The Anti-Diet Movement on Display at an Event for Dietitians

A recent Washington Post article pointed the finger at a nutrition conference as an outlet for misinformation that can contribute to the obesity epidemic.

Author: Michelle Russell       

hands holding heart-shaped bowl with fresh health foods

Nutrition experts caution that the anti-diet movement is “hurting people at risk of health problems related to excess weight and a poor diet,” according to a recent story in The Washington Post.

In March, I wrote about new research suggesting that the oft-recommended practice of intermittent fasting — abstaining from eating for 16 hours during the day — is actually detrimental to your health. A study published during the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention/Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Scientific Sessions, held in mid-March in Chicago, found that those who regularly took this approach to eating had a 91-percent higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

My point in writing about that was to underscore the significant role events play in disseminating helpful knowledge — often in the category of breakthrough information — among their audiences and the larger universe.

A recent story in The Washington Post — also about diet, as it turns out — focuses on the flip side of this equation: how a conference can contribute to the spread of misinformation that can have harmful effects on the population at large.

In the article, “As Obesity Rises, Big Food and Dietitians Push ‘Anti-Diet’ Advice,” the authors explore how the “anti-diet” movement — “a social media juggernaut that began as an effort to combat weight stigma and an unhealthy obsession with thinness” — is being leveraged by food marketers to promote the consumption of highly processed and unhealthy products.

While anti-diet advocates argue that their approach “has brought a needed reprieve from the burdens of diet culture,” the authors say, nutrition experts caution that the movement is “hurting people at risk of health problems related to excess weight and a poor diet.”

The obesity rate in the U.S. has more than doubled since the 1980s; the authors cite a 2022 Lancet study finding that nearly half a million Americans die early every year as a result of excess body weight.

The article is the result of an investigation by The Washington Post and The Examination, a nonprofit newsroom that covers global public health, and finds that General Mills, in particular, “has launched a multi-pronged campaign that capitalizes on the teachings of the anti-diet movement.”

One of those prongs is events. General Mills’ senior manager for nutrition and external affairs, Amy Cohn, “promoted the cereal company’s anti-diet messaging to a room of registered dietitians,” the authors write, at the Food and Nutrition Conference & Expo, hosted by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics — the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals with more than 100,000 credentialed dieticians, nutrition practitioners, and students — last October in Denver. At a symposium session, Cohn shared the results of a survey General Mills funded on food shaming — “defined as ‘making people feel bad about what they eat.’” The research showed that “food shaming led to lower self-esteem and eating disorders and made people more likely to avoid the cereal aisle in grocery stores.”

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In addition, in response to a question from the audience, Cohn said the company is “doing everything we can to prevent” a proposed FDA rule to label foods high in sugar, salt, and fat “from happening.”

The Washington Post article is not the first to point a finger at the Academy — the association has been criticized for accepting contributions from ultra-processed food, beverage, pesticide, and pharma companies by other sources as a conflict of interest at the expense of public health.

It’s a very complicated issue, for sure. I wonder, though, if the article does dietitians a disservice by not giving them enough credit for being critical thinkers. When we enter a theater, we universally accept that a suspension of disbelief is necessary in order to enjoy the movie or play. Not so when professionals head out on the trade-show floor — we know we are not walking on neutral ground. Exhibitors pay for the space to promote their products.

Similarly, when a session clearly states that it is being “presented by” a company — which has a vested interest in selling its products or services — the audience must recognize at some level that the information they hear may be biased, even if research is presented. A session presented by General Mills that shares research funded by the company is going to cast a positive light on their products. The first rule in evaluating a study’s credibility is to follow the money trail.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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