Ain’t No Party Like a Dietitian Party

First, a disclaimer: this blog post is a lot longer than most of the ones we’ve previously put in this space. That being said, there’s tons of pictures!

I recently spent the better part of a week in downtown Chicago in the pursuit of furthering my expertise in the field of nutrition. The first few days were mostly spent in a ballroom on the 7th floor of the beautiful Intercontinental Chicago hotel on Michigan Avenue, where I was able to learn from and interact with world-renowned experts in the field of weight management.

I learned some new things (there’s such a thing as a “food swamp”) and reaffirmed many of the concepts I am already a believer in (food journaling can be a vital tool to change eating behaviors!). I managed to pass the program post-test with flying colors (98%!) to earn a certificate in weight management from the program. Keep an eye on this blog for more education related to weight management in the future.

Once the weight management program was complete on Saturday, I made the long hike (I still don’t know how to effectively use my Uber app) to McCormick Place on the south side of downtown to attend FNCE.

For my non-dietitian readers, FNCE stands for Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo. It’s an annual convention that brings together food and nutrition experts and aficionados from all over the United States and the world.

I have to admit, the opening session really surprised me. I found a seat in a room that had to be the size of three football fields. Unfortunately, my sub-amateur photography skills couldn’t really capture the scale of the event. In the front of the room was a huge stage with a countdown clock. As the clock hit zeros, the room exploded with virtual fireworks, jock-jam music, and raucous cheers. There was even a national anthem. It definitely felt more like a football game or a concert than a nutrition convention. Perhaps this is what Michael Scott envisioned for office supply conventions.

My best estimate is that 8-10,000 dietitians were present for the opening session. Sanjay Gupta was the keynote speaker and did a phenomenal job delivering a speech that was thought-provoking, funny, and even moving at times.

Perhaps the centerpiece of FNCE, at least in my eyes, is the Food Expo. Imagine the largest flea market you’ve ever been to, but every single booth is promoting trendy and (mostly) interesting food items.

If there was a single topic that stood out at the expo, it was gut health. In fact, it even had its own section within the space.

Probiotics, prebiotics, gut health, and microbiome are huge buzzwords in the health and wellness industry right now. And the bacteria population in our gut is definitely really, really important. It may well be the future of digestive medicine, as many have suggested. That being said, we don’t yet have the ability to give a prescription for or precisely recreate a healthy gut bacteria population. Our understanding of the subject is still in its infancy. These types of products are probably mildly beneficial and safe, but be careful about paying large amounts of money for products that promise a huge return. The overall picture of your diet is still what matters most, and all the probiotics in the world won’t fix your health if the rest of your diet is poor.

In the meantime, the food industry is busy dreaming up a plethora of ways to market gut-health-themed products, like sauerkraut in chip form. To be clear, you have to bake the sauerkraut to make a chip, which destroys most of the natural probiotics. They add the probiotics back in with a special seasoning. All science aside, they tasted pretty good.

For me, it’s sometimes difficult not to notice the contrast between the nutrition field’s emphasis on evidence-based information and its willingness to be marketed to. The topic of GMO’s is a perfect example. A booth at the food expo clearly presented the evidence (which is substantial) that GMO’s are totally safe to consume (environmental concerns not withstanding):

At the same time, food products throughout the expo loudly advertised the absence of GMO’s from their products. And, to be honest, it seemed like that was a huge selling point for many dietitians. In fact, I heard several asking about the GMO status of various products, presumably to confirm their interest in it. I suppose all of us are susceptible to advertising, but dietitians in particular should be discerning about the influence of food marketing on our perception of that food’s health value.

I was able to find a few local brands in the expo hall:

Growing up in a small town not too far from Viola and La Farge, I never expected to see food companies from those towns (GoMacro and Organic Valley) grow into national brands. I wrongly assumed that the people running this booth were Viola natives, when in fact they had only visited the “home farm” for GoMacro once each and were very surprised that I was familiar with Vernon County. I suppose that goes to show how much some of our local companies have grown.

Once again, my sub-amateur photography skills came into play here:

You probably can’t tell, but that’s a Dunkin Donuts stand. And the line at the stand was twenty people deep all day. It might seem odd that this would exist at a nutrition convention, but as I’ve mentioned before, dietitians like to eat food that tastes good just like normal humans. And, if you’re not aware, Dunkin’s donuts are delicious. Too many people waste time and energy in pursuit of a “perfect” diet, which doesn’t exist. You’d have a better chance at catching Bigfoot. Most dietitians know this and allow themselves to have these types of foods when they want them. You can save your donuts for special occasions, but don’t deprive yourself either.

Of course, FNCE is a lot more than food sampling. Each day is filled with educational lectures led by experts in their particular fields. Being a history nerd, a Sunday morning presentation titled: “What Chicago in 1900 Can Teach us about the Challenges of Science and Food Today” caught my eye. I realize that probably sounds pretty boring to most people, but it was right up my alley. I’ll spare you the details, but one point the speaker made really stood out to me and seems worth sharing. Take a look at this image:

And you think news headlines are dramatic today?

This article was featured in a Chicago newspaper in the early 1900’s right around the time Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, which brought scrutiny and suspicion upon the food industry for the first time in our country. Before this time period, there really wasn’t such a thing as the food “industry” – you mostly grew your own food or bought it from people you knew. The mass production of meat in the Chicago stockyards allowed meat companies to centralize and mass-produce their products before distributing it across the country in newly developed refrigerated rail cars. Some were deeply suspicious of this process, especially after reading Sinclair’s book. Over time, this movement led to the establishment of the first federal food safety laws.

Now, was there really tuberculosis and cancer in the beef being produced? Of course not, because those diseases couldn’t be transmitted in such a way. E. coli, though? Probably far more often then than now (remember, they didn’t have food safety laws). But given the limited scientific understanding of disease transmission over one hundred years ago, the newspaper’s stance probably seemed legitimate to many – even with no evidence to back it up.

Do we still have arguments like that today? You bet we do. Are people still pushing agendas with little to no scientific validity, but plenty of fear-mongering? Yes, yes, and yes. Although, to be honest, I would have been pretty suspicious of the meat produced in 1906 – there wasn’t any evidence that it was safe, either. My point is this: be a skeptic when someone’s trying to sell you something, and take the time to learn about it from an objective source if at all possible.

Here are a few other photos I snapped from my weekend at FNCE:

If you want dietitians to pay attention to your booth, just give them free sushi.

These were actually pretty good, although not as good as the pizza up the street at Giordano’s.

They actually had chocolate-flavored peanut milk too. I always wonder if people would buy these products if they had to call them “peanut juice” or “walnut juice”.

Drinking bone broth makes me feel like a Game of Thrones character, which is nice.

They didn’t have protein beer. I checked.