Column, 627 words

Man Can’t Live on Cabbage Alone

Americans need credible nutrition advice they can trust, not a choice between quacks and "experts" sold out to junk food companies.

Jill Richardson

I ran into an acquaintance recently and he told me he’d started seeing a new nutrition expert. “You know what?” he said, “It turns out I’m gluten intolerant.”

OK. Him and everyone else. I told him I was glad he found an expert who could help him.

bread and gluten diet restrictions from nutritionists

Czarina Alegre/Flickr

A week later I saw him again. “I went back to the nutritionist,” he said. “I can’t have nightshades either.” That means no more potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, or eggplant.

The next time I saw him, he’d given up dairy, corn, black pepper, and sweet potatoes. I’m not really sure what exactly he is eating at this point, besides cabbage. He’s also taking a long list of supplements, all on this new nutritionist’s orders.

I suspected that this “nutritionist” has no license of any sort. She’s certainly not a registered dietitian.

I finally asked him how she tested him for allergies. She had him hold a glass vial of a particular food in one hand and, with the other hand, hold his thumb to the tip of his middle finger. Then she tried to pull his finger and thumb apart. If she could, then she proclaimed him allergic to whichever food was in the vial he was touching.

I’m not the confrontational sort. I kept a straight face and wished him luck with his diet.

Searching the Internet, I quickly discovered this bogus method of “allergy testing” is actually quite widespread. Practitioners call it “applied kinesiology.” And, no, it doesn’t work— unless it provides some sort of placebo effect.

Why are people falling for this? Funny you should ask.

The answer might lie in another disturbing trend. The very same week of my acquaintance’s revelations about his numerous food allergies, Mother Jones published a hilarious yet sad account of McDonald’s catering the annual conference of the California Dietetic Association.

That’s right. Mainstream registered dietitians attended a conference sponsored and catered by McDonald’s to earn continuing education credits to maintain their certification.

There, they listened to Walmart people claim that Walmart helps keep communities healthy. The Corn Refiners Association, the high fructose corn syrup industry’s lobby group, argued that high fructose corn syrup is just fine to serve kids in school lunches.

With the mainstream nutrition community under so much pressure from Big Food is it any wonder why people are looking for alternatives and vulnerable to flaky fads?

And who is worse off? The person who seeks help from a dietitian who takes nutrition advice from the corn syrup lobby or the one getting assistance from a quack who believes she can detect allergies using the “Pull My Finger” method.

In truth, there are excellent nutrition experts out there. Bestselling authors like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle rank among them. Pollan’s advice is right on: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”

Even some registered dietitians who belong to the corporate-sponsored Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association) are fantastic sources of nutritional advice.

One registered dietitian told me she left the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics after it sold her contact information to McDonald’s. But others prefer to stay in the organization and work for reform from within.

Melinda Hemmelgarn is one such dietitian. On her blog and radio show, both named Food Sleuth, she interviews experts on every aspect of food, agriculture, and nutrition.

We need conscientious, honest experts like her influencing our national nutrition policy and health recommendations. And our registered dietitians don’t need any “education” from the fast food and junk food industries.

After all, if mainstream dietitians didn’t have to put up with that kind of pressure, fewer people would fall prey to quacks who want to pull their fingers.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. OtherWords.org

  • Sara Robinson

    You can still find registered dietitians prescribing the American Diabetes Association’s horribly misguided diabetic diet — the one that’s low-fat and high-carb, when practically every diabetic in the land knows by now that controlling blood glucose requires precisely the opposite strategy.

    There is simply nowhere to turn for good nutritional information these days. The information is so conflicted, and conflicting. The field is slow to change with the science. A lot of personal bias gets into the mix. So does America’s inbred Calvinist streak, which mixes up diet with virtue, redemption, purity, and mortification of the flesh. And amid all of this: almost all weight loss programs fail.

    I long ago decided that the more qualified someone claims to be on the subject of diet, the less they probably know what they’re talking about. Perverse and sad, but it’s saved me from having to listen to a lot of nonsense over the years.

  • Guest

    Quite the same issue is occurring with mammogram guidelines. People do not know whose advice is better, which recommendations are grounded in applicable well-researched science. It appears that academic credentials alone are not enough. Individuals have to negotiate a landscape of opinions, then take their best shot at sound/safe choices. (example: Congressional hearings questioning Dr. Oz).