Medical evangelism: a hand out for bad diet advice?

By Marika Sboros

If nutrition science proves anything these days, it is that Karl Marx was right. Religion is the “opium of the people”. It is a reason that bad dietary advice has spread globally, says Australian orthopaedic surgeon Dr Gary Fettke.

It’s why nutrition guidelines are increasingly “plant-based” as some doctors and dietitians now call it. That distances them from overtly religious associations with vegetarian diets. That’s despite robust evidence on health risks of plant-based diets, says Fettke.

Fettke was a keynote speaker at the CrossFit Health Conference in Madison, Wisconsin on August 2, 2017. The title of his talk: The Central Role of Nutrition in Our Health, Education, Economics, Politics, Environment and Beliefs. 

In the first of a two-part series, Fettke raises a taboo in nutrition science: Big Religion. He also shines a light on its right arm: medical evangelism.

Fettke gave evidence to show that religious ideology informs and influences official dietary guidelines worldwide. It explains why nutrition science is the only science that many researchers don’t view through an evolutionary lens, he said.

It also explains why financial and other conflicts of interest are rife in nutrition science.

Dr Gary Fettke

The consequences for health, economies and the environment have been disastrous, he said.

Fettke identified a church that believes in divinely ordained “medical evangelism”. It is the Seventh-day Adventist Church that began in the US in 1863. Many of its members are vegetarians or vegans.

Despite being relatively young, it is one of the world’s fastest-growing churches. It is also one of the most influential groups in the world on nutrition education and policy.

The church has spawned doctors, dietitians and scientists who perform medical evangelism. They do so without declaring their religious beliefs as COIs. Thus, they have made their beliefs into propaganda about diet and health across the planet, Fettke said.

And where is the best place to hide propaganda? “In plain sight,” Fettke said.

‘Educating’ children …

As medical evangelists, Adventists have been “educating” the health profession for 100 years, he said. They have also been “educating” children with cereal product placement in various media for decades. In fact, they were the first to come up with that idea.

Fettke went through the Church’s nutrition history, demonstrating how it developed in tandem with the processed food industry. Through their vegetarian bias, Adventists developed nutrition guidelines rooted in the processed food industry, Fettke said.

They were quick to see the benefit of establishing dietetic associations to spread their vegetarian gospel. Orthodox dietitians made easy meat for ideological and religious programming.

In part, that’s because the foundations of the dietetic industry are “rotten to the core”, Fettke said. And it is in orthodox dietitians’ blood to associate themselves with industry and an ideology. “They probably don’t even realise it.”

Fettke also showed how Adventist Lenna F Cooper co-founded the American Dietetic Association (ADA) in 1917. She was a protégé of Dr John Harvey Kellogg, one of the founders of the cereal industry.

The global ‘voice’ of dietetics

Cooper wrote textbooks that lecturers used for dietetic and nursing programmes around the world for 30 formative years.

Lenna F Cooper

Thus, Cooper was the voice of dietetics globally for decades.

Cooper also appears to have originated the idea of breakfast as “the most important meal of the day”. She wrote as much in a 1917 issue of Good Health. The publication is self-proclaimed as “oldest health magazine in the world”, as Huffington Post senior editor Sarah Klein noted.

In A Brief History Of How Breakfast Got Its ‘Healthy’ Rep, Klein notes the magazine editor: none other than Kellogg, the co-inventor of flaked cereal.

Kellogg did hold an MD degree,  Klein writes, “but there’s no denying he had a product to sell”.

In this way, Adventist medical evangelism has persuaded health authorities to dish up vegetarian ideology to the public for decades, Fettke said.

Consequently, they have turned authorities into “defenders of a faith without understanding its origin”.

Through Cooper, Adventists set out to establish dietetic advice “for the world’. The ADA only changed its name to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) in 2012. AND is the largest, most influential organization of food and nutrition professionals in the US.

