SPECIAL POST: Policing Food Choice? A Dietitian’s Perspective
By: Roberta Saccone, RD
As a dietitian, it is my job to think about other people’s food choices. I will admit that I have been referred to as the ‘food police’ by some; people will turn their shopping cart the other way when they see me coming down the supermarket aisle. This reaction relates to misconceptions about what dietitians do, but also how food choice is conceived of as a ‘moral’ issue.
Dietitians (RDs) evaluate and assess other peoples’ diets, often recommending changes for better health. We are a group of food and nutrition professionals who have similar backgrounds in training. We all meet standardized requirements to advance to supervised practice. We translate evidence-based science to practical solutions for healthy living, disease prevention and management. We promote food first as a viable way to embody and better health. We do not always put people on diets, in fact, we often discourage them.
Some major roles of a Clinical Dietitian include:
1.) Providing tailored nutrients to those who need nourishment to thrive, heal, or endure treatments or surgery, for example, using intravenous feedings when the gastrointestinal tract is not useable;
2.) Providing tailored nutrients because of the body’s inability to use food as energy or remove the waste products from the foods we eat, for example, using insulin pumps to mediate diets in people with Type I Diabetes;
3.) Providing Nutrition Counseling
It is this last role that many people mistake as ‘policing’ food choice, but in fact we spend much of our time dispelling the myth of the ‘perfect eater.’ Treating food as medicine has its own moral tenets that may or may not line up with people’s views on the role food plays in their lives. Respecting those roles is our job, but this does not mean that diet is static. Food choices (and lack thereof) are often fluid and change for many reasons over time, with health being one of them.
Morals can be thought of as“codes of conduct,”and diet, what one may choose to eat or not eat, can be viewed on many levels, including ones that embody morality. Food choice is complex, not simply a question of what to eatand what not to eatas popularized in USdiet books. Trying to take the complexity away from what to eat assumes that we all are in need of help with our food selection. But let’s face it, morality aside, the promise of betterment of health or body attracts many people, making the food and nutrition industry one of the most profitable in the US.
Diet can aid in the prevention and management of the major lifestyle diseases (heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer). Changing one’s diet is hard, and people often need support and help. Some people do well with small and consistent change; others prefer to focus on areas that make the biggest impact first. Dietitians work to find viable ways to help individuals.
Typically, people at higher levels of weight or individuals who are unhappy with their weight or body size carry richer and more complex food and dieting histories and personal narratives replete with themes of failure, guilt and remorse. Narratives are laden with “shoulds.” Dietitians help people navigate the issues encountered with changes in diet, whether that is through education, counseling and support, or coordination with other practitioners in health care.
One thing I am sure of is that individual food and food choice is a problem for many—this is where dietitians can help. For some, taking away choice of certain foods is a small price to pay if the dividends are large. For others, taking away or limiting choice is an infringement on their personal freedom. To me, choice depends largely on circumstance, and if one is in need of diet modification to feel and live the way they want, then dietitians can help people reach those goals.
The media tends to popularize a simplified view of food choice. Individual foods are often portrayed as commodities and labeled in black and white ways such as good or bad, healthful or hurtful without examining its role in one’s overall diet, and the meanings it may hold. A more holistic view of health that encompasses social, mental, spiritual and emotional aspects is individually defined, with food and food choice playing a role in each.