How to start up a nutritional therapy business

If you're qualified to advise people on what to eat to improve their health, setting up as a nutritional therapist might be the right option. Our guide gives you the essentials you need for starting up and running your own nutritional therapy business.

Research your target market

Estimating demand

It's very important to find out whether there is enough local demand for your proposed nutritional therapy practice. In recent years, awareness of and demand for all complementary therapies, including nutritional therapy, has increased but nevertheless it's important to be aware of the level of competition that you are likely to face. Your competitors will include:

  • other nutritional therapy practices. These will be your most direct form of competition as they offer basically the same service as you do
  • health shops, which typically stock a wide variety of supplements, vitamins and so on. Although it is likely that you will work closely with health food shops - in that your patients may buy the supplements you recommend from the health shop if you don't sell them yourself - you may find that they also become your competitors as patients may choose to self-diagnose or approach the health shop proprietor for advice
  • medical practitioners that provide dietary advice to patients
  • dieticians. Although the service provided by dieticians is different to that provided by nutritional therapists, there are enough similarities to make them indirect competitors
  • other complementary and alternative therapists that offer different types of treatment for the same range of conditions that nutritional therapy can help. For example, patients might visit an acupuncturist, a homeopath or a herbalist for help with overcoming eczema instead of consulting a nutritional therapist

To find out how many nutritional therapists are currently practising in your area you could:

  • look on Yell.com or similar directory
  • look on the websites of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT), the Federation of Holistic Therapists (FHT), the Wholistic Nutritional Medicine Society and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) which all have a facility that enables the user to search for a therapist by region. There is a similar Practitioner Search tool on the Institute for Complementary and Natural Medicine (ICNM) website

It is a good idea to have a look at existing nutritional therapy practices to establish:

  • what qualifications and training the therapist has. At present anyone can set up as a nutritional therapist without any formal qualifications or statutory registration. However, if you hold a recognised qualification and are registered on a voluntary basis with the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council - then you will be able to reassure the public that you are a competent practitioner
  • the type of conditions that they treat
  • the range of tests they offer
  • how much they charge
  • whether the consulting rooms are hygienic and smart
  • what other therapies the practice offers, if any
  • whether they offer retail sales of food supplements and vitamins

Working alongside GPs and other health professionals

The use of complementary and alternative medicine, including nutritional therapy, has increased considerably in recent years and many GPs are prepared to refer patients to nutritional therapists for treatment if they feel it would help them or if the patient requests it. You may consider approaching local GPs in your area or your local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) (or equivalent) to see if there would be opportunities for you to provide nutritional therapy to patients who would be funded the NHS. If not, GPs might still be prepared to refer patients to you but the patients would then pay for the treatment themselves or reclaim the cost from their private healthcare plan provider.

You may also form mutually beneficial relationships with other complementary and alternative therapists.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Establish your patient profile

Your market

Unless you specialise in a particular area (such as infertility in women) it is likely that you will see a broad range of patients of all age groups and of both sexes. According to the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) the typical patient priorities in consultations with nutritional therapists include a desire to achieve:

  • optimum energy levels
  • healthy blood sugar balance
  • emotional and psychological wellbeing
  • optimum gastrointestinal health
  • tolerance to a broad range of foods

It's possible that a small number of your patients will be referred by GPs and have their fees paid by the NHS but the great majority, if not all, will be paying for their treatment themselves or will have it reimbursed under their private healthcare plan.

Consultations

Generally, the process involves you giving an initial consultation at which you will ask the patient about their current health problems, medical history, diet and lifestyle. You might carry out a body composition analysis to determine the patient's BMI and other ratios. From this information, and from any laboratory tests that you think are necessary, you will produce a personalised programme for the patient that will include information on diet, lifestyle and nutritional supplements. It is usual to recommend that the patient books a follow-up appointment so that you can assess how they are progressing. Consultations normally last for between 30 and 60 minutes.

For a successful consultation you'll need to:

  • empathise with your clients
  • listen and to communicate complicated information
  • be a problem solver, but also to recognise when to refer the client to another medical practitioner
  • organise you time so your clients are not rushed but don't exceed their appointment slot

You may be prepared to make home visits, especially if your patients have difficulty in getting to your consulting rooms. It might be worth offering evening and weekend sessions to appeal to full-time workers.

Other therapies

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) covers a large number of different therapies, which work holistically by balancing a patient's physical, emotional and spiritual state. The most established disciplines are acupuncture, herbalism, homeopathy, chiropractic and osteopathy. You might decide to offer several therapies in addition to nutritional therapy - you may have the training and expertise to offer these yourself or you may engage the services of other practitioners. A brief description of some other CAM therapies is included below:

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy uses essential oils extracted from plants to treat a range of conditions such as stress, depression, hypertension, rheumatism, muscular strains, asthma and so on. There are over 400 different oils and the therapist will decide on which are the most appropriate to use for the client's individual complaint. Generally three or four oils are selected and, because they are very potent, only a few drops are used, diluted in a carrier oil such as jojoba, almond or grape seed oil. Therapy involves massaging the client with the oils, which is the most common method, but they can also be inhaled or applied as a cold compress. Aromatherapy should not be used on pregnant or breast feeding women or people with epilepsy.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture originated in China some 3,000 years ago and involves inserting very fine stainless steel needles into particular points on the body to stimulate nerve impulses. Traditional Chinese medicine is based on the concept of vital energy (or qi which flows around the body along invisible channels (or meridians). Well being is achieved by regulating the flow of energy and correcting any imbalances by inserting the needles at specific points on the body.

