Balanced's Institutional Outreach Manager Answers the Question, "Why Nutrition Advocacy?"
When people ask me, “What made you want to work in nutrition advocacy?” I rarely have a satisfying answer to give them, partly because I don’t know what type of response they’re really fishing for. Some people expect a vague but idealistic vision—the eradication of world hunger, for example. Others want to know what, if anything, inspired me, as if working in nutrition advocacy were some kind of predestined calling. And while sometimes I feel like I simply fell into it, the real answer is rooted in my personal history with food and health.
I know all too well the negative consequences of poor diet on health, not just from my extensive study of nutrition science, but also from lived experience. Like many Americans, I was raised eating a highly processed diet consisting primarily of convenience foods, refined grains, and meat, dairy, and eggs. Worse yet, I scarcely ate a fruit or vegetable unless it came from a can. I’ll spare you the details, but I know, quite literally in a visceral way, that this “Standard American Diet” has contributed significantly to various ailments, avoidable suffering, and subsequent medical treatments that I’d rather not have experienced.
It was only through education that I began to connect the biochemical and physiological dots, so to speak. This new appreciation for the profound, intimate connections between diet and health led to a personal dietary shift, which, for me, was a slow transition. And while I’ve mostly managed to regain my health, I still worry what irreversible damage has been done at the genetic level that could manifest as something much more serious later in life.
That the typical American diet is a “standard” at all is the problem; my story is hardly unique.
This industry-controlled definition of what is healthy and appetizing is ultimately a product of the machinations Big Food and Ag employed to protect their interests. Their bottom line is to turn profits—not to nourish people in a responsible, health-promoting manner. Thanks to an emboldening USDA, the superiority of these corporate interests over our health has been codified into policy. As a result, our palates have been groomed en masse to prefer that which is killing and sickening us.
Connecting this political dot with the biochemical and physiological dots was critical in realizing that individual change can never be a panacea for a pervasive, structural problem.
Given that institutions, like schools and hospitals, are the interface between industry and ordinary people, they hold a tremendous amount of leverage in the fight against endemic diet-related disease—much more so than a handful of individual actors who opt to give up meat on Mondays.
When one has suffered ill health, even if just briefly, one comes to truly value how liberating good health can be. Sadly, many people don’t realize just how sick they are until their circumstances become dire, or they have little to no capacity to improve their health due to a lack of knowledge, skills, or resources. Recognizing my privilege in possessing those necessary tools is what turned my hobbyhorse into a career in nutrition advocacy. (It certainly wasn’t because I particularly enjoy getting hung up on during outreach phone calls.) Most people would agree that there is a certain moral obligation to use one’s unique knowledge and skill set for the benefit of others, especially when millions of people’s lives are at stake.
There are few things more poignant to me than when a young child unwittingly consumes—and becomes habituated to consuming—a known carcinogen. And it is heart-wrenching to watch loved ones in older age suffer worsening disability that most likely could have been prevented or greatly attenuated with a more balanced diet. And seeing my peers, in the prime of their lives, begin to reckon with early signs and ramifications of diet-related chronic illness gives me great cause for concern. Everyone is touched by this issue, either directly or by proxy.
I am furious that conniving food companies have been given a free pass to wreak havoc on the bodies and minds of my family, friends, and neighbors. I’m in this battle because somebody else hasn’t won it for us yet, and if I can utilize my education against those profiting from human suffering, then I will. I remain hopeful that public health can improve dramatically when my knowledge and skills become everyone else’s. Institutions may be complicit now, but it won’t always be so. Industries are formidable, but not invincible, and their supremacy can and must be challenged.
Madeline is the Institutional Outreach and Support Manager at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition from the Univ. of Texas and Tufts, respectively. As a nutrition expert, she advocates for more plant-based dining options in critical institutions with the aim of building healthier food environments and fostering better public health outcomes. You can reach her here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Balanced is a nonprofit organization providing the tools, resources, and supports for everyday people to advocate for healthier menus in their community institutions. Please support Balanced's mission with a donation of any size today.