The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s drama on dietitian Twitter, and it’s exposing deep rifts in nutrition doctrine

Rebecca Subbiah, a registered dietitian and organic farmer. (Courtesy of Rebecca Subbiah)

Rebecca Subbiah remembers times when dietitians on Twitter made her cry.

They mocked her intellect. They called her names. They circulated criticisms of her online.

All this happened because Subbiah, who is also a registered dietitian, unwittingly stepped into an online debate about industrial farming practices. She tweeted that she personally prefers organic foods because she believes they're better for the environment.

“It was terrible,” Subbiah said. “Very toxic.”

Such issues have long been controversial among consumers. But in the world of nutrition, they have lately grown so heated that the country’s certifying body for dietitians issued guidance to its members asking them to avoid “belittling” or “humiliating” colleagues in online discussions.

Harassment has become common in the field, according to six dietitians who spoke to The Washington Post. And many think that the growing hostility reflects deepening ideological divides in both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the professional group — and in nutrition, in general.

The field has been rocked in recent years by accusations of corporate influence and debates about the degree to which environmental, labor and social justice concerns should shape nutritional advice. Dietitian-on-dietitian bullying often unfolds along those lines.

“It’s a reflection of that culture,” said Ashley Colpaart, a registered dietitian who left a leadership role at the academy last year and who also received abusive tweets. “There is a growing divide between these schools of thought — and people are very much engaged in black-or-white thinking.”

The social media guidance — published in the academy’s Food and Nutrition magazine last month — was intended to help address some of these issues. The organization is encouraging members to sign what it calls a “Pledge of Professional Civility,” promising to support constructive dialogue online and to avoid personal attacks on other dietitians.

Liz Spittler, the magazine’s executive editor, said that the pledge was not published in response to any particular person or event, but rather to the changing tone of social media.

“The dietetics community is a reflection of the general social media community,” she said. “And we do see that becoming more negative.”

But dietitians interviewed by The Post said that they think their profession has a particular problem with social media harassment, incited by a small, amorphous clique of dietitians whose stated goal is to correct nutritional and scientific misinformation.

Twitter archives show that they’ve done this largely by sharing news articles and opinions, often organizing around hashtags like #stand4science, #woofighter and #BuildupRDNs.

Occasionally, however, Twitter archives also show that the clique has ganged up on colleagues who criticize the conventional food system: questioning their credentials, accusing them of taking money from special interests, and hounding conference organizers and academy chapters that have worked with them.

Victims say the campaigns are typically sparked by philosophical disagreements, and not scientific ones, as instigators claim. The predominant organizer of these campaigns, who tweets in a personal capacity, declined to speak to The Post about them, referring questions to the academy.

But for the dietitians on the receiving end, online bullying has put reputations and businesses at risk.

Subbiah, who runs a consulting firm that relies in large part on her social media presence, became anxious when other dietitians began tweeting that she didn't understand science. She said her attackers frequently misrepresented her views in public forums, making it seem as if she took an extreme stance on conventional farming when she does not.

“Please refrain from lecturing me on GMO crops,” she tweeted at one critic earlier this year. “My neighbors and fellow farmers grow them and I respect them. [We] need all farmers.”

Chris Vogliano, a registered dietitian and PhD student, had a similar experience at the hands of the same clique. Vogliano filed a formal ethics complaint to the academy in September after learning that another dietitian had had spent hours tweeting at the attendees of a talk he gave on food waste, claiming that his statistics were incorrect. The statistics — which included figures on waste in agriculture and food processing — came directly from government reports, Vogliano said, and the messages hurt his reputation.

“If she was truly concerned and wanted to contact me directly, that would be one thing,” Vogliano wrote in his complaint. “However, this runs deeper than a statistic. She wanted to publicly shame me.”

A third victim, Melinda Hemmelgarn, said she also experienced social media harassment after speaking at a public event. Hemmelgarn's talk involved the “unintended consequences” of GMOs — such as farmworker exposure to chemicals and pesticide drift. (Hemmelgarn said she is not opposed to GM crops in general.)

When she logged onto Twitter after the panel, however, she was surprised to see eight consecutive messages from a dietitian in North Carolina, accusing Hemmelgarn of failing to disclose her work with organic food companies and tagging Hemmelgarn’s local academy chapter. Even after Hemmelgarn explained that she had disclosed her affiliations at the event, the woman — an outspoken proponent of GMOs — continued to tweet about Hemmelgarn for months afterward.

“Remember high school?” she said. “It felt a lot like that.”

Like other victims of online bullying, Hemmelgarn is glad to see the academy acknowledge the issue now — although she doubts a voluntary pledge will be enough to flush the problem out. After years in the field and the social media trenches, she believes incivility is just a symptom of the actual problem: deep divides between dietitians regarding the state of the modern food system.

Historically, the field hasn't bothered much with these questions. Issues such as the environmental impact of conventional agriculture or the degree to which food conglomerates shape the food supply were traditionally left to public-health researchers, said Marion Nestle, a prominent food reformer and nutrition professor at New York University.

In recent years, however, the field of nutrition has been forced to confront many of these issues. In early 2015, the Dietary Advisory Guidelines committee — the scientific panel convened to make nutrition recommendations to the federal government — sparked a political and dietetic firestorm when it recommended that Americans eat more plant-based foods for the sake of the environment.

Since then, many dietitians have become more aware of food system issues, said Andy Bellatti, a founding member of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group that opposes corporate influence in nutrition. That awareness appears to have sparked tensions.

“There's a real cultural divide at play,” Bellatti said. “Frankly I think it's a shame that we can't have a civil discussion about it.”

For Bellatti, that's made the idea of the pledge important — even if it can't address the roots of the issue. He signed it Nov. 1. Vogliano, the PhD student, and Subbiah, the organic farmer, signed in late October.

Only time will tell, Vogliano said, whether the guidelines work.

“The biggest offenders have yet to sign,” he told The Post by email. "[But] as health professionals, if we see instances of bullying or harassment, we should not sit idly by while it happens.”

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