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Four Ways the Dietetics Field Hinders Its Progress
By Andy Bellatti, MS, RD

Pervasive, accepted, and largely unquestioned concepts and ideas exist within the nutrition field that are quite harmful. They don’t provide room for growth, critical analysis, or substantive dialogue. Here I discuss the top four misconceptions and how nutrition professionals can avoid perpetuating them.

1. “There’s No Such Thing as Junk Food or Bad Foods”
There certainly is such thing as junk food, which makes people feel sluggish, tired, and generally unwell. As nutrition professionals, we need to recognize—and capitalize on—that fact. Telling clients Nacho Cheese Doritos aren’t junk food is disingenuous and not in the best interest of their health.

A better alternative: Drop the good/bad dichotomy and explain to clients why certain foods aren’t as healthful as others. For example, don’t be afraid to be honest about the cardiovascular consequences of diets high in sugar. This isn’t about shaming; it’s about informing people so they can make better food choices.

2. “Everything in Moderation!”
Ask 20 different dietitians what moderation means, and you’ll get 20 different responses. “But that’s the beauty of it—each person can define it themselves!” some RDs say. That doesn’t sound like beauty; that sounds like chaos. “Everything in moderation” operates on the inane—and false—assumption that people should consume peaches, Pop-Tarts, muffins, soda, lentils, and tomatoes in a similar manner.

The truth is three cups of mixed greens aren’t the same as three cups of chocolate pudding. A large Dunkin’ Donuts Mountain Dew Coolatta shouldn’t be consumed with the same frequency as unsweetened green tea. 

A better alternative: Suggest an always/sometimes/rarely approach to foods. Dark, leafy greens? Always! Cupcakes? Rarely.

3. “Healthy Eater = Red Flag”
Many nutrition textbooks are quick to illustrate that RDs should deal with vegetarians, vegans, and “those who avoid certain food groups” carefully because if they don’t plan their diets adequately, all sorts of nutritional ills could befall them. Meanwhile, the average—as in omnivorous—American falls short of the recommended intake of fiber and several minerals. Of course, this isn’t because omnivorous diets are inherently unhealthful; it’s because the majority of omnivores eat highly processed foods with little nutritional value. Forethought, knowledge, and planning are important for all diets. 

A better alternative: Inform yourself about vegan, vegetarian, raw, and gluten-free diets so you can be a helpful and supportive resource for clients who follow them.

4. “Everyone Eats Processed and Fast Food”
We shouldn’t feel bad for gently challenging people or suggesting healthier meals. One argument I often hear is, “Not everyone is going to eat steamed kale and brown rice.” Or “People will always eat fast food; it’s a fact of life,” as if the only options available are a quadruple Baconator burger from a fast-food chain or a bowl of steamed vegetables.

There are plenty of foods that fall in between both sides of the spectrum. Instead of telling clients to “just have a grilled chicken sandwich” the next time they go to a fast-food restaurant, we should explain why that’s not such a great choice either. (Burger King’s grilled chicken patty contains five mentions of partially hydrogenated oils.) We’re nutrition experts, not fast-food defense attorneys.

A better alternative: Show clients how fast, easy, tasty, and affordable healthful cooking can be. Explain why seemingly innocuous items at fast-food restaurants are nutritionally inferior options.

— Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, creator of the blog Small Bites, is a Seattle-based dietitian who approaches nutrition from a whole-foods, plant-centric perspective. He also has a strong interest in food politics, nutrition policy, and deceptive food industry marketing tactics.