Unless you are a dietitian, I doubt you are aware that today is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) Day! In fact, the entire month of March is considered National Nutrition Month (R). I know! Who would have thought, right? There is never any publicity except for the occasional mention of it by a blogger (like Yours Truly ) or on the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics (AND) website. The theme this year is, “Bite into a Healthy Lifestyle.” BORINNNNNNG!!
With a theme like that, it is no wonder that National Donut Day gets more recognition (plus donuts are much more tastier to bite into). So instead of discussing the benefits of a healthy lifestyle (which I am sure you know already), I wanted to focus on what being a dietitian really means and what we actually do.
So what exactly is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, other than just being a REALLY long title?
An RDN must graduate from an accredited four year college with at least a BS in Nutrition Sciences. Most people think the course work consists of home economy classes but in reality it involves a lot more science including organic chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology and physiology. Lots of fun stuff! Not only are the classes challenging, but students need to receive at least a B+ if not an A in most of their classes in order to be accepted into an internship.
Now listen up because this internship stuff is crazy! After graduating, if the student wants to become an RDN they must compete for a position in an accredited dietetic internship. These internships provide the student with at least 1200 hrs of supervised practice and usually last for about a year. These internships are REQUIRED to become an RDN. Unfortunately, at this stage lots of students dreams are crushed because there is only about a 50% acceptance rate into these programs. If a student is accepted they are only offered one program and may be required to move across the country for the coveted position. Not only are these positions difficult to get into, but they are a huge financial commitment. Most cost at least $5000 (Mine cost $8000 and now is $15300), which does not include cost of living. Interns work their little butts off by putting in at least 45+ hrs/week if not 60-80 hrs depending on the internship.
Once the internship is completed, the student can qualify to take the Registered Dietitian National Exam. And if they pass… Wha-Lah! They are an RDN!
But it doesn’t end there! In order to keep their registration, RDN”s are required to have 75 hrs of continuing education every 5 years. Not to mention about 50% of RDN’s have their Master’s degree.
Is a nutritionist the same thing as an RDN?
Nope. Believe it or not anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. They do not even require a degree or any sort of certification. This is why it is important for you to do your homework on someone who is calling themselves a nutritionist before seeing them. There are lots of smart, well intentioned nutritionist out there, but there also a lot wackos. Take care of your health (and pocketbook) and do your research first. If you find someone that is credentialed as an RDN then you can be assured they have had the proper training.
“What would you say you do here?” (<- Get it? Office Space, anyone?)
When you think of a dietitian’s job, what comes to mind? Weight loss counseling, diabetes education, a glamourous blogger position? Dietitians may perform these jobs (The blogger one probably least and far between ), but they do so much more. In honor of Registered Dietitians Day I wanted to highlight the wide range of careers dietitians might embrace.
The most popular place for a dietitian to work is in the hospital. You might believe that all they do is provide nutrition counseling, but this is actually a small part of their job. They have a large role in the ICU, trauma and cancer units. You know those TV shows where they portray people sleeping peacefully in a coma with no tubes? Yeah… Not going to happen. In real life many of these people require temporary tube feeding to meet their nutritional needs and this is where an RDN comes in. An RDN will calculate their nutritional needs (calories/protein/fat/carbs) and recommend a tube feeding regimen. If nutrition support is provided within 24-48 hrs to a critically ill patient it may improve their length of stay in the hospital and recovery time. If a patient does not have a functioning GI tract such as a with a small bowel obstruction they be required to be fed directly into their blood through an IV and bypass the GI tract altogether. Interesting, huh? Once again, the RDN will calculate their nutritional needs and may even manage their electrolytes. I could write a whole book about what dietitians do in the hospital but for the sake of a shorter blog I will skip that!
Other dietitians may be specialized in very specific medical nutrition therapy. For instance, I know a dietitian who primarily works with children who have epilepsy. To help prevent the onset of seizures, these children require a high fat, low carb diet . She helps improve the quality of life of the child and their families. Another dietitian I know worked as a oncology dietitian with stem cell transplant patients. Talk about specialized!! Most of the time her patients GI tracts were not functional, and therefore, provided nutrition support directly into their blood vein. It is a big responsibility. If electrolytes are managed improperly or if carbs are provided too fast then it may cause harm to the patient.
Dietitians may also work in food service such as in a school district. They are given the challenge of providing healthful foods to our kids while balancing a strict budget. It is a tough job! You are the slave to two hands, the parents of the children demanding healthy food and the money gods of the government.
I am getting towards the end of my blog and there are so many dietitian jobs I have not mentioned yet but running out of time to do so. I will list other areas that RDN’s might work in.
- Sports- These RDN’s work with athletes at the amateur and professional level
- Women Infants & Children (WIC)- A government program aimed at providing nutrition education and supplemental food to low income families with children < 5 yo old
- Renal Dietitians- This is another form of specialized medical nutrition therapy. Those with end stage kidney require a special diet to follow to avoid toxins building up in the body
- Corporate Wellness Programs
- Insurance companies
- Food companies such as General Mills and McDonalds (yes, McDonalds!)
- Pediatrics- Even though there is growing number of obese children, these RDN’s also work with children with disabilities requiring nutrition support
- Skilled Nursing Facilities
- Food Allergies & Intolerances
- Women’s Health/Fertility
- GI Health
- Eating Disorders
As you can see there are so many different areas that a dietitian may work in and each require a unique skill set. While I do believe that nutrition is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, I also want to point out that nutrition can be an important part of healing. What sets an RDN apart from a “nutritionist” or “health coach” is that we have the knowledge and experience to help improve the quality of lives of those suffering from a chronic condition. Yes, we may be able to help someone lose weight, but most importantly we can help improve someone’s nutrition status while they go through cancer treatment, or help prevent muscle loss from your aging grandmother. We can help provide nutrition support to a loved one after a suffering from a stroke or to a cerebral palsy child who cannot feed themselves. As dietitians we want to be part of your health journey.
If you see a dietitian today please thank them for the work that they do. Their boss may have bought them lunch or gave them a coffee mug today, but recognition from you will mean so much more. Till next- K