Says Who?

Some two-thirds of Americans are considered to be overweight, and nearly a third of the adult population, much to the chagrin of their doctors, is deemed to be obese. At the forefront of the efforts to help people lose those extra pounds are professional dietitians.

According to a report by the Associated Press, the very same snack and soda makers that are often blamed for fueling the nation’s obesity rates also play a role in educating the dietitians who advise Americans on healthy eating.

Companies like Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and others are essentially teaching the teachers. Their workshops and classes for the nation’s dietitians are said to be part of a behind-the-scenes effort to burnish the images of their snacks and drinks.

The practice has elicited accusation that the practice gives the food industry too much influence over dietitians, who take the classes to earn the education credits they need to maintain their licenses.

Ben Sheidler, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, says the company’s course materials are based on independent, third-party research. He said Coca-Cola is acting responsibly by working to provide professionals with the facts surrounding its products.

Coca-Cola also said its surveys show the vast majority of participants in its classes find them helpful and “free of commercial bias.”

Some dietitians vehemently disagree, and make some very valid arguments in the process.

“It’s not education. It’s PR,” said Andy Bellatti, a Las Vegas-based dietitian who helped found Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group of about a dozen dietitians who are calling for an end to the practice. These dieticians point out that companies would never present information that doesn’t serve their interests. Elizabeth Lee, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles and one of the founders of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, noted that the classes typically have a message that supports the company’s products.

“It’s getting harder and harder to really find something that isn’t total baloney,” Debra Riedesel, another registered dietitian based in Des Moines, Iowa, said.

One class given by Coca Cola, titled “Understanding Dietary Sugars and Health,” was taught by instructors who both had industry ties. One acknowledged ties to the Sugar Association, the other close ties to the Corn Growers Association on the subject of high fructose corn syrup.

It is little wonder that an instructor said he doesn’t think there should be dietary guidelines regarding sugar intake. Prominent medical organizations including the American Heart Association disagree, and like many mothers of young children, encourage individuals of all ages to limit the amount of sugar in the food they eat and liquids they drink.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to gauge to what extent these classes really affect the mindset of dietitians.  But it stretches credulity to believe that soda makers and snack companies can be trusted to provide unbiased information in the efforts to help Americans to lose weight.