The role of religious ideology

Fettke showed how Adventists’ views on vegetarianism have compromised dietary advice and dietetic associations globally for 100 years.

The reality is that religious beliefs have guided society “forever”, Fettke said. And like most things in religion, beliefs are open to interpretation and manipulation. That’s particularly the case when dollars, economics and politics are involved.

Dr John Kellogg

What role has religious ideology played in current nutrition advice?

“A great deal, as it turns out,” Fettke said. And ideological nutrition influence is not limited to dietitians’ groups.

Take the recent statement by the American Heart Association (AHA) on dietary fats and cardiovascular disease. Apart from cherry-picking the evidence, the researchers failed to declare recent funding from the vegetable oil industry, Fettke said.

They also failed to declare that several of the authors support vegetarianism and veganism.

A chief weapon Adventists have used to influence nutrition advice and guidelines is to make cereals and grains into the “sacred cows”.

Yet most Adventist medical evangelists probably mean well, Fettke said. They don’t set out to con people and manipulate. However, they appear to believe that medical evangelism makes them immune from ethical constraints governing the conduct of health professionals.

COIs hiding in plain sight

Few Adventists ever declare their religious beliefs as conflicts of interest when dispensing advice and treatment to patients and the public, Fettke said. Undeclared COIs are also a problem for those influencing guidelines.

Hidden COIs turn nutrition advice into a game with consequences that Fettke feels is criminal. And, if you don’t know the rules, you can’t play the game, he said.

Click here to read: Is DAA really in bed with Big Food?  


Fettke made a point of declaring all his conflicts of interest. Chiefly, he advocates a low-carb, healthy-fat (LCHF) lifestyle. It is the fruits of his research over many years into optimum nutrition to treat and prevent chronic diseases of lifestyle.

Principles of the diet he advocates include reducing sugar and processed carbohydrates and reintroducing healthy natural fats. It also includes red meat.  Fettke also emphasised that he is not anti-religion or even anti-vegetarianism. Tongue firmly in cheek, he described himself as a vegetarian who takes supplements (red meat and real food) to ensure a “balanced diet”.

Thus, he calls himself a “carno-ovo-lacto-pesco-pollo vegetarian”.



Propaganda versus personal choice

Fettke is also not against personal choice. “I am against propaganda,” he said.

By way of example, Fettke referred to battles back home as a result of his support for LCHF. His own regulatory body, the Australian Health Practitioners Regulatory Agency (AHPRA) slapped a lifetime ban on him from talking about nutrition.

In particular, AHPRA objected to Fettke advising his obese and diabetic patients on reducing sugar and other refined, processed carbohydrates to save their lives and limbs.

Fettke announced at the CrossFit gathering that AHPRA has received yet another anonymous complaint about him. The previous two came from dietitians, both members of the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA). Like its sister organisations, DAA is deeply embedded in the food industry.

It will be interesting to see how AHPRA responds this time around. In preparation for another onslaught, Fettke and wife, Belinda, have set up a new website, It’s well worth a visit.

Fettke’s research into who and what are behind the attacks against him led straight to the Adventist Church. It also revealed many of the hidden rules of the game.

Knowing the rules

And, of course, knowing the rules ups his chances of beating those opposed to his views on nutrition at their own game.

Ellen G White

Fettke showed how Adventists still routinely promote demonisation of red meat and fat based not on science. They base their beliefs on the visions of one of the Church’s founders, Ellen G White in the US.

As a young girl aged 17 in 1844, White started having visions that became the Adventist teachings. One of her visions was for medical evangelism.

“We are to work as gospel medical missionaries,” White wrote. For her, medical evangelism was “the right arm of the message”.

Part of that medical mission, she wrote, was for disciples to set up hospitals, sanatoriums and places of learning.

White also had a vision about best foods: “Grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables constitute the diet chosen for us by our Creator.”  Her visions thereafter became gospel in medical and dietetic establishments globally. And if you are trying to find the origin of medical “beliefs” then Ellen G White and medical evangelism are central to many of them, Fettke said.

