When the Experts Are Wrong: Registered Dietitians and Vegan Nutrition
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It is a long-standing position within the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics that vegetarian and vegan diets are healthy. Yet, with only half of those surveyed believing it, how does this affect their practice when addressing vegan clients or those interested in exploring a diet change?
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In January, I had the pleasure of partaking in “The Food Climate Connection,” an informative webinar for dietitians hosted by the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (DPG) and the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition DPG. The goal of the webinar was to show the connection between food choices and the environment, along with research data about views held by my fellow Registered Dietitians (RDs) in relation to plant-based eating and climate change.
As an ethical vegan and a registered dietitian, I am aware of the impact our food choices have on the planet, ourselves and other creatures. The first portion of the webinar discussing the environmental burden of and strategies to decrease a meat-centric diet was nothing new to me, but it was good to hear RDs actually talk about the topic. The second speaker was a researcher & RD interested in the views held by RDs when it comes to climate change, plant-based diets, and how these views impact their practice and personal behaviors. This is the information that left me with that feeling of “Ugh.”
The research was a cross-sectional, internet-based survey of 570 RDs. The respondents were overwhelmingly female and Caucasian (which is par for the course when it comes to my profession and a topic for another time). 75% answered that they strongly agree/agree that climate change is an important issue; however, 62% do not engage in climate change mitigation activities (and I cannot comment on what these activities were). Nonetheless, that is a sad statistic. But the most shocking one of this survey was the following:
50% of those surveyed strongly agreed/agreed that animal products are essential to a healthy diet.
Half. Good grief, where did our education system go wrong in teaching these nutrition professionals? A dismal 37% stated they felt comfortable promoting a vegan diet. Yikes!
These are frightening statistics, but not overly surprising. So much of our profession – especially in terms of conferences and continuing educations – is influenced by the meat, dairy and egg industries, food companies and “Big Pharma.” This has become such a hot topic within the RD community that an organization called Dietitians for Professional Integrity has been formed to “advocate for greater financial transparency” and end the Big Food sponsorship of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.
Despite these many conflicts of interest, for RDs to feel that animal products are essential – what?! Any dietitian with a knowledge of fundamental nutrition should know that isn’t the case. Plain and simple. Again, like I discussed in my last post about the Paleo fad, if you are opposed to veganism for whatever personal reason, leave that bias at the door of your practice as a nutrition professional. I sure do – as do many other reputable RDs.
It is a long-standing position within the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics that vegetarian and vegan diets are healthy. Yet, with only half of those surveyed believing it, how does this affect their practice when addressing vegan clients or those interested in exploring a diet change? What do we do as vegan practitioners with this information about our fellow RDs? It was not surprising that the study found that RDs who were aware that animal products played a part in climate change had a more favorable view of plant-based eating.
Currently, I hold the State Chair in Ohio as the coordinator for Vegetarian Nutrition DPG. I plan on contacting each district within the State to request to speak at local RD meetings regarding vegan nutrition. With education comes change – or at least I hope it does.
As a fellow Ohio (Big V)egan, and professional, I know your frustration. I’m willing to wager that in almost every field (if not actually every field) the landscape is dominated by professionals in name only. There are those who draw a wage in each of our fields who possess neither the skills nor the training, nor the desire to know the most correct and current information, and simply stop once they’ve done enough to acquire the title.
This isn’t a criticism of most professionals in a given field, so much as it is a plaintive cry to have the bar raised and proper standards of professional training upheld and enforced.
An RD who won’t learn about vegan diets is like a network administrator who refuses to learn how a router works or how to calculate subnets.
I really enjoyed your post! Right now i am about to graduate college with a BS in psychology but I find myself more interested and passionate about nutrition especially vegan nutrition. Just becoming vegan and vegetarian taught me how little the rest of society knows about nutrition. And that they would defend their misknowlege to the death. I really would like to know what its like to be a vegan nutritionist and what kind of jobs are out there for you. Is it hard to get a job? Where does a typical nutritionist work?
Thank you so much!
Thank you Anya for speaking up about this issue. I’m currently in school to become an RD and see this same bias against vegan diets among fellow students, but more shockingly, professors. So far, I’ve tried to keep quiet so I can just get through the program without conflict (it’s a really small program) but I really wish my professors were more up-to-date on vegetarian and vegan nutrition and would actually teach it. Many of my textbooks still talk about “complete proteins”, heme iron being superior, and dairy as the ONLY source of calcium in our diets. If vegan diets are mentioned at all, it’s only to warn about the deficiencies that can occur. We have never discussed the environmental impact of our food choices at all. I was hoping for better.