Recently I attended an event where another dietitian used the above image to discuss what a dietitian is and how we tend to be portrayed in the media and by the public. It made me laugh because in a way it’s true.
Typically, dietitians are portrayed as being all women (despite there being plenty of male dietitians), who wear labcoats and a stethoscope (even though I have never worn or used either since Uni chemistry/biology/physiology lessons), and are always shown to be carrying both an apple and a chocolate bar as a balancing act between healthy and not-so-healthy. We are known as the food police, food Nazis and often have people tell us things like ‘don’t look at what I’m eating’ or ‘I don’t want to eat with you as you’ll make me feel guilty’.
Are we really the food police?
No!! There may be the odd exception to this, but on the whole most dietitians are realistic and choose not to comment on people’s eating habits unless they have been either asked to do so specifically, or it is part of their job! We may have a bit of a sneaky peek at what people are carrying in their shopping trolleys, but approaching them and telling them that they need to change it’s contents? I don’t think so!
Most people tend to associate dietitians with dieting and weight loss. But in actual fact, our roles are much more diverse than that. I, as well as many other dietitians out there, have never worked within the weight loss side of dietetics. Having worked predominantly as a clinical dietitian, my roles have been much more focused on ways to increase the energy (and protein) content of my patients than reducing.
The clinical side of dietetics is where we see patients in the hospital setting for a range of conditions including malnutrition, nutrition support, intensive care, oncology, diabetes, renal, gastroenterology, pregnancy, weight management, paediatrics etc. Dietitians also work in community visiting patients at home or in a clinic, in private practice, in schools, child care centres, for food companies, the government, in public health developing nutrition policies or health promotion programs, for magazines, the media, internationally in emergency situations… The list goes on! Our roles are very diverse!
How do you become a dietitian?
To be a dietitian you need to do a minimum 4 years at university studying either a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics, or a Bachelor of Science majoring in Nutrition followed by a postgraduate degree in dietetics. Most countries have their own professional dietetic organisation which can give specific advice on what courses are eligible to become a dietitian and what their roles entail. In the UK, the term registered dietitian is legally protected title. You cannot call yourself a dietitian if you haven’t completed the necessary training and become registered with the health care professional council (HCPC). In Australia you should look out for an accredited practising dietitian.
What does registration (or accreditation) mean?
Being a registered dietitian (RD) in the UK/USA or Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) in Australia means that you have completed an appropriate course at university, including supervised clinical work, undertake at least 30 hours of additional training every year (continuous professional development or CPD), follow a code of ethics, a code of professional conduct and are subject to audits. Registration and audits ensure we are saying and doing the right thing. I actually got audited myself this year and was very happy to learn that I passed! Dietitians that don’t pass the auditing process or who are found to be promoting dietary advice that doesn’t have thorough scientific evidence behind it can be removed and lose their ability to practice as a dietitian.
What about Nutritionists?
All Dietitians are Nutritionists, however not all nutritionists are Dietitians. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist as there is no specific training required to use this title. The exception to this is nutritionists who have completed university training at accredited universities that are eligible to join the voluntary Register of Nutritionists held by the Association for Nutrition. Registered Nutritionists (RNutrs) with this level of training also know what they are talking about and have reliable advice and information to give. You can search the Association for Nutrition’s register to see whether a nutritionist is registered within their list. The BDA have a great factsheet which details the differences between dietitians, nutritionists, nutritional therapists and diet experts which is well worth a look as well.