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How a Corrupt Dietitians' Group Has Taken Over Nutrition Advice in America

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is engaged in a turf war over the right to give nutritional advice -- and sell it to the highest bidder.


When Steve Cooksey was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, a registered dietician advised him to eat a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. Rather than follow that advice blindly, Cooksey read the available scientific literature and decided to do roughly the opposite of what he’d been advised. He proceeded to lose 78 pounds on a high-fat, low-carb diet that was nearly absent of processed foods. Cooksey’s blood-sugar level dropped into the normal range, and he was cleared by his doctor to stop taking insulin.

Three years later, Cooksey remains slim and healthy, but now finds himself with a different sort of diet problem, thanks to a letter he received from the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition. It accused him of practicing nutrition counseling without a license, and threatened to charge him with crimes that could result in jail time if he refused to make changes to his blog,

The legal basis for the letter is a North Carolina law known as the Dietetics/Nutrition Act. It’s one of 47 state laws that criminalize the giving, by “unlicensed persons,” of nutritional advice regarding a medical condition. Such laws are in place largely due to lobbying efforts by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the professional organization that represents the nation’s registered dietitians. (Until recently, AND was known as the American Dietetics Association.)

The North Carolina law claims its purpose is “to safeguard the public health, safety and welfare and to protect the public from being harmed by unqualified persons by providing for the licensure and regulation of persons engaged in the practice of dietetics/nutrition.” But internal memos recently leaked to Forbes via AND members concerned with the direction of the organization paint a different picture of its purpose: “Registered Dietitians (RDs) and Dietetic Technicians, Registered (DTRs) face a significant competitive threat in the provision of various dietetic and nutrition services.”

The document goes on to explain that laws like North Carolina’s can be enforced only if somebody files a complaint against a violator, and encourages RDs to file complaints against unlicensed persons practicing nutrition counseling.

According to Judy Stone of the Michigan Nutrition Association, the Michigan Board of Dietetics and Nutrition used a similar tactic in 2006 to "prove" to legislators the need for a licensing law to protect the public. It ran a contest in its newsletter to encourage submissions by Michigan RDs of undocumented anecdotes of harm caused by non-RDs.

“People have to choose what they eat every day, many times a day,” Stone told me by phone. “Nutrition knowledge has traditionally been handed down by family, and healers in the community. If a husband says to his wife, hey, I think granola is bad for your blood sugar, he is giving nutrition advice about a medical condition. Where do we draw the line?"

In addition to protecting the interests of its registered members, AND is also beholden to corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mars, Hershey’s, General Mills, and other makers of the kind of processed foods that Cooksey, and many others, have recovered from illness by quitting. Coca-Cola sponsors continuing education courses that RDs can take to earn the credits they need to maintain their certifications. This relationship between food processors and AND sets up a conflict of interest that hinders AND’s ability to protect the public health, Stone told me.

She recalled a recent collaboration between Hershey's and the then-ADA, in which “Hershey's paid RDs to set up and speak at house parties, during which guests would be taught how to use Hershey's products as part of a ‘healthy diet.’ “

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