Western acupuncture uses the same needling techniques but affects nerve impulses and the central nervous system. Acupuncture is used to treat a wide range of ailments and conditions, including back and neck pain, osteo-arthritis, allergies, pain relief and smoking cessation.

Osteopathy

Osteopathy is a system of diagnosis and treatment, primarily for musculo-skeletal problems. Treatment consists of manipulation to correct the underlying causes of the pain - this may include massage, stretching and other exercises.

Chiropractic

Chiropractic treats musculo-skeletal disorders by manipulating and massaging the muscles, joints and ligaments of the body to put right any dysfunction of the spine and pelvis.

Herbal medicine

Herbal medicine uses remedies produced from plants to both treat complaints and to maintain good health.

Homeopathy

Homeopathic treatment uses very small doses of substances that, if taken in high doses by a healthy person, would produce the symptoms that the remedies are designed to treat. It is based on treating "like with like".

Other complementary therapies include:

  • hypnotherapy
  • Alexander technique
  • reflexology
  • Shiatsu massage
  • yoga
  • healing
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) which includes acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage and the exercise technique called Qigong
  • naturopathy
  • meditation

and many others.

Pricing policy

Getting your fees right is very important. For your practice to be viable your fees must cover all of your operating costs, including your own drawings. Don't forget to keep a note of your travelling expenses if you make home visits - its easy to overlook the cost of providing this type of service.

Typical fees might be somewhere in the region of the following:

  • initial 60 - 90 minute consultation - £60 - £150
  • 30 - 45 minute follow-up consultation - £45 - £120
  • home visit - an additional charge is usually made, depending on the distances involved

The cost of any lab tests may be charged in addition to the consultation fee. You may decide to sell dietary supplements to your patients, including vitamins and minerals. These are likely to cost the patient between £10 and £25 per week.

Some nutritional therapists charge a cancellation fee if a patient fails to turn up for an appointment without having informed them in good time.

Think about whether you will offer any discounts - for example to under-18s, students or the elderly. You might decide to offer double appointments for couples having a fertility nutrition consultation - this would typically be less than twice your single consultation fee. You might decide to offer a package deal - for example the initial consultation plus two follow-up consultations for around £120 - £150.

As part of your market research you could check out the fees charged by existing nutritional therapists - you will need to make sure that your fees are more or less in line with theirs. Many nutritional therapists include details of their fees on their website - this will help you to get a range of different charges. Fees vary a great deal depending on which part of the country you will be practising in. In London it would not be unusual for fees to be more than half as much again as fees elsewhere in the country.

If you plan to regularly offer a discount from your normal tariff you should keep comprehensive details of this - it will be helpful if HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) ever investigates your business.

It may take some time to build up your practice so that it provides you with enough to live on. Even when your practice is well established there are likely to be busy and less busy times. Some practitioners find that it may not be possible to rely solely on their income from consultations and so expand their interests to other fields, possibly alternative forms of complementary therapies.

Promote your business

It's vital to give some thought to how your potential patients will know about your nutritional therapy practice. This is particularly important if you are planning to work from home and won't be visible to passers-by. Ideally you will have consulting rooms in a complementary medicine centre where you will benefit from being noticed by patients who are visiting other therapists.

There are a number of things you can do to promote your practice:

  • launch your own website, giving details of your services, your fees and how nutritional therapy can help people
  • contact GPs, hospices and hospitals to see if there are opportunities to offer nutritional therapy to their patients
  • leave promotional leaflets with as many outlets as possible such as sports centres, pharmacies, health clubs and so on
  • sell gift vouchers that clients can give as presents - these will bring new customers to you
  • write articles on the benefits of nutritional therapy for your local newspaper. You could offer attractive discounts to readers who quote the article when booking an appointment
  • become a member of a professional association and benefit from inclusion in an online Directory that members of the public can search
  • consider renting one of the Neal's Yard Therapy Rooms for a few hours a week. You'll be working alongside other therapists and will benefit from a steady flow of customers visiting the shop. There are over 40 therapy rooms available to rent around the UK
  • use social media like Facebook or Twitter to tell potential patients about your practice
  • start a nutrition blog to share healthy recipes, food safety information, book reviews and so on

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing nutritional therapy business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that the products, customers, regular sales, staff, premises and equipment are already in place.

But buying a business can be a hazardous, expensive process unless you have the right skills and experience on your team, including legal and financial know-how. Establish the genuine trading and financial position, so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

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