CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – Steven Cooksey says all he wanted to do was help other diabetics get healthy, but a North Carolina agency tried to censor his online healthy food advice column, saying he was not a licensed dietitian.
Cooksey filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court, saying the state violated his free speech rights.
“When did it become illegal to tell people to eat meats and vegetables?” Cooksey said in an interview with The Associated Press. “How is it illegal to tell people not to eat grains? We’re talking about healthy eating. This is wrong.”
The North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition and several board members are named as defendants. The lawsuit was filed on Cooksey’s behalf by the Institute for Justice, a national civil liberties group.
Charla Burill, the agency’s executive director, said she couldn’t comment because the board hadn’t received the complaint. But the Board of Dietetics/Nutrition said it was illegal for anyone without a government-issued dietician’s license to offer diet advice.
Cooksey’s lawyers’ said the advice is protected speech, adding that the state “went through 19 pages” of Cooksey’s online writings with a red pen, indicating on a line-by-line basis what he may and may not say.
“This content-based censorship of Cooksey’s speech violates the First Amendment,” the lawsuit said.
Cooksey, 51, of Stanley, N.C., says he was hospitalized in 2009 after his blood sugar spiked. At the time, Cooksey, who works for a medical equipment company, weighed more than 240 pounds. By his own account, he was in bad physical shape; he ate poorly and didn’t exercise.
During his hospitalization, he was diagnosed with Type II diabetes — a chronic condition caused by a problem in the way the body makes or uses insulin. Cooksey says he was told by a doctor that he would probably be insulin-dependent for life.
At that point, Cooksey says he began reading as much as possible about diabetes and how it’s affected by exercise and diet. He says he quickly discovered that there were many opinions.
For him, he decided the healthiest diet was “a high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet of the sort that Stone Age people ate prior to agriculture. This diet is sometimes called a Paleolithic or caveman diet,” he said. It includes ordinary, unprocessed or minimally-processed foods such as beef, pork, chicken, eggs, leafy green vegetables and butter. He said he ate nuts and fruits sparingly.
Within a month of reducing his carbohydrate intake, Cooksey says his blood sugar normalized.
“Everyone who does what I do improves their health markers. Every one of them. It works,” he said.
Passionate about his life-altering change, Cooksey in early 2010 started a website to chronicle his personal transformation. He lost 78 pounds and now weighs 163 pounds. Later that year, he added a “Diabetes Support” life-coaching service, where he charged a “modest fee” for exactly “the same knowledge, opinions and advice” he had been providing for free in his personal mentorship of friends.
Cooksey says he never described himself as a doctor, dietician or nutritionist. His website has a disclaimer informing readers he has no special dietary qualifications.
In December, Cooksey says he started answering reader questions in a Dear Abbey-style column. A month later, he received a notice from the state asking him to stop “providing advice to readers, friends and family in private emails and conversations; and offering a paid life-coaching service.”
He believes the state’s interest stems from a nutritional seminar for diabetics. A director of diabetic services at a local hospital was the guest, and she said diabetics should eat a diet rich in whole-grain carbohydrates and low in fat, Cooksey says.
During a question and answer session, Cooksey disagreed. A few days later, he says he received a telephone call from the state agency that someone from the seminar filed a complaint against him, saying he was acting as an unlicensed dietitian.
They ordered him to take down the part of his website where he offered his life-coaching services.