When I decided to become a dietitian, I was interested in the link between what I ate, and my personal health. Having suffered some gastrointestinal disease in adolescence and early adulthood, it was clear to me that my body was connected to the type of food I ate. I decided to major in food and nutrition.

My studies focused on biochemistry, human physiology, food (culinary, food production and food science classes), nutrient databases, and human nutrient requirements across the lifespan (i.e., infant nutrition through geriatric nutrition), both in both wellness and disease.

Flash forward 30 years and it seems that nutrition is now becoming an environmental science. I read Diet for a Small Planet in 1983, and I respect the Earth, the best that I can, but I didn’t go into this field to become an advocate for the planet, I went into the profession to help people understand how their bodies work, help them learn how their diets relate to their bodies and health, and to help them find ways to improve both. A nutrition counseling session should be about what we know, and what we don’t know, and should offer realistic advice about how best you can make changes that work for you. 

Where’s Peggy Post When You Need Her?

If someone invites you to a party, or a wedding, do you feel that they are obligated to plan their event around your food intolerances or practices? In my opinion, this is just bad manners. If you have a particular food intolerance, or way of eating, then it’s your responsibility to feed yourself before attending large social events where it’s unlikely your needs will, or can, be catered to.

A friend recently told me that she received a wedding invitation in which the meal choices were “Meat”, “Vegetarian” or “Gluten-Free”. This sort of sums up our times doesn’t it?

It’s Complicated

Eating behaviors can be complicated, and what people choose to eat often is impacted by cultural or religious influences, as well as their food budgets and their geographic locations. I believe in moderation, and allowing folks to choose what they eat for personal enjoyment, as well as health.

Articles such as this one lead me to believe that environmental studies are being superimposed onto the science of nutrition (and the business of agriculture) with potentially detrimental side effects to both the science of medicine, and American lifestyles. The aforementioned article makes statements such as “For example, it has been shown that 12% colorectal cancers would be preventable by avoiding the consumption of processed meat alone. ” Shown by whom? This statement strongly suggest “cause” by stating that a cancer is “preventable” by eating or avoiding certain foods. There is no proof in the literature of a causal relationship in humans. There is also no guarantee whatsoever that if you avoid meat, you’ll avoid cancer. Shame on them.

The United States has one of the safest and most abundant food supplies on the planet. Could you reduce your risk of cancer or heart disease? Possibly. Will adding more vegetables to your diet help? Probably (antioxidants). Yet many factors are involved in what people choose to eat, or have access to (and genetics plays a role in disease).

Most dietitians work with individuals and attempt to encourage them to improve their diet and exercise more. The reason moderation can work, is it includes small portions of a wide variety of foods. Human nutrition research can only prove so much, since it’s unethical to either deprive a group of people of healthy food, or overdose them on unhealthy food. I am all for conservation and respecting the earth’s resources, but eating is a personal choice. Individuals who have the means or interest to pursue their own specialized way of eating can do so, but I think that in terms of overall public health, it’s best that we advocate for basic nutrition education (traditional food groups which supply essential nutrients) within communities (in schools and via federal nutrition programs). These programs should be led by registered dietitians or qualified school food service personnel, and should utilize supermarket dietitians (since the grocery store is where people get their food).

Nutrition is Not a Science of “Eat What I Eat”

It is not my place to tell people what to eat, nor to judge their choices. It’s also not my place to expect my host or hostess to cater to my personal eating behaviors or likes and dislikes. Within social media, I often see Vegans being harshly judgmental toward meat-eaters or cheese-lovers (Some, not all. Many vegans are well aware that everyone won’t choose to be vegan). Would some people benefit from eating smaller portions of meat? Yes. Would the planet benefit? Possibly. But on the other hand, replacing beef or pork farms with vegetables isn’t realistic. The land where cattle graze is not always fit for growing plants.

Personal world views and environmental politics need to be set aside when considering the welfare of impoverished communities, the obese population, or the malnourished. While some may feel a plate of organic vegetables, legumes, and grains may be ideal, another person may feel the plate should be “wheat-free”, and yet another “Paleo-follower” may want to serve up a large portion of grass-finished beef.

The most hungry or malnourished children in our country would be healthier with a simple bowl of cereal and milk every morning, and a plate with 3 ounces of roast chicken or beef, a potato and vegetables for dinner. Or whatever other reasonably nutritious food they could find.

Food elitism isn’t the path to improved public health.