Today’s statement of concern comes from Lauri Boone, RD (Twitter handle: @lauriboone):
“I have been a proud registered dietitian since 1998. Like many dietitians, I had an amazing education that explored a variety of areas in science, food, and nutrition: anatomy and physiology, sports nutrition, nutrition biochemistry, nutrition and exercise assessment labs, food labs filled with tastings, developing menus and honing cooking skills in a state-of-the-art classroom kitchen, and so much more.
When I look back at my education, as I frequently do, I am grateful for all of the knowledge and hands-on experience I gained, and to my professors who were so inspiring in their work and the field. And like many dietitians, I had an amazing dietetic internship experience filled with hands-on practice in the field of nutrition. Rotations through the pediatric intensive care unit, planning National Nutrition Month activities, and shadowing a dietitian in private practice are three very fond memories I have (though the rotations and work experiences were numerous). And so as I wrapped up what culminated in a 5-year combined education and practice program, I was eager, as many young dietitians are, to go out and inspire others to get healthy!
Though I have been fortunate enough to work with some of the most amazing dietitians over the years—both through my work and activity with dietetic practice groups and my state dietetic associations—my disappointment in the profession has really come at the hands of our national organization, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), formerly the American Dietetic Association.
I love reading the journal online, look forward to my bi-monthly copy of Food and Nutrition magazine, and have found great value from joining a few remarkable dietetic practice groups (DPGs). But what I have found is that ANDs ties with junk-food corporations like McDonald’s, Hershey, and Coca-Cola always seem to undermine my education, my internship experience, and my work and credibility as an RD—and I can no longer ignore this.
I attended a few FNCE (AND’s annual conference) meetings early on in my career and was quite shocked to walk into the exhibitor hall, which always looked more like a junk food trade show than a food and nutrition event for the nation’s largest group of food and nutrition professionals. I believe it was the first year I attended that McDonald’s was rolling out their line of McSalad shakers. “Why was McDonald’s even at our national meeting?” I wondered.
When I attended my first Public Policy Workshop in Washington, DC (in the late 90s), Lean Cuisine was sponsoring—and serving—the lunch for all participants, rolling out what I believe was a new line of chicken and pasta microwaveable dinners for all of the dietitians to sample. Again, the question I asked myself, “Why is Lean Cuisine providing lunch to dietitians at a Public Policy workshop?” At that same meeting, dietitians also enjoyed Diet Cokes courtesy of Coca-Cola and chocolate bars, which I believe were courtesy of Hershey or one of the other major chocolate candy bar manufacturers. And while these sponsorships never sat well with me, I somehow accepted it as the status quo, thinking at some point it would change.
Only it hasn’t. Over the years, AND has stood firm in its defense that it does not endorse any product—even those products of its sponsors. But I recently visited ANDs child-tailored website, Kids Eat Right, and found this quote on their homepage: “Welcome to Kids Eat Right is your source for scientifically-based health and nutrition information you can trust to help your child grow healthy. As a parent or caretaker you need reliable resources and you can find them here, backed by the expertise of nutrition professionals.”
And when I found their editorial policy, it read: “Kids Eat Right solidly adheres to its editorial integrity and independence. Online visitors must be able to trust Kids Eat Right and be confident that our editorial decisions are not influenced by outside interests, political or commercial pressures, private or industry sponsors, advertisers, donors, partners or collaborators or any personal interests.”
Yet, the Kids Eat Right Shop-Cook-Eat Summit cookbook shows otherwise. Each “kid-friendly” recipe page in the cookbook, which was created for dietitians and consumers, contains the logos of ANDs sponsors including: PepsiCo, The Coca Cola Company, National Dairy Council, Kellogg’s, and ConAgra. To me, this is a blatant endorsement of sponsors to consumers—and essentially advertises junk food to kids in a cookbook designed by dietitians for kids and their families. This is just one example, but it happens too often across AND: educational materials for consumers, exhibit halls for RDs and other health professionals, and even in continuing education workshops.
In the last two years, I have been approached by several members of what I consider to be the next generation of RDs—who are unsure about a career path in dietetics. In October, one student wrote me to express his sadness at attending FNCE just this past fall. He appeared to be second-guessing his career choice as a dietitian based on what he saw at the exhbit hall and the junk food company sponsored talks. And I have encountered several more who have decided not to go the RD path—because 4 years of their time only to be associated with these companies—was not the direction they wanted to go. And when I recently asked three fellow RDs if they ever considered not renewing membership with AND, they said they hadn’t renewed in years for these very reasons.
In essence, ANDs partnerships are irresponsible and undermine our entire profession. I stated it recently, and I will state it here again: I am proud to be an RD, but AND’s corporate sponsorships imply endorsement. And these sponsorships are embarrassing to our amazing profession and deliver a conflicting message to the public. I believe our profession deserves better. And I believe the public deserves better. I think we can rise to the occasion and lift our profession and the health of the public to a place where it operates from its highest potential.
If you share similar concerns, there are a few things you can do:
1. For those of you looking to enter the nutrition field or new in the field: I highly recommend the RD path as I believe the education and experience are unparalleled and unmatched. My nutrition studies and dietetic internship formed the solid foundation for everything I have done. Go for it, be proud of your work as an RD, and get excited that you can be part of an exciting movement to inspire others on their path to wellness. And show everyone how incredible it is to be an RD.
2. For all RDs—members and non-members of AND: Voice your concerns about ANDs corporate sponsorships directly to AND. Whether or not you are a member, AND represents all RDs. I contacted the membership office earlier this year, and I was told that I could direct any concerns I have to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send them your statement and concerns. I will be sharing this statement with AND—and also requesting that they consider a panel discussion at FNCE this fall, in addition to considering setting new guidelines for sponsorship similar to those I have seen from the HEN DPG and APHA. As always, be positive and proactive in your statements. And surround yourself with other positive and like-minded RDs. They are out there—and they are amazing!
3. Renew your membership with AND—or don’t. Whether or not you renew is a highly personal choice—and membership in AND is not required to be a practicing RD. When I spoke to the aforementioned dietetic student last fall, I told him to keep his membership going with AND as “the organization needs active members who can work from the inside to make change.” And I also told him—as I have told others—to get involved in the incredible DPGs to meet and network with likeminded RDs and keep the focus on the amazing work he would be doing in the field. Of course, this past winter, I decided I would not be renewing with AND as I felt the biggest impact I could make was with my wallet. I’m still not certain if I am going to renew or not—I am waiting to see if AND has any response to the members who have stepped forward with concerns.
In the end, I am so grateful for the attention that has been brought to this issue and to the organized rallying by the dozen dietitians who created this forum for us to openly discuss our concerns. I remain hopeful that much-needed change will occur.”