Nutrition Month: Busting myths and misconceptions about dietitians

Editorial note: To mark Nutrition Month 2022, Kingstonist will be featuring a column from a Kingston-based Registered Dietitian (RD) each week throughout the month of March. For more information on nutrition and the role of the dietitian, visit the Dietitians of Canada website.
The following article is written by James Wilson, RD. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.

If I asked you to describe what a dietitian does, what would you say? If you are unable to do it without mentioning ‘meal plans’ or ‘weight loss,’ then you aren’t alone.

The role and profession of the dietitian is widely misconceived, says James Wilson, a Registered Dietitian here in Kingston. Creating meal plans and the goal of weight loss are not key aspects of a dietitians work, he says. Original photo by Yaroslav Shuraev.

The role of a dietitian is famously misunderstood, and our perceived role in healthcare has a lot to do with this confusion. There are many misconceptions and assumptions about dietitians, and I’d like to take this opportunity to address some of them as Nutrition Month 2022 begins.

Our profession is very diverse 

Most dietitians work in clinical roles within the health care system, but we’re also spread across private practice, academia, research, corporate business, and government. Dietitians are qualified to provide one-on-one weight counselling, but our expertise and training on nutrition science allows us to work on a broader scope of food and nutrition related issues. In a clinical setting, we are often counselling patients on how to gain weight or prevent weight loss in the setting of both acute and chronic illness.

We don’t make meal plans

The vast majority of the time, meal plans are not effective. Food is extremely complicated, and we make our food decisions based on numerous different factors, such as: hunger, schedule, feelings, cost, preferences, etc. Our lives make meal plans difficult, and it is more effective to follow a more flexible approach that allows for small healthy changes without sacrificing enjoyment or autonomy.

We eat like everyone else

We aren’t drinking kale smoothies and eating salads all day. We eat like everyone else! Does our knowledge and training influence our overall food choices? Maybe, but we’re still human and we love to indulge in delicious things. We love going to restaurants, hosting potlucks, and having dessert, too.

Dietitian, not Nutritionist

In Ontario, ‘Dietitian’ (not dietician) or ‘Registered Dietitian’ (RD) is a protected title. To become a dietitian, you need to complete a science-based, four-year university degree in Nutrition, complete a competitive one-year clinical internship, and write national registration exams. We are overseen by a regulatory body and must complete continuing education to keep our license.

On the other hand, anyone can become a ‘nutritionist,’ there are no educational prerequisites, no standards of care, no competencies or continuing education, and no regulation by any governing body.

We aren’t the food police

I’ll never forget one of the first times someone asked me why I wanted to become a dietitian and the look of shock and confusion on their face when I replied, “because I love food.” Instead of finger-wagging and scolding patients over their food choices, we are often adding foods to a patient’s diet to help them achieve nutritional adequacy. We understand the socio-cultural, emotional, financial, environmental, and sensory properties of food, and we seek to help our patients follow a healthy diet without sacrificing their enjoyment of eating.

We aren’t judging your food

We know food is complicated and food choices are influenced by so many different factors. We talk to patients all day about how they eat, and we’ve already seen the best diets and the worst diets imaginable. We’re not immune to the socio-environmental pressures that influence our food choices any more than anyone else, and so we don’t care what you brought for lunch, or what you have in your cart at the store.

I hope this helps clear up some myths and misconceptions about the profession of being dietitians. Healthy eating looks different for everyone, and dietitians are the best equipped to help you find out what healthy eating looks like for you.

Here’s to hoping we can continue sharing food and celebrating with our family and friends this year!

James Wilson, RD
James is a Kingston-based registered dietitian specializing in patients with kidney disease. He is a passionate advocate for evidence-based practice, and using a food-focused approach to patient-centred care.

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