Corporate sponsorship of nutrition? Thanks, but please no.

When I first saw the link on California’s Dietetic Association conference, I didn’t even click through. Call it learned helplessness if you will—I’ve gotten burned out on seeing the ridiculous practices at conferences over the 18 years since I’ve been in the world of dietetics and nutrition.

I got emails from four clients asking about the article in the past 24 hours. FOUR. One client as far away as Chile. The emails all had the same general theme—can this POSSIBLY be true? This is disturbing. Is this typical for dietitians? Do you have to take these classes?

Let’s see: the answers would be yes, YES, somewhat, no. I’ve been concerned about corporate sponsorship since I was an undergrad, and it’s only gotten worse since then. No, these conferences are not required. RDs can get CEUs elsewhere, and that’s what I’ve done over the years. For me, it hasn’t been a principled stand, as much as other conferences interested me more. So I’ve been getting all my CEUs at Celiac conferences, mindfulness trainings, coaching certifications, a ton of webinars and articles, etc. And I’ve taught CEU courses to other RDs for years (shameless plug: I’ve got a gluten-free vegetarian course in May) so RDs certainly aren’t limited to these conferences.

I did speak at the Virginia Dietetics Association conference in 2011 on gluten-free diets, and I don’t remember seeing any corporate goofiness. The session was not sponsored, and I was paid a nominal fee and had to disclose any conflicts of interest, which is standard. I can’t say that was my main focus of awareness, but I also most likely would have noticed lots of corporate ickiness. I also have never seen corporate interests at local Virginia events. When I worked running programs for the health department in DC, essentially we vetted vendors for the large WIC conference we hosted, so it was a non-issue. Sponsors were strategic and appropriate—i.e., a breast pump company sponsored the lactation room. I consider that synergy. However, I’ve been aware that it’s quite an issue nationally. Long story short, it’s an embarrassment.

I do not fault RDs who choose to work for Pepsi, fast food and the like—everyone needs to choose where and how to work based on interests, available opportunities, finances and values. However, sponsorship is a different beast, because like it or not, we’re all painted with the same brush. Yes, RDs should and do have enough intelligence to discern that Mikky D’s isn’t health food. I also understand the argument that we should be educated about all foods, and that corporations potentially hold the key to making different nutrition changes on a broad scale. And yet… I honestly think all people are swayed by what we see repeatedly, and it’s disturbing that money likely influences AND’s corporate policy. To be clear, as the article points out, it’s not just AND, but it seems like all the nutrition organizations. This is nothing new under the sun, because physicians have conferences sponsored by drug reps, but that doesn’t make it any less distasteful.

There’s a one line claim in the article that a gluten-free panel talked about how a g-free diet is a fad diet, and was sponsored by the Wheat Council. While I’m concerned, I’m reserving judgment here without more details about how this discussion went down.

It’s hard for me to reconcile all the different parts. There are many, many thoughtful, committed and dedicated RDs, and yet AND’s refusal to evolve is disgraceful, and harmful to many RDs. I’ve been a member of AND since 2000, because I value the dietetics practice groups. I can’t belong to them if I’m not a member of AND. I also don’t have the energy to run for AND and try to make changes—it’s just not that far up there on my list of priorities.

It’s sad. People largely become RDs out of a desire to change the world of nutrition, and yet we’ve ended up as part of an institution whose values don’t mirror the majority of nutrition practitioners. I’m encouraged by the efforts of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, and hopeful that policy starts shifting, either due to advocacy or public awareness. From everything I’ve seen, I absolutely believe that most RDs want change. I certainly do!

Cheryl Harris, MPH, RD

About Cheryl Harris

Life played a funny trick on me. I've studied nutrition for years, and much to my surprise, found out that I could manage many of my health issues via diet. I've been GF for years, and I've got a bunch of allergies and sensitivities. But it definitely doesn't keep me from cooking, baking and enjoying my food. Thanks for stopping by.
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One Response to Corporate sponsorship of nutrition? Thanks, but please no.

  1. Alexia says:

    Thank you for such a well written piece. I have shared your blog, along with my comments, on my FB page. I strongly believe that individual dietitians need to speak up and let the public know that we are not all in agreement with our professional associations strategies and we are working for change. :)

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