As swimsuit season approaches, millions of Americans are starting vigorous diet and exercise regimens to get in shape.  Most people would love to get into shape the way Steve Cooksey has.  Mr. Cooksey would love to share his wisdom, but there’s just one problem: the state of North Carolina threatened him with criminal charges carrying up to 120 days in jail if he uses his web site to provide nutrition advice to his readers.

The “Diabetes Warrior”

A few years ago, Steve was “obese, sedentary, [and] recently diagnosed with diabetes.”  Frustrated with the results of his traditional, pharmaceutical-laden treatment, Steve decided to take a new approach.  He adopted the “paleo diet”, which you may have heard by its other names (hunter-gatherer diet, primal diet, caveman diet).  The basics of the paleo diet are simple.  Adherents restrict themselves to food our ancestors ate: vegetables, meat, fruit, nuts, and no grains, sugar, or other heavily processed food.  Some would say it’s so easy, a caveman can do it.

Steve was so pleased with his results that he decided to share his success and his advice on a blog,

The Warrior vs. The Bureaucrat

According to a story in the Carolina Journal, Steve attended a nutrition seminar at a church in Charlotte.  After arguing with the director of diabetes services for a local hospital, Steve handed out some business cards directing people to his website.  Three days later, the North Carolina Board of Dietetics and Nutrition gave Steve a call indicating that his web site was under investigation.

The essence of the Board’s complaint is that Steve was giving out nutritional information (or, to use North Carolina’s nomenclature, “providing nutritional counseling”) without a license—a misdemeanor in his state.  While Steve is allowed to post information, once he began recommending his diet and advising others, he had crossed the line.  Apparently in North Carolina you can say what you eat, you just can’t recommend that anyone else eat the same thing.  The Board’s scolding, complete with enough red ink to remind you of grammar school, can be viewed here.  Last week, Steve made a few modifications to his website and the state closed the investigation.  But as Mr. Cooksey rightly states on his website, “All this means is that the board has violated my First Amendment rights by silencing me and altering how I express my opinions.”

The Caveman Logic of North Carolina’s Law

The logic of the Board of Dietetics and Nutrition illustrates what’s wrong with modern bureaucratic overreach.  It is also a vivid example of overcriminalization.  Criminal law is supposed to be used to redress only conduct that society thinks deserves the greatest punishment and moral sanction.  It is hard to see how diet tips on a web site meet that standard.  As such, the charges against Steve Cooksey offend our basic notions of fairness and our First Amendment rights.  Spend some time on Mr. Cooksey’s website, and you’ll find some recipes, workout tips (one wonders where the North Carolina Fitness Czar is on this), success stories, and yes…advice.

What’s clear from the website is that this is not about consumer protection.  Mr. Cooksey hasn’t been accused of fraud, and he isn’t selling harmful products to some uninformed public. Thousands of Americans have “unlicensed” conversations about diet and exercise every single day.  North Carolinians don’t need a council of experts to tell them what is and is not acceptable diet advice.  They are free to look at a million other web pages (some maintained by licensed experts!) and decide for themselves. Steve Cooksey doesn’t have a monopoly on the dietary advice industry.

Of course, you would never know that from the Board’s panic at Mr. Cooksey’s unorthodox advice.  Indeed, the Board might be understandably confused, except that the bottom of Mr. Cooksey’s website clearly says:

I am not a doctor, dietitian nor nutritionist… in fact I have no medical training of any kind. If I can figure this out so should they… if it wasn’t for their …

A) Intellectual Laziness

B) Willful ignorance

C) Greed

D) All of the Above :)

At the risk of offending North Carolina Board of Dietetics and Nutrition, we recommend a healthy diet of the First Amendment, and reserving criminal sanctions for conduct that genuinely deserves society’s punishment.

David Silvers is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: