Today’s statement of concern comes from Joseph Gonzales, RDN:
“Last year, one of my best friends died unexpectedly as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. He was my mentor and the person who inspired me to pursue a degree in nutrition. At 16 years old I was his assistant chef, cooking meals for breast cancer survivors and learning about the link between diet and cancer. My friend’s death forced me to think differently about the future and what really matters in life. Although we may not have a choice in how we die, we have a choice in how we live, and I no longer want to sit idle and remain silent about various injustices.
In 2013, I was interviewed with journalist and author Michael Moss on Al-Jazeera America’s “The Stream” about the release of his book, Salt Sugar Fat. In our segment, Moss shared a story that still sticks in my mind. One individual Moss interviewed for his book was Jeffery Dunn, a former Coca-Cola executive who was responsible for over half of the company’s $20 billion annual sales.
Dunn told Moss that one day, as he walked around Brazil’s favelhas (slums), he had an epiphany. “A voice in my head said, ‘These people need a lot of things, but a Coke is not one of them.’ I almost threw up.” Dunn resigned soon after and decided to instead market healthful foods (like baby carrots) rather than perpetuate the idea that Coke could “open happiness” in people’s lives. Surely, there are rightful concerns about marketing to children, but the point is this man had a realization.
It is my hope that we as RDNs can have a similar epiphany. All of us see – and in many instances, work with – millions of Americans in poor health. Heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and other nutrition-related chronic diseases are not just on the rise; they’re also happening to younger individuals. This isn’t news for dietitians. The Standard American Diet (including soda, fast food, and highly processed foods) at its core is a large contributor to this public health epidemic, which is why I am very uncomfortable with the ties the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has to Big Food and Big Soda.
Less than ten percent of the Academy’s operating budget comes from these sponsorships. Is it worth putting our reputation on the line for that? How can we allow the producers of minimally nutritious foods to not only barely fund our organization, but also provide so-called “continuing education?” We have to do better.
It isn’t just many of us dietitians taking note. I wish we could have avoided the awful media coverage that resulted from the Kids Eat Right/Kraft Singles “seal of approval”, or McDonald’s sponsoring and serving lunch at the California Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics meeting (which is now in the past after a scathing report in Mother Jones).
Our credential should stand for truth and honesty. I worked extremely hard to earn this credential and I am very proud to be a dietitian. I feel isolated as a member and each year I question renewing my membership. The only reason I stay is because our dietetic practice groups are amazing and as an ice hockey player who hates the bench, I also hate sitting on the sidelines.
I am not writing this from an ivory tower of perfection. I have made plenty of mistakes throughout my life, but I’ve learned to follow my heart and speak out, even when I may be the lone voice. However, looking at Dietitians For Professional Integrity’s existence over the past two and a half years made me realize that those of us who have concerns about the Academy’s Big Food ties are not alone. We may feel that way at times, but there are many of us who want change.
I want to feel confident in delivering a message of health. It isn’t about blaming individuals for eating certain heath-depleting foods; rather, it is about raising their awareness and cheering them on as they make strides in their journey. If one of our clients falls, we empower them with a “get-back-up” attitude! We walk with them and show them we’re here to listen. That’s what dietitians do. We help people.
One of my areas of expertise is working with individuals living with cancer and I can tell you that fighting cancer “in moderation” will only yield moderate results .We can meet people where they are at while still informing them and encouraging them to take meaningful steps toward a healthier life.
When I inform my patients that certain foods are more harmful than others, the reactions I have encountered are ones of interest and gratefulness, not feelings of limitations or food policing. Dietitians are not just nutrition experts, we’re communicators, facilitating healthful changes. It troubles me that we are fed industry-friendly research from companies and organizations that ultimately profit from it. And it troubles me even more that asking tough questions or rightfully expressing concerns seem frowned upon rather than encouraged.
When I became an RDN in 2009 I wholeheartedly accepted the Code of Ethics, which states:
“The dietetic practitioner conducts himself/herself with honesty, integrity, and fairness.”
Is accepting money from Unilever, General Mills, and PepsiCo , honest? Fair to the general public? An example of integrity? This is a massive disconnect that needs to be addressed. We need to defend public health, and in order to do that we are much better off avoiding funds from Big Food. If they want to dialogue with us, we should welcome that. But that dialogue should be held with zero incentives or expectations. We are here to serve the American public first and foremost, not a food company’s public relations team or their profits.
It is our ethical obligation to make the best possible decisions based on what we know. I know that representing the world largest nutrition organization takes courage, commitment, patience, and teamwork. It also requires that we speak our truth.
I can no longer sit idle. I no longer want to worry about being judged for supporting DFPI. I am not perfect and I don’t expect our Academy to be either, but we are at a crossroads where corporate sponsorship is trumping science and integrity. And, above all else, we are out of sync with our Code Of Ethics.
Let’s build a better Academy, one that grants our credential the respect it truly deserves.”