The other side of the story
I have a confession to make – I work in industry promoting supplements (natural health products).
Dietitians often ask me how I can feel comfortable working in this area. Their beliefs are that there is not enough evidence to support their use, that they don’t really work, and that we can get all the nutrients we need from diet alone.
However, I’ve been working in this area for a long time now, and I’ve come to see things in a different way.
Firstly, I do believe in a food-first approach to nutrition, and that a healthy, balanced diet is the foundation of good health. I love food and cooking, value family mealtime, and I advocate for others to spend more time in the kitchen as well.
But the reality is that not everyone follows a balanced diet. People are faced with daily challenges that affect their diet quality, such as lack of time, being under stress and having dietary restrictions. We also know that various life stages and health conditions require higher amounts of certain nutrients, which are difficult to obtain from food alone.
This doesn’t mean that I believe in every single supplement out there – in fact, there are many that I’m against. But nutrition is an evolving science, with new evidence emerging all the time. Being open to new ways of doing things, and allowing yourself to have a shift in mindset when the evidence supports it, can serve our profession well.
As a dietitian in the corporate world, I’ve made it my mission to sift through the evidence that does exist, and then use it to help educate others and bring clarity to a confusing category.
My point is this: whether it’s natural health products or food we are talking about, I think dietitians need to align more closely with industry.
The reason I’m such a strong supporter of dietitians working in business and industry is that I think we help bring balance and evidence-based practice to an area that could otherwise be much worse off without us. I personally rein in my marketing, public relations and sales colleagues on a daily basis!
If dietitians aren’t there to take on these corporate roles, trust me, they’ll be handed off in a heart-beat to non-credentialed nutrition “experts.”
Bringing dietetic practice to an unconventional area
I began my journey into the corporate world by working on a marketing team as a nutrition and health writer. In this role, I began to see just how much a dietitian was really needed in the area of natural health products. Not only to research and write evidence-based materials for consumers and health professionals, but also to educate others within varous areas of the organization about the products they were trying to manufacture and sell.
Over time, I began to see even more gaps where a dietitian’s perspective could be extremely useful. After some self-advocacy, my role eventually expanded. I am now involved in training and educating people in many other areas, including brand marketing, innovation, public relations and sales. Employees in these areas now have a better understanding of consumers’ health needs, how our products work and why most claims about “miracle” pills or foods are simply not true.
Many business and industry professionals don’t know a whole lot about nutrition and health and they often can’t tell a reliable source from an unreliable one. In my experience, they’re not intentionally trying to make product claims that aren’t true.
Remember, they likely have no more nutrition education than the general public. If they read a headline, see an article posted on Facebook or Twitter, or catch a few episodes of Dr. Oz, they believe the claims just like anyone else without a science background might.
As dietitians working with industry professionals, we can educate them about how to source information properly. We can clarify studies and present the scientific evidence so that others on the team can truly understand how a product works (or does not).
Get comfortable being uncomfortable
The nutrition world is changing – fast. Many dietitians feel guilty or uncomfortable working with or representing brands, but I think it’s important. If we don’t do it, who will? And will they do as good a job as us?
When I see the impact I am able have on the business, which ultimately influences the messages consumers are seeing and hearing, I just can’t see how a role like this would be better suited to someone other than a dietitian. In fact, I don’t think any food company focused on health and wellness should be without a dietitian on staff (or at least consulting for them) to ensure accuracy in all forms of nutrition communication!
We can’t have a discussion about industry without acknowledging that there are legitimate concerns about sponsorship and influence. But I do believe that there is a way to work for and represent brands, while still being ethical and maintaining one’s integrity in dietetic practice.
To maintain our credibility, we have to be careful which companies or products we associate ourselves with, but also recognize that, even within the profession, we each have our own set of values and beliefs.
If you are passionate about an area and feel confident about the evidence that exists, I strongly believe that dietitians are in the best position to use their voices and educate others about it.
Embracing the controversy
While industry and big brands are far from perfect, let’s embrace working with them and use this relationship as a platform to engage in constructive conversations. We can’t be afraid to do something different or take a risk. Ten years ago, I jumped on a job opportunity in a relatively unconventional area of practice, and it has blossomed into a career path beyond my wildest dreams.
Aligning with industry and having more dietitians work with, rather than against, brands may serve our profession well. Let’s use our voices to help influence industry, ensure accuracy in nutrition messaging, and have a greater overall impact on consumer food purchases and health.
Editor’s note: A dietitian’s role in industry is often misunderstood. There are so many opportunities in this area for RDs to make a positive difference that impacts a large number of consumers. Let’s get rid of the “elephant in the room” and talk about this important role!
What do you think about RDs working in this area? Have you worked with industry? Do you have questions or comments for Michelle? Please share below!