Skip to Content

Raising Her Voice to Reduce Sugar Consumption


Dr. Rachel Johnson has worn a lot of hats in her years working on nutrition policy.

As a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont, Johnson teaches hundreds of students each year about the importance of a healthy diet. She also has lent her expertise to a number of government agencies – including the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration – to recommend various nutrition programs that should be taxpayer funded, based on the science available.

And since 2009, Johnson has served as a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association (AHA), lending her voice to promote recent scientific discoveries, studies and important policy efforts designed to improve the health and well-being of people everywhere.

“By working in my spokesperson role with AHA, we can interact with the media and literally get our message out to millions of people,” Johnson tells the Inside Track. “The number of people that we’re able to touch by the huge reach that AHA has, and how highly respected and regarded AHA is, just gives us an opportunity to really bring the message of good heart health to millions of people.”

Johnson will be putting her health expertise to good use today, when she represents AHA during a special tweet chat starting at 12 p.m. Eastern hosted by health and wellness engagement platform ShareCare. You can take part by following @SharecareNow and using the hashtag #heartchat.

Johnson first became interested in nutrition as an undergraduate at Penn State. Inspired by her sister, who worked as a dietitian, Johnson decided to take a nutrition course – and hasn’t looked back.

Although she’s worked in a number of different issue areas, in recent years Johnson has focused her work on directing attention to the damaging effect added sugars are having on Americans’ health. She gained national attention in 2000 when she spoke out against high sugar consumption while serving as a member of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans advisory committee, and served as the lead author on an AHA scientific statement in 2009 that was perhaps the first to link the consumption of added sugars to cardiovascular disease.

“We were really the first organization to put a stake in the ground and make a solid recommendation on the amount of added sugars that could be included in a healthy diet,” Johnson says. “That paper has had tremendous impact.”

Johnson also was among the first scientists who started pointing out the change in children’s beverage consumption patterns, and how the increased intake of sugary drinks such as soda and sports beverages was negatively impacting kids’ diet quality and overall health.

At the heart of Johnson’s work, she says, is cutting-edge science that shows what steps need to be taken to improve health outcomes. But Johnson notes that the only way to put that science into action is through public outreach, which is why she says she has “treasured” her role as an AHA spokesperson.

Researchers might publish a paper in a high-quality journal that reaches a few thousand people, for example. But through strategic media outreach, the message can get out to millions of people, which provides support to ongoing policy and advocacy efforts to change health outcomes.

In the past few weeks, for example, Johnson helped promote several studies on the impacts of added sugars, including one that linked sugar consumption to cardiovascular disease. Johnson spoke with numerous media outlets about the study, including the Associated Press, Reuters and USA Today.

Johnson is hopeful that positive change can happen, in part because of the victories the childhood obesity movement has seen in the past few years. New nutritional guidelines for school meals currently being implemented and similar school snacks and drinks that will soon enter into effect are simply game-changers for kids’ health, Johnson says.

“Children spend so much time in schools. As part of the educational process, schools should be modeling healthy behaviors and healthy foods,” Johnson says. “So I’m very optimistic about that.”

But there is more work to be done, Johnson cautions. The food industry must take action to reduce the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children, for example. Policy-wise, things such as sugar-sweetened beverage taxes can help reduce sugary drink consumption. Meanwhile, pediatricians must be given the tools and support they need to help young patients and their families adopt healthier habits.

“We can’t just sit around and wring our hands waiting for this to solve itself,” she says. “It’s going to take some really, really hard work to turn this around.”

Johnson doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to health – she also works her hardest to take steps in her own life to stay healthy. She’s on the treadmill each morning, and has added a bit of weight training to build muscle mass and support her bone health.

And Johnson admits that her background as a nutrition professor has made her a bit of a foodie, so she strives to eat healthy regularly, including by reducing her sodium intake. “My husband and I are empty nesters, but I try to get him on board as much as possible,” she says, laughing.

Johnson advises people to take small steps to improve the health of themselves and their families, including by making time for physical activity and making small dietary changes, such as reducing sugary beverage intake. So many people simply are not aware that things like added sugars are so damaging – and that is why Johnson plans to continue to raise her voice as a spokesperson.

“We have a long way to go,” she says. “But I am optimistic that we’re starting to turn this around.”