ADA Conference Explores Nutrition Topics

The DNA of diet and other new trends from the American Dietetic Association conference.

By David Feder, R.D. Editor

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The Wellness Foods editorial advisory board convened in St. Louis while (most of us were) at the American Dietetic Association's annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo.

This year's conference was a pretty good one, although I wish the powers that be at ADA would put a limit on how many studies predating the first Gulf War presenters can include in their session. Little is more disconcerting when going to hear the latest on a subject - for example, antioxidants - than having the speakers rehash 12-year-old studies that they've been rehashing at every ADA since the first George Bush was in the White House.

With that gripe out of the way, the first issue raised at the board meeting was the continued absence of "food" in "nutrition." The old guard of nutritionists who seem to think of nutrition and food in utterly separate terms still seem to rule, at least above the exhibition floor. As one member put it, "Where's the 'taste this, smell this, feel this?'" We all heartily agreed as we dove into our outstanding meal at the newly opened St. Louis trend-spot, Terrene.

The hot topic of the conference - and our WF conclave - was nutrigenomics, the intersection of genetics and nutrition. Here's where a confession is due: When newest advisory board member and long-time Wellness Foods contributor Dr. Kantha Shelke suggested last spring that it might be a subject worth looking at, I scoffed. Nutrigenomics seemed nothing more than a pretentious resurrection of the Capt. Kangaroo-era abdication of personal responsibility for one's weight problem. It called to mind the (somewhat insensitive) cliché of the obese couch potato with a donut in one hand and a milk shake in the other crying between commercial breaks, "I can't help being fat - it's in my genes!"

Granted, the influence of genetic makeup on metabolism always had a measure of validity, but the rule of thumb was, if you exercise and eat "right," you can readily overcome that biological inheritance from the zaftig side of your family.

According to new research presented at ADA, this may not be as true as we thought. In one blind study, overweight subjects with an identified genetic cellular lipid-uptake and metabolism factor, on a controlled 1,200-kcal diet had virtually no weight-loss effect after three years compared with a control group lacking the same marker.

At our meeting, we discussed the "Nice tune, but can you dance to it?" factor of such research. In other words, how do you apply such knowledge in the nonclinical setting of wellness foods processing? Frito-Lay can hardly make 250 million different formulations of better-for-you Doritos.

Unfortunately, we have few answers to this conundrum, but it's going to be interesting to see where nutrigenomics goes. The board also agreed there is a danger in letting a sloppily reported concept of nutrigenomics loose in our society of "victimhood." Any excuse a person can get for evading activity and sound diet - still an important prescription for managing weight and diabetes - will most surely be taken.

On the upside, one can only hope this will help shatter the persistent "one size fits all" approach to dietary guidelines by many nutrition practitioners. True, the discipline is much better at it than in the "Four Food Groups" days, and the MyPyramid scheme attempts to take exactly that approach, but too many dietitians and nutrition communicators still dive rote-first into their work. The continued demonization of fat and salt springs to mind.

Speaking of diabetes, that was another interesting aspect of this year's conference: The word was conspicuous in its absence. Or at least its slightly diminished presence - plenty of sessions covered the issue. Just not all of them. Until this year, one could not have a discussion of nutrition without hearing about the diabetes epidemic. Even shuttle bus schedule announcements seemed to find some way to mention the subject. "Your attention please. Diabetes is a national epidemic. The 11:30 bus will now be leaving from entrance D instead of entrance A."

Are nutritionists giving up? Is the problem solved? Are we giving up because the problem is solved but patients will not comply? Perhaps the field has simply snapped to the fact that, as serious as the epidemic is, it is not the only issue in nutrition.

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