Meat and cancer debate

At first glance, White’s values in her visions are “not that unreasonable”, Fettke said. The temperance concepts of abstinence from tobacco and alcohol are there. White also encouraged exercise – “modest”, only – and involving community.

Her visions of nutrition values, on the other hand, turned out “not quite as planned”. The idea that “meat gives you cancer” also came from one of White’s visions, Fettke said.

“She started talking about cancer and meat in 1864,” he said. Yet “we are still hearing that message despite no science behind it.”

Fettke has described White’s views on meat as “strange”. Others take a harsher view and call her views fetid and primitive in the extreme.

‘Violent’ meat eaters

White believed that meat eaters were violent, “cruel and bloodthirsty”. They were also prone to masturbation, which she called the “solitary vice”. This “vice” made people “surely self-murderers as though they pointed a pistol to their own breast, and destroyed their life instantly”, she wrote.

White also exhorted her disciples never to place meat “in front of our children”.

And she had “special plans” for Australia in one vision in 1875. She said that it was the only country that angels ever mentioned to her by name. Consequently, Adventist medical evangelism and influence on nutrition and health in Australia is as extensive as in the US, Fettke showed.

From the outset, Adventists established close links with processed food industries, particularly the sugar, grain and cereal industry and refined food industry, he said.

In the US, Seventh-day Adventists established around 100 cereal-based processed food companies. Many of them merged. Kellogg’s is the most well-known and ranked among the world’s wealthiest food producers.

Cereal lobby

White came to Australia between 1889 and 1900 to set up the Seventh-day Adventist church, hospital, publishing house, school and university. She also founded the church’s cereal company, producer of Australia’s “most trusted breakfast cereal”.

“It remains one of Australia and New Zealand’s biggest and most trusted companies,” Fettke said.

Despite the benign-sounding name, Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing is a misnomer, Fettke said. Its highly refined, processed products compare badly with fresh, naturally nutrient-dense foods of animal origin.

Its flagship product is Weet-Bix, a top-seller in the breakfast cereal market. Cereal- and grain-based dietary guidelines have “done their business model no harm”, Fettke pointed out.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church also has the advantage of not paying taxes as a religious organisation. Thus, through its business model, the church has “deep pockets” to pursue its nutrition beliefs, Fettke said.

Vegan agendas

Adventists have continued pushing vegetarian and vegan agendas actively onto national health policies in many countries. They set up their own processed food companies around the world

Thanks to White’s guidance from “above”, Adventists have become media savvy about spreading their medical gospels messages. The church owns 62 publishing houses. Among its members are 25,000 “literature evangelists” tasked with “spreading” the vegetarian and health message in nearly 380 languages.

It owns 853 radio stations and 441 television stations. The church also produces more than 70,000 podcasts each year in 229 languages with over 1.1 billion downloads in 2015.

Adventists were early adopters of medical programs on radio and cooking shows on television. They have also worked hard to establish research showing that White’s visions are correct.

Science v belief

“That’s the problem,” Fettke said, “because we are not discussing science here.”

Adventist Dr Harry Miller, for example, was consulting physician to three US presidents. In 1953, Miller established a nutrition research facility to “prove (White”s) visions”. To emphasise the point, he wrote that “scientific research will support and not contradict”.

White was also largely responsible for bringing soy back to the US, Fettke said. “That’s a lot of polyunsaturated oil over time.”

Vegetarian groups regularly quote Adventist health studies in support of their cause, he said. Adventists do these studies on themselves, often publish in their own press and cross-reference off each other.

Fettke hasn’t read all Adventist studies. Of those he has, he hasn’t seen any declaration of ideological or religious conflict of interest.

He is, therefore, unambiguous about nutritional research to “prove a vision”: “It’s criminal,” Fettke said.