The State of Nutrition Education

The Sugar Industry Paid Scientists to Blame Fat — and nutrition educators aren’t talking about it

In 2016, NPR reported that the sugar industry paid scientists to blame saturated fat for health problems. Despite this report, while getting my master’s degree in nutrition (beginning in the fall of 2018) I have heard my professors warn students of the ill effects of saturated fat.

In class, not a single one of them has questioned it. This is despite the existence of many other articles like the one from NPR (which sites a JAMA article), along with books, doctors, and dietitians exclaiming the need to reexamine these ideas.

I have been belittled by professors for pointing to the many studies that have come out which refute evidence that saturated fat is the cause of heart disease.

I heard a professor recommend that if a patient won’t limit their intake of junk food, just tell them to exercise more. Exercising more will not solve the American obesity crisis; this is an actual recommendation from a doctor of clinical nutrition.

A refusal to examine conflicting evidence

Processed foods make up to 60% of the diet of the average American. Instead of pushing patients towards whole foods, dietitians are told to redirect patients to the newest scientific innovations like fake meat, low-fat guacamole or to simply exercise more.

I have never once heard a professor mention a need to limit refined sugar intake. In fact, I have heard them mock popular diets which aim to limit carbs including limiting or eliminating refined sugar. However, when comparing low-carb diets to low-fat diets, low-carb diets come out on top again and again.

Meanwhile, vegan and vegetarian diets, which can create deficiencies, are put on a pedestal for their low saturated fat content.

Current nutrition education has created an atmosphere that limits the ability of students, reserachers, facility, and healthcare providers to look at new science and question old beliefs — the very bedrock of scientific discovery.

The 2015 dietary guidelines eliminated the recommendation to limit cholesterol consumption. They also removed previous restrictions on total fat, and set limits on refined sugar intake. Yet, in the winter of 2019, I was told there is, in fact, a need to limit dietary cholesterol. The dietary guidelines (which sure, could be better) were ignored.

I often feel I am wasting my time and money. I am professed ideas that I know are out of date and just plain wrong. At the very least I would expect a professor to respect my opinions and research instead of dismissing me.

An “Evidence-Based” Field

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics demands that nutrition be an “evidence-based” practice. This means, using the best available current research to back up claims. For example, fad diets would not be something a dietitian could recommend without scientific studies to prove the benefits of such diets.

This is a good thing, dietitians must be informed and make recommendations that are backed up by science.

Since this is an evidence-based practice, I recently provided a professor with evidence to support one of my recommendations. Despite providing evidence, my professor said my claims were not evidence-based. I offered to provide her with additional research, but I was told I was wrong. She did not want to see any other studies.

What does evidence-based mean if you’re willfully ignoring evidence that goes against your views? Worse, industry lobbyists are actively suppressing evidence to change dietary recommendations.

I knew that she would never side with me, or allow me to give a patient recommendations she didn’t believe in without lowering my grade, even though I had backed up my claims with evidence. So it seems, in the nutrition world, evidence-based only refers to things the entire community has already agreed upon.

There is no room for growth. There is no room for change. There is no room for new ideas.

When I sit through a class and am told things I know to be false — or simply old science — I get jealous of my husband. His time in law school was so transformative for him. He grew so much as a person and learned how to think like a lawyer. I’ve learned a lot in my program but most of the time it seems to be a necessary evil I must endure.

I cannot become a dietitian without completing this program and after this I must complete rotations in hospitals that still limit saturated fat and allow cardiac patients to consume sugar directly after surgery.

Hospital food is of such low quality it is a cliche. Yet, as a dietitian in a hospital, this is the food I am in charge of. This is the food I must give patients in an attempt to nourish them back to health. I will give dietary recommendations that I do not believe in and know to be false, or risk not being licensed.

This is embarrassing, to say the least.

There is some hope

Before entering my master’s program I got interested in nutrition through books, podcasts, and documentaries. Through the information, I’ve devoured the last 6 years I found a subsect of the nutrition community that upholds new science and desperately wants the field to progress.

When I obtain my credentials I will join the ranks of the other naysayers out there that I admire so much. I am grateful to have found nutrition in the way that I did, had I not learned so much prior to beginning my master’s program I would be just another cog in the machine.

I sincerely hope that I can create change in this profession and in the world. We are in desperate need of an overhaul of the American diet and the way we view nutrition. Making the same recommendations we’ve made since the ’70s is not going to cut it. I hope we can reshape and reclaim this profession before it’s too late.

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