Friday, November 4, 2016

What's Wrong with Registered Dietitians?

If I were to ask you which healthcare professionals are the most up-to-date and knowledgeable about nutrition you would likely say Registered Dietitians.

And, sadly, you would be wrong.

The profession charged with translating complex nutritional research into practical strategies for healthy eating is stuck in such a 1970s time warp, its practitioners should be wearing disco pants and driving Ford Pintos.

While people who follow current scientific research have resumed eating butter, eggs, avocados, nuts, full-fat cheese, and red meat, most RDs are still telling people to consume less satiating substitutes like margarine, egg white omelets, skim milk and skinless chicken breasts. Then they lament that Americans do not follow their USDA Dietary Misguidelines, thus absolving themselves of blame for people getting fatter and sicker since these food rules were first issued in 1977.

(Ironically, that claim is one thing RDs are actually right about. A 2011 study by global marketing research firm NPD found Americans came close to adhering to USDA My Plate recommendations 2% of the time, which adds up to, um, maybe one week per year. Close to, by the way, was defined as within 70%.)

So why would the group of people whose alleged aim is to help people eat healthier be so wrong headed on its advice.

Think green. As in dollars, not save the planet.

The biggest money backers of dietary education and research is none other than Big Food, the people who bring you chocolate skim milk, Olestra potato chips, candy crunch yogurt and Coca Cola.

Last year, Coca Cola's corporate face turned red when a New York Times story revealed it provided the funding for a front group called the Global Energy Balance Network -- an academic consortium claiming to do research on the causes of obesity. If the network had not dissolved due to "resource limitations," respected professors would have "found" that empty calorie cola could be safely consumed if balanced out with daily exercise activities. You would then hear this soundbite all over CNN and see headlines in major newspapers touting this latest scientific research.

The cola giant was also outed for paying RDs to depict mini cans of Coke as part of a healthy meal in their blogs and guest articles, a practice media critics call "opaque sponsored content." One such blogger was Robyn Flipse who denied her relationship with the company had anything to do with her recommendation: "I absolutely think that I provided valuable information," she said.

Tech website Mashable suggested this corporate-minded RD might not be quite as objective as she proclaims:

Flipse has worked with Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association for years; her roles have included sending out messages on social media refuting the idea that sugary drinks are to blame for obesity and making herself available as an expert for news outlets. If a story says something negative about artificial sweeteners, Flipse said she might contact the PR agency and ask, "Do you want me to do something about that?"

Meanwhile, companies like Kellogg's and General Mills offer free "education" to RDs. The hope is they will recommend cereal instead of eggs after viewing such webinars as "The Science Behind Breakfast" approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for CEUs to maintain their license.

And the largest national group of dietitians, currently known as Association of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), engaged in cheesy behavior earlier this year putting its Kids Eat Right label on Kraft American cheese singles packages, then denying the label meant the group endorsed the product as healthy. A mouthpiece for the group said the label merely signified that Kraft was a financial supporter of the Kids Eat Right nutrition education program.

As for young dietitian wannabes, the education received in academic programs is a bit dusty.  As Kath Younger, an RD who blogs at wrote about her experience:

My one big gripe was that I felt at times that the school was a bit out of date. I’m not sure if this is a reflection of Winthrop or the ADA as a whole, but often I felt the blog world and our food trends and the latest research in women’s magazines were 10 steps ahead of the game.

The main glimmer of hope is a rogue group of rebel RDs who call themselves Dietitians for Professional Integrity. These dedicated dietitians are imploring their colleagues to sever their ties to Big Food and end the conflicts of interest that keep most RDs stuck in the dietary dark ages.

To learn more about the valuable work it is doing to restore credibility to registered dietitians and put a stop to the corporate co-opting of nutrition policy and education, visit this group's Facebook page or official website.

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