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10 Takeaways from the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE) in Philadelphia. This is the largest annual gathering for food and nutrition professionals across the globe and includes several hundred exhibitors, with more than 100 presentations, panel discussions and demonstrations. It’s been several years since I last attended the conference so I was curious to find out some of the latest research and products, and connect with my peers. I came away with several positives, some frustrating disappointments, and a few questions about the current state of our profession. Here are the 10 big takeaways for me.

1. Be dietitians, not commercials.

Walking into the convention hall, the Academy proudly hoists a banner with the following sponsors:

  •  Coca Cola
  •  Hershey
  •  National Dairy Council
  •  Truvia
  •  PepsiCo
  •  Kelloggs
  •  Mars
  •  Campbells
  •  Soyjoy
  •  General Mills
  •  ConAgra
  •  Del Monte Foods

At Life Time we believe, as should all properly trained registered dietitians, that whole foods are critical to providing adequate nutrition for optimal health and wellness. Unfortunately the sponsors for our professional conference are organizations deeply involved in highly processed foods, processed wheat and grain products, and sugary or artificially flavored beverages. We all know the influence these items have on obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

One of my favorite speakers at the conference was a 65 year old registered dietitian who has been a successful entrepreneur for the past 40 years.  She pointed out “As nutrition professionals, we should want wholesome, unprocessed foods available yet at our own conference we’re bombarded by processed foods as we enter the marketplace EXPO. And with a $2,500.00 booth reservation fee, many small businesses were squeezed out of the opportunity to share their products and education. I think the Academy should not be so closely aligned with financial sponsors. Their focus should be on whole foods and not on items found in boxes, bottles, or cans.”

2. Find the positive.

At the conference, the Marketplace EXPO was really a microcosm of the often overwhelming amount of products and choices that need to be made by consumers, including ourselves, each day. We should all be making an effort to find and experience the good and the great among all the not-so-great options. 

Some of the good I saw at the EXPO:

  •  Entire sections dedicated to “whole & organic” foods and “gluten free” foods.
  •  A monk fruit sweetener. This is a new product that comes from a fruit 200 times as sweet as sugar. One packet is as sweet as 2 tsp of sugar and is currently available in large retailers.
  •  Kerrygold grass fed dairy products (butter and cheese).
  •  Zevia sodas, 0 calories made with Stevia all-natural sweeteners (found in many of our Life Cafes).
  •  Simply Snackin. A small family business producing all-natural jerky snacks from chicken or beef with different fruits added. These taste great and are reasonably priced.
  •  Daiya cheese. A non-dairy, gluten-free or soy cheese alternative. Melts great.

Some of the Not-So-Good:

  •  Coca Cola and PepsiCo trialing their new beverages to enormous waiting lines.
  •  Hershey’s giving away chocolate candy.
  •  Kellogg’s promoting Fruit Loops, Frosted Flakes and Pop Tarts. Sigh.
  •  KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut offering “healthy” options like grilled chicken in a bucket and fresco style tacos.
  •  McDonalds. I didn’t even stop there.

3. Be yourself.

In an interesting Leadership vs. Manager presentation, RDs align strongly with certain demographics and behaviors such as:

  •  Ninety seven percent of the profession is female. This is obviously a great field for males to join and make an impact. Life Time currently employs three males in our corporate office and six in the clubs.
  •  We like rules and role models. We prefer to follow guidelines and take direction rather than allowing ourselves to think outside the box or stay on the cutting edge. Very different than Life Time!
  •  We are risk averse and are not traditionally found in leadership roles.

Believe me, I know what a challenge it can be to question tradition and think out of the box. It’s not easy. But we all bring unique backgrounds, experiences and approaches to our work. You have a unique voice and it deserves to be heard.

4. Improve.

How can we improve our professional practice? It takes 2 hours a day to maintain performance. It takes more than 2 hours a day to improve job performance. How many hours a day are you really practicing and engaged in what you were trained to do? How many hours do you spend wading through administrative paperwork or trying to solve bureaucratic puzzles? Some of that paperwork work is a necessity, but don’t be hesitant to reach out for help when you need it so you can accomplish what you’re uniquely trained to do.

5. Make a difference.

20% of the population requires 80% of the healthcare costs. As engaged, competent professionals we can, and should, have an impact on statistics like this.

