On this last day of National Nutrition Month, I thought I’d write about what a Registered Dietitian/Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RD or RDN) is and what we do (and maybe a little about what we don’t do).
From some of the questions and responses I’ve gotten when asked what I do, I have a feeling many people are confused about our role if they even knew we existed in the first place! People have asked me to make them a meal plan (for free, of course), what trendy diet I think is best, to not look at what they’re eating because they think I’ll judge them, if eating x food is bad, and if they should buy x supplement or shake for weight loss. This tells me RDs have an image problem of being the food police or diet pushers and I want to help destroy those stereotypes!
This post doesn't encompass all possible areas of nutrition careers, but hopefully it gives you a better idea of what RDs who see people one-on-one do (and that it's so much more than telling people what to or what not to eat).
RDs have at least a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and nutrition from an accredited university (a master’s degree will be required for entry-level RDs in a few years) + 1200 or more hours of supervised practice in clinical, community, and food service nutrition, and have to pass the national registration exam before being eligible to practice. We learn behavior change skills, biochemistry, anatomy and physiology, nutrient metabolism, therapeutic nutrition for many conditions, traditional foods of various cultures, drug and nutrient interactions, food safety, nutrition policy, and SO MUCH more. This is what distinguishes our training from a “nutritionist” or "health/nutrition coach" which aren't regulated titles.
That means pretty much anyone, regardless if they have any training or a degree in nutrition science, can call themselves those things and start giving nutrition advice and selling supplements. Which is scary when you think about the harm it can cause giving someone with a health condition bad information (disclaimer: not saying every nutritionist or coach gives bad advice or every RD is perfect, so please don't be offended). Would you want someone who wasn't qualified advising your grandma with chronic kidney disease on nutrition and her ending up in the hospital from dangerous levels of potassium and phosphorus in her body? Likely not. Some RDs (including me) are now using the credential Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), which is equal to the RD credential, but sort of a reclaiming of the title “nutritionist.”
What RDs Do
Similar to doctors, we can be general practitioners, seeing people for a variety of nutrition concerns, or specialize in areas like pediatric, renal, oncology, cardiac rehab, digestive health, or diabetes. Some of us branch out from hospital or clinic jobs into private practice and create our own unique specialties, seeing clients in an office or virtually through secure video conferencing. Some of my RD colleagues in private practice specialize in skin care, food sensitivities, Intuitive Eating, eating disorder recovery, blenderized food for tube feedings, lactation consulting, and plant-based nutrition. Our jobs are as varied as there are nutrition needs!
During an appointment, we’ll look at your health history, labs, medication and supplements, what you typically eat, your food likes and dislikes, and other important info, ask you questions to clarify information and determine your goals, work with you to come up with a plan, provide resources and handouts if necessary, and support you through follow-up appointments. Most of all, a good RD will really listen to you. We have the benefit of longer appointment times so you're not rushed like it can feel at a doctor appointment.
Behind the scenes, we’re working on education materials, keeping up with the latest research, taking courses or attending seminars for continuing education, communicating with your doctor or other members of your healthcare team, and typing up notes.
With the word “diet” being a part of our title, I know it can be confusing, but our focus is less “dieting” to lose weight and more your diet as in overall pattern of what you eat and how that can affect your health and nutrition status. Some RDs absolutely work with people who want to lose weight, but that’s just a small part of our skill set. Many RDs don’t offer weight loss as a service at all and are pushing back against diet culture, weight stigma, and helping people recover from damage long-term dieting can cause. Food is only one piece of the health puzzle and focusing too much on weight and calories aren’t healthful behaviors. I’ve had many people be surprised that I actually helped them expand the amount and types of foods to eat instead of restricting all their favorite things like they were expecting.
Seeing an RD legitimately changes people's lives for the better! I might be biased, but from my own experiences and hearing about others, it's true. RDs have helped so many people deal with difficult and painful digestive issues, reduce or eliminate medications (under a physician's supervision), lower their cholesterol or blood pressure, find foods they could eat when they have food allergies or intolerances, feed picky kids, recover from an eating disorder, stay nourished through cancer treatment, and so many other scenarios. It's always my goal and I feel so fortunate to be in this field when someone tells me I helped them solve a problem.
Should You See an RD?
If you want expert, individualized advice sorting out a health issue or just want to learn how to eat better, then absolutely! Many RDs offer a free consultation call so you can see if you're a good fit to work together. Seeing an RD one-on-one is usually so much more effective than reading a popular diet book or following a general plan that will probably not meet your individual needs. RDs can help you cut through the misinformation that is so common in the media and popular wellness culture, come up with an action plan to help you meet your health goals, and support and encourage you through it.
So, Will I Make You a Meal Plan?
Possibly, if it fits your needs and you want help getting started with a new way of eating! I'd rather help you learn how to create healthy meals on your own, so you don't have to rely on a plan, though. And...you have to pay me. :)