What can the RD designation be worth?

[I originally published this post a year (and three days) ago, but I'm bumping it to the top because it fits the thread of discussion kindled by Michele Simon's Eat Drink Politics report of last week.]

Based on my early experience with them, and on what I've heard from others of their experiences, I have long held opprobrium for registered dietitians. But it has recently bubbled over again.

Yes, it is very dangerous to speak about any class of people, so already I’m a fool for trying. To that acknowledgement, I’ll add that “some of my best friends are registered dietitians” (expressed jokingly, but also true). Theresa Wright, Lori Herold, and Lisa Merrill are registered dietitians whom I respect and admire, and whom I recommend when appropriate. [2013 addendum: I also have a strong and growing admiration for Andy Bellatti, whom I follow on Twitter.] (In the resources section of my book’s website, fatboythinman.com, I also recommend a couple of non-RDs for nutritional guidance.)

So clearly, I’m not talking about all registered dietitians. But I do mean to address RDs as an institution, which is something they do themselves: They have a professional organization, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), which advocates positions and speaks for its members. So I'm not chary to consider them monolithically, albeit within bounds.

The adademy's mission, according to its website, is “empowering members to be the nation's food and nutrition leaders,” and I’d say it’s doing very well on that score. More than any others, RDs are considered the source for nutritional wisdom.

But I have to ask, Why? If ever a field was failing, it is not nutrition and dietetics? Demonstrably, beyond any valid discussion, the nation is nutritionally unsound. Two out of three American adults are obese or overweight. One out of three children are. You know this litany; I won’t prolong it here.

But, additionally: Who do you know, outside advocacy circles, who values nutrition? I contend that, for the vast majority of people, the claim “Very Nutritious!” on a food package would have about as much value as “Tested Botulism Free!” Good to know, but hardly a come-on. At most, in this context, nutrition is something we’re supposed to care about.

Opposite the disregard for nutrition, consider that junk food is how we celebrate — ice cream for the team after a win, pizza for the staff after completing a tough project. This is so, even though we call it j-u-n-k!

To be clear, I'm not saying these conditions are the institution's fault; absolutely, it did not create them. But when it ought to be fighting them, it is actually fostering them.

Consider, for example, the common RD advice to "eat everything, in moderation. Deprivation leads to overeating." That's just what Big Food says, that there are no "bad" foods, but that's just not defensible. At a minimum, perhaps people who have trouble with overeating should consider avoiding foods that are engineered specifically to encourage consumption: "Bet you can't eat just one!"

Why might it be that the academy and Big Food have the same message? Because the academy takes money from the belly of Big Food, including General Mills, Kellogg's, Mars, Pepsico, and Unilever. If you want to think that's just a coincidence, then we have little to talk about.

Meanwhile, let's return to the academy’s mission statement: Notice that its own statement doesn't mention improving nutrition, or nutrition education, or the nation’s health. No. From all the words in the dictionary, it chose the combination, “empowering members to be the nation’s food and nutrition leaders.” One of the most respectful actions one can take is to listen to what others say, and what this institution tells us is, "it's about us, not about you."

NOTE: I asked the academy if it wished to comment on this piece, but it has not acknowledged the request.


Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
make investments in employee wellbeing that pay off in corporate success.
Video | Services | Clients