6. Question dogma.

During a Neuroprotective Nutrition presentation, an astute Doctor of Chiropractic was discussing a nutrition philosophy closely aligned to our beliefs at Life Time and said “I know this won’t make me a lot of friends in this room but I do not recommend grains.” At that point an RD behind me, who from the outside looked to be in dreadful overall health stated “You think? You shouldn’t be practicing nutrition!” I didn’t have the courage to engage her in a heated debate at that moment. But the contrast was striking between an energetic, healthy presenter discussing an important nutritional topic and a judgmental, miserable RD dismissing information because it hasn’t been in her formulaic approach for the past 30 years. Don’t be that person!

7. Stay awake.

The moderator for the Neuroprotective Nutrition presentation claimed “What a novel concept for RDs that nutrition can change the brain post-utero.”

Where has she been hiding?

8. Connect the dots.

Nothing we do is in a silo. There are always multiple touch points and outcomes related to our actions. We won’t be able to know all of the outcomes, or even how to directly influence them, but we should all periodically step back and try to see the bigger picture rather than just completing the single task in front of us.

9. Embrace the future.

Nutrigenomics is a field still in its infancy but has interesting implications for our field. There are currently 20 Direct-to-Consumer genetic testing companies testing for risk of common medical conditions or disease. The results are far from conclusive, but the field is rapidly growing.

10. Be skeptical.

I attended a presentation on health implications of fructose. I found out one of the primary speakers currently works for Hershey and was previously employed by Coca Cola. Hmm, I wonder where this presentation is going. Sure enough, after a review of published studies the speaker concluded there was a benefit to consuming fructose on blood pressure and HbA1c levels in diabetics. However, at the end of the review the presenter mentioned that the studies involved in the meta-analysis were small and short term (<12 weeks) and were therefore poor quality since they did not assess the long-term implications of fructose consumption.

Try to make yourself aware of the latest research and some of the bold claims in current headlines. Dig deeper into research topics that interest you. Most importantly, try to keep both an open mind as well as a healthy skepticism to new research and ideas.


As you may have guessed, for me the conference was a mixed bag of experiences. It was at times incredibly frustrating to see my profession and so many of my peers under the influence or pressure of large organizations with deep pockets. At the same time it was invigorating for me to come back to work and know that what I’m doing here at Life Time, and what we’re doing for others through our work is going to have a long-lasting, positive impact on real people.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on my action items I took away from the conference as well as your own experiences at conferences or meetings you may have attended.

By Cindi Lockhart, RD, LD, Weight Loss Coaching Program Manager

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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Reader Comments (14)

Thanks Cindi, this is great! I'm going to go over it with the training staff on Monday. This is wonderful insight behind the scenes that many of us wouldn't get a chance to get a glimps of.

October 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDennis

Thanks Cindi, I applause you and your reaction to the over abundance of large corporate sponsorships. I feel as a nutrition coac, it is our duty to educate and empower our clients to seek out whole healthful foods and bring them home to their families. Cocoa Cola does NOT make apples!

October 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBeth Ritter Nydick

Hey Cindi!
I'm so glad I came across this article. I have been following Andy Bellatti on Twitter for quite some time as well as some other RD's. Many of them were "Live Tweeting" the conference and had ALOT of interesting things to say. They took pictures of the not-so-great booths you mentioned but also mentioned some of the good things as well. That "Sugar consumption" session made the rounds; it must have been one of the most popular and controversial events because it was tweeted about quite a bit. Unbelieveable!
Your article is very informative and if anything, just gives me hope that somehow someway, the "little man" will be heard and years down the road, these processed foods will be RARE and healthy food will once again reign supreme.

October 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Piccolo

Thank you, Cindi! I so appreciate your honest, objective views on today's nutrition. Too often I am met with the argument from friends stating they have been eating wheat (or corn, or chickem, etc.) for 60 years and they cannot believe it is not the same substance as years ago. It seems the thought of genetically and chemically altered foods is overwhelmingly too involved for the average consumer to comprehend. Education is critical in addition to finding a way for corporate greed to become responsible managers. I pray we can get more Americans engaged before more damaging medical conditions arise than are already observed.

October 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Bennett

What a wonderful review and a depressing realistic view of all the "big" companies lack of having proper nutrition as their base for creating products.

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCynthia

I have a comment and a question.

The comment: I am reading a terrific book now called The World According to Monsanto by Marie-Monique Robin. I highly recommend this book as it discusses the corporate shenanigans surrounding the approval of GMOs and animal growth hormones and the health consequences of these completely non-natural foods.

