I’m happy to introduce to you all today, one of the many pioneers in the dietetics community, Andy Bellatti. Andy is most known for his start on his blog called Small Bites, which grew a mass following, so much so that he took the next step in his journey/career big time- he now is consulted on major TV networks, Huffington Post, Civil Eats, Grist, and more for his opinion on food, nutrition, and the politics behind it. He also is the director of the group called Dietitians for Professional Integrity. He has a fun time calling out food industry deception and does it with an awesome attitude. Learn about his thoughts on the word “diet”, how dietitians can grow together, what healthy means to him, and his favorite foods. Everyone, meet Andy!
for Nutrition Stripped
If you had to define all that you do in a title, what would you say?
Dietitian, Advocate, and Food Industry BS Detector
What is your professional background?
I currently work as a health coach in corporate wellness.
How would you describe your philosophy about living healthy?
Simplicity, in all aspects of life – everything from using simple ingredients in recipes to living “simply”: free of petty drama, making room for leisure, and having a sense of humor. Laughter is healthy.
How did you get started creating your passion into a business—when was your “ah-ha” moment?
I always had a peripheral interest in nutrition, but mainly saw myself as – and went to school to become – a journalist. In 2004, two days after graduating with a degree in journalism from NYU and knowing I didn’t want to go the traditional journalism route, I watched Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me. That documentary awakened something in me; I pretty much walked out of the theater and thought about going back to school for a degree in nutrition and finding a way to blend that with journalism.
You not only work as a dietitian but are also on the front line leading controversial, yet purposeful, talks about nutrition and health; what are you most passionate about in this field?
The way the food industry has spun science and confused the general public to its benefit. The clients I see each day are constant reminders of how successful industry is at that game. On a weekly basis, I’m either letting someone know that Special K cereal is not as healthy as they have been made to believe, that drinking fruit juice is not the same as eating fruit, or explaining why the term “natural” is meaningless. Initially people are frustrated by this new information, but they are ultimately thankful.
You work with large media brands, on TV, and magazines; what is your favorite outlet to share your information?
Every medium has its pros and cons. A three minute TV appearance is great exposure, but you can’t provide the same rich context you can in a 1,000 word op-ed where you are able to link back to eight other articles that people should take the time to read. Similarly, Twitter can be a fantastic way to share breaking news, absurd photos, and share articles that are worth a read, but it’s atrocious as far as engaging in substantive dialogue with anyone else.
You’re often consulted to share what’s happening in the world of dietetics with the mainstream media, what is the most highly requested topic you speak of?
Most of my requests are not about dietetics itself but more about my analysis of food industry developments – more often than not a healthwashing claim, a vague pledge, or something self-congratulatory that, when you examine it closely, doesn’t mean much.
I was a huge fan of your blog which has no since stopped so you can focus on bigger projects (kudos!); as a dietitian what did you feel were the pros and cons about having a research focused blog versus, for example, a blog like mine more opinion/lifestyle based?
It ultimately comes down to what your strengths are and what you can offer. If it feels right for you, then that style is a pro for you. When I first started Small Bites, in 2007, I was starting my masters program in nutrition. Being in that academic setting naturally exposed me to a lot of research, so writing straight-forward nutrition science posts came naturally.
As time went on and I became more aware of – and informed about – issues of food politics, social justice, and food industry deception, I started incorporating more of that into my work. Once I had the science down, I felt comfortable sharing my opinions. I now mainly write opinion pieces, but in order to make them strong, I rely on nutrition science and research to back up my points. The only “con” is forcing yourself into a mold that isn’t a good fit for you. When it comes to a blog, overthinking is your worst enemy. If your content doesn’t align with your personality and interests, that awkwardness and lack of authenticity comes through.
I wholeheartedly wish I could say our dietetic profession is supportive of one another- but it’s not always the case. Many have old school thoughts on nutrition, healthy living, and diets. Have you received any criticism from other RD’s from the creation of DFPI [Dietitians For Professional Integrity, a group you co-founded and are the Strategic Director of, which advocates for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to sever its ties with sponsors like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, and Kellogg’s]?
Yes, but as you learn in journalism from day one: consider the source. Most of the criticism stemmed from from dietitians who work for the food industry. And, of course, some of the leadership at AND wasn’t happy, to put it mildly. I’m sure my face is on many dartboards at AND headquarters in Chicago.
If so, how do you deal with said criticism?
For one, I separate criticism into two categories: constructive criticism from people who want to see me grow and succeed (the one worth heeding), and attacks from people who think tearing others down is a way to build themselves up (the one that goes in one ear and out the other). When I encounter extreme hostility, I remember that that level of aggression has nothing to do with me. I always like to say that self-loathing + misdirected anger + a keyboard + social media = a bad combination.
That said, I entered this territory willingly. When you are progressive, provocative, and point a flashlight at what many people like to keep in the dark, you are not always going to be popular. I knew some people were not going to like what I said about AND and the food industry, so those reactions were predictable. Ultimately, life goes on. You can’t rely on external validation for meaning and purpose.
How do you think our profession can support each other more?
If you enjoy another dietitian’s work, tell them. Share the work of other dietitians with your networks. And, please, remember you don’t have to agree on everything with your colleagues. Just because you and a colleague don’t see eye to eye on the healthfulness of eggs does not mean you can’t collaborate on a project or point to a well-researched blog post they wrote about the environmental footprint of beef.
