go into effect on May 16, 2022.

“Allowing people to speak freely about general health and nutrition is a no-brainer, especially in a state like ours that struggles with obesity,” said Aaron Rice, the director of MJI. “The government should not be able to give any group a monopoly on speech about a common, everyday topic, like what food we should buy at the grocery store if we want to stay healthy or drop a few pounds. This new regulation will increase Mississippians’ access to important information about their health, while allowing more Mississippians to use their skills and knowledge to earn an honest living and provide for their families.”

Under a newly enacted regulation adopted by the Mississippi State Department of Health, any person can provide weight-loss advice for compensation so long as they do not attempt to treat a medical condition or hold themselves out as a licensed dietician.

“I am thrilled that this law has finally been changed, not just for me, but so that other people who are knowledgeable about nutrition can share that information,” said Harris. “Being told I couldn’t do that and made to feel like I was some sort of criminal for trying to, was terrible. I can’t wait to start my own weight-loss program again and to witness the results and joy that I can help my customers achieve.”