The question: I've found a place to purchase full-grain einkorn, otherwise known as farro piccolo. This is the original wheat grain that humans ate 10,000 years ago. It used to be known as wheat until we altered wheat to be the thing it is today. What do you think about the healthiness of eating einkorn as a grain?

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTamara

Thanks for sharing your insights, Cindi! I just checked out the Simply Snackin website and their products sound great. I've noticed the Zevia products at our Life Cafe. I hope the Simply Snackin meat snacks will show up there someday too. Toward #5 (Make a difference), I'd love to see the Life Time Fitness clubs offer more opportunities for education on nutrition, not just for those looking to lose weight. Thanks again!

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

Thanks for the good info, we all need this info, glad you are part of Life Time.

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJK

To all - thank you for your comments!

@Tamara - I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the Monsanto book. I know bovine growth hormone was approved in dairy cattle by Monsanto after a short, small study on rats! yikes! In regards to Einkorn wheat, absolutely! That is "real" wheat before chemistry took over and altered our wheat.

@Sarah - we do offer a basic nutrition seminar called Nutrition Essentials & have you tried out the Grocery Tours? Great suggestion to add more, however, as we know there is always more to learn.

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCindi Lockhart, RD

I think I've done both Nutrition Essentials and the Grocery Tours twice with the 90-day challenge. They were both great learning experiences and I'd recommend them to everyone. We've adopted many of the nutrition tips into our daily lifestyle. Thanks again!

October 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

So any big company is "bad" because they make shelf stable products and they should not partner in any way with anyone who knows anything about human nutrition? Wake up little girl! Is flying out of season produce around the globe a good idea so you can have "fresh" berries, tomatoes and cucumbers at Christmas? Will canned. drained and rinsed beans, for example, speed up a healthy meal compared to soaking overnight and cooking for many hours the following day? These big, bad companies make exactly what the market demands. If something does not sell, it is discontinued. If you feel that Cream of Mushroom soup and freaky onion things are weird, don't make that green bean casserole at Thanksgiving. These companies exist to make a profit - just like Life Time. Most of the information Life Time sends out is actually pretty good - much better than gyms I have belonged to in the past. Please remember that relatively wealthy people with lots of disposable income are members. Maybe you should open your mind a tiny bit, lose the prejudice, and check out what new items are being offered. Why? Because healthy options can sell, if many consumers want them. Price is a factor for many. Why are all grains bad for everybody? That makes no sense at all, no matter what the speaker looked like.
BTW - the AND meeting is specifically designed for dietitians in practice, primarily American. Other countries have their own associations and their own meetings. Speakers may have come from all over, but few participants because most dietitians do not make that much and because the profession differs somewhat. In the USA food service (why are those big companies so prominent?) is lumped in with clinical care, unlike most everywhere else. Want the latest in Nutrition Science - attend the American Society for Nutrition meeting at Experimental Biology.

October 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSnap4it

@ Snap4it: In regards to "waking up", I have been in the profession for over 20 years and believe me have seen, learned, and practiced more nutrition and wellness than you will ever know. What I do know is that nutrition from a lab absolutely impacts the body and health much more dramatically (not in a good way) than nutrition grown from the ground or from non-adulterated animal sources. If you were to actually look for this "science" and impact on health, you would find a multitude of studies confirming what I state above. I agree with you in that Big Business sells! Marketing is powerful & everyone is in a hurry these days, or so they think they are. It all comes down to priorities in life and to be completely honest, it truly does not take much more time to make whole foods than it does to open a box or can. Think of it as a long-term investment in your energy, metabolism, weight, and health.

October 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCindi Lockhart, RD

Not all big companies are bad. Big companies that raise animals inhumanely, process foods so much that they lose any semblance of nutritional integrity, and promote industrially processed food because it is cheap to make and drives a huge profit, yeah I'd say those guys are bad. The reason people buy the processed foods is because they truly do not understand how bad it is for them and their families. Most people think something is healthy because it says "healthy" on the box.

Snap4it, happen to be a person with a fair amount of disposable income, too. I choose to use some of it to buy books so I can understand nutrition, and buy healthy, local, real foods so that I can practice it.

October 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTamara

Thanks for the information Cindi. I had to laugh about the sponsors that attended. I will have to make sure that my company is there to represent whole food based nutrition at the next conference. Have you ever heard of Juice Plus+? I would love to share more information with anyone that is open.

Debbie Jackson

October 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie Jackson

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