Remember who was with you along the way. Not just who was with you when things weren’t going well, but also who was with you when things were going really well for you, too. Those are people who aren’t threatened by your success. They are good people.
What’s your favorite quote or mantra you can’t live without?
“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” – Harold Wilson
Progress is a given, it’s the timeline in which it happens that’s unpredictable. Whether you are talking slavery, suffrage, civil rights, or marriage equality, there were always people who tried to buckle down on the status quo, stigmatize activists, and claim the established way was the only right way. And, well, here we are now. There will undoubtedly come a time when health organizations accepting money from soda companies will be a relic. It could happen in five years, twenty years, or fifty years. I want to contribute my grain of sand to that development.
Who or what gives you the most inspiration?
Books I read and talks I listen to can really move me. Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics” and Michele Simon’s “Appetite for Profit” are two books that awakened something in me. After I read them, I felt inspired and purposeful. They both shaped my career. In Marion Nestle’s case (I’ve read her books and heard her speak on several occasions), I am always in awe of the way she masterfully connects dots, the way she can summarize a complex issue in a four sentences, and her knack for providing important historical context.
Michele Simon is a sharp critical thinker. She has taught me many things, but one of the most important ones is to dig deep into an issue and examine it from a critical lens. Their work is inspiring because it delivers something fresh and new.
Picture this; you’re living your most perfect day- what does this look like?
I would wake up and have a just-made iced almond and coconut milk latte on my nightstand.
Now what’s your actual typical day look like?
Alas, like any other commoner, I must start my day by actually driving to a coffeeshop to get my daily iced latte.
Fueling your body to keep mentally sharp and on your toes takes good food, what’s your typical meal for…
- First thing upon waking: I am never hungry until about a half hour to an hour after I wake up.
- Morning: I go through ruts. Right now I am in a muesli and coconut yogurt rut. Prior to that, it was Ezekiel toast with sunflower seed butter, maca, and cinnamon. And, before that, it was quinoa and oat porridge with shredded coconut and bananas,
- Lunch: This time of year is the busiest for me at work, so it’s most convenient to I have “snack lunches”. For example, a handful of almonds, jicama or red bell pepper with hummus or guacamole, some lentil salad (I like to make a big batch of that a few times a month), and an apple.
- Supper: I eat bean-based dishes three or four times a week, usually with some sort of grain (brown jasmine rice cooked with a little coconut milk and lime juice is my favorite). When I’m feeling lazy, I’ll heat up two Qrunch quinoa patties (the spicy Italian is my favorite) and wrap it in an Ezekiel wrap with hummus, arugula, and nutritional yeast.
- Snacks or sweets: Hail Merry tarts and macaroons are my favorite sweet treat.
- Favorite beverage: GT Trilogy Kombucha, hands down!
Let’s talk about the whole foods movement, what are your thoughts on this?
I think it’s rather fractured at the moment. There are too many echo chambers. It’s why, three years ago, I wrote a piece for Grist on what I coined as “dietary tribalism,” which is utterly unhelpful and entirely ego-driven. I’m so over the Paleos snickering at the vegans and vice versa. It’s intellectually masturbatory. Last year I did a radio interview with a cattle rancher. When he first reached out to me with the idea, I was hesitant because we don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, and I wasn’t interested in a heated debate on the radio. But, I had a feeling he was interested in true conversation, so I took him up on his offer.
We disagreed on some things, and agreed on others. For his listeners, it was unlike anything they had heard before. At the end of the interview he actually said that I was the first vegan that he invited to come on the show who took him up on his offer. The food movement needs more of that. We need to be okay with disagreement and take out the identity politics and the ego from it. Ultimately, if the food movement wants to make any strides, the vegans and the cattle ranchers are going to have to talk and find what issues they can collaborate on. Movements and revolutions are messy. They are supposed to take you out of your comfort zone.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about dietitians?
That we put people on “diets”.
What are your personal favorite research resources? What things do you do to keep up to date with your profession?
Examine.com is fantastic for research on supplements and also to get in-depth analyses of the latest nutrition studies. Whenever a study makes headlines, I seek it out and read it, because too often, what the media reports is not an accurate reflection of what the study concluded.
What are your thoughts on the current fall out of ‘wellness gurus’ on social media, exaggerating their disease-to-health stories yet gaining popularity and profiting of these facades?
I always take a skeptical approach when “personalities” in the health field claim they have beat dozens of ailments and conveniently don’t have any records of said ailments. It’s all very slimy, and it’s why people need to investigate anyone who makes grandiose claims. Personally, I find the guru worship that sometimes happens in the nutrition and health field very disturbing. There are a number of snake oil salespeople in nutrition because it is one area where many people are desperate for hope and looking for silver bullets.
Besides, why should experts and authorities always come with heroic and hyperbolic stories of beating health struggles? That doesn’t make someone more knowledgeable. Look for solid knowledge and critical thinking above all else. Coincidentally, it’s the folks with some product, cleanse, protein powder, or meal plan to sell that try to hook others with grandiose stories of beating disease (by eating and drinking whatever they sell, of course!).
Are you working on any new research or projects?
My writing is usually in response to any nutrition matters making headlines, so every few weeks I am usually working on some new article or op-ed!
Lastly, why do you enjoy reading Nutrition Stripped!?
I enjoy your take on nutrition, and your recipes are fantastic.
So where can everyone keep up with you to learn more?
I hope you all enjoyed this interview and all of Andy’s amazing advice!