Melissa Musiker is a registered dietician and a member of APCO’s Washington, D.C., health policy team.
Last week, the American Dietetic Association held their annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) in San Diego. The largest conference focused on nutrition, it draws crowds of nearly 15,000 dietitians and nutrition experts from across the United States and abroad. It opened with a major announcement: As of 2012 the group will be known as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). The conference was buzzing with talk of what that means in terms of the organization’s future direction and branding.
Amidst sessions about gluten-free diets, nutrition message targeting and best practices in infant feeding were sessions that highlighted many of the philosophical debates swirling in the areas of food, nutrition and public policy.
In the face of a global epidemic of obesity and non-communicable chronic disease, there is a growing and vocal subset of the nutrition and dietetics profession who are actively questioning some of its most tried and true mantras. Can all foods really fit in a healthy diet? Maybe there really are good and bad foods? Does the moderation message work? Are all calories equal? Partnerships, sponsorships and research funding are facing similar scrutiny. While these are not new debates, what is new for the organization is that through social media the debate has become increasingly public and the tone of the rhetoric increasingly hostile and partisan.
These are important but difficult issues to explore. They reflect the broader public health debate as well the debate on the role of public-private partnerships. They cut to the very philosophical core of the profession, how we train future professionals and what messages we communicate to the public. There is real risk that this will distract this professional community from the one thing we can all agree upon – Americans have a long way to go before they are meeting the diet and lifestyle goals of the Dietary and Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
All sectors have a role to play in addressing a public health problem as all-encompassing as obesity. The proper roles of the government and the food and beverage industry (manufacturing, retail and food service) are the most hotly debated. I would argue that it is important not to ask people to run before they can walk, which is why industry actions like stealth reformulation, increasing access to healthy options or changing menu defaults are so important and should not be undervalued. They are a start on a long journey. But they are not the only ways the food and beverage industry can be a part of the solution. Recognizing the gravity of the obesity epidemic and with a desire to be a part of the dialogue to solve this public health problem, partnerships, sponsorships, and funding for research are three activities that the food and beverage industry frequently use as pillars of corporate responsibility platforms.
In the face of the broader discussions about the “future of food” and with motives being called into question and the outcomes of partnerships, sponsorship or research being viewed as suspect, will the food and beverage industry stop working with the ADA and look for other opportunities to find shared value? This Registered Dietitian certainly hopes that isn’t the case. There is so much work to be done, and every group willing lend a hand should be included.