Today’s statement of concern comes from Dietitians for Professional Integrity creator and co-founder, Andy Bellatti, MS, RD (Twitter handle: @andybellatti):
“It doesn’t matter who funded the study; just look at the science!”.
The people standing around me nodded in agreement; I felt out of place.
It was 2008, and I was at a food industry group reception during the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Food and Nutrition Conference & Expo. The person making this statement held an important leadership position within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Throughout that night, I was introduced to what you would call “heavy hitters” in the field of nutrition. Directors of institutes (many of them with ties to the food industry), prominent researchers (many of whom received grants from the food industry), and higher-ups at the Academy. I also recognized the faces of some registered dietitians who regularly showed up on news shows to provide commentary on the food controversy du jour.
A year prior, I had finished reading Marion Nestle’s Food Politics. It hadn’t all fully sunk in (in fact, I read it for a second time after attending this particular conference, furiously highlighting passages and making notes on the side of the pages), but morsels stuck with me.
After an hour and a half at the event, I got into a cab and headed to the apartment of a friend who was hosting me while I was in town (the same friend who, when she saw me unloading the piles of junk food from my FNCE bag earlier that afternoon, said: “Wait, THIS is from your conference?”).
“How was the event?” she asked.
I forget my exact response, but I remember how I felt. Perplexed. Frustrated. Disillusioned.
In the past five years, I have become more aware of just how much of a vice grip the food industry has on the organization that represents me and tens of thousands of other RDs. It’s nothing short of terrifying; and, at times, disheartening.
Why was the Academy essentially selling the credential we have all worked so hard for to the highest bidder? Why should I sit back and allow Coca-Cola to “promote the RD”? Why should I be expected to nod along as the Dairy Council touts the virtues of chocolate milk and PepsiCo boasts about the dusting of whole grains in their SunChips? I studied nutrition to learn about health, and to help people achieve better living through food. If I wanted to advertise for the food industry, I would have sought out an MBA.
We are now at a point in history where the connections between food and health – and, especially food and disease – are clearer than ever. There are valid, science-based reasons why partially hydrogenated oils, highly processed snack foods, and the massive amounts of sugar consumed by the average American raise concern.
And, yet, where is the Academy in all of this? Why is the leading national nutrition organization’s response to a troubling health epidemic to “sit at the table” with the very companies that largely created this mess? Leadership often requires out-of-the-box thinking, asking tough questions, and challenging others to do better. Change stems from new and different ideas; not riding the fence and maintaining the status quo.
Although this group I created and co-founded with some of my RD colleagues calls for the Academy to show a modicum of professional integrity, it also comes down to basic social responsibility. The Academy owes it to the public to deliver health messaging that has the public’s best interest in mind; not that of Big Food profit holders.
While at times this road we are forging seems impenetrable, I am starting to see slivers of light trickling in. It may take a while, but I do believe that a collective voice demanding truth is on the right side of history, and will prevail in the end.
I thank you all for your support of Dietitians for Professional Integrity so far, and look forward to this group’s work.