Dietitian: Your Food & Nutrition Counselor
What is a dietitian?
A dietitian is a healthcare provider who specializes in promoting optimal health and preventing and treating diseases through the science of nutrition. In fact, some dietitians use ‘registered dietitian nutritionist’ (RDN) as a professional title to reflect their specialty. They use food and nutrition to help people of all ages manage their weight, medical conditions, food allergies, and wellness. Dietitians work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities, food service settings, education, research, and community agencies.
A dietitian typically:
Reviews and evaluates a patient’s health history, current diet, and physical activity practices
Teaches and counsels patients and caregivers about healthy eating habits, menu planning, and lifestyle choices
Recommends nutrition strategies, monitors your progress, and adjusts your nutrition plan
Designs and implements medical nutrition therapy including diet supplementation, feeding tube nutrition, and intravenous (IV) nutrition
Orders and interprets nutrition-related laboratory tests
Works closely with a patient’s entire medical team, as well as with family members, social workers, and teachers as needed
Advises athletes and other exercise-conscious people about the role food and nutrition plays in their fitness, performance, and overall health
Oversees food service operations in hospitals and other healthcare facilities, school cafeterias, day care centers, food corporations, and correctional facilities
A dietitian may also be known by the following names: registered dietitian (RD), nutritionist, registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), nutrition counselor, and dietetic counselor.
Who should see a dietitian?
People of all ages, including infants, children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly, can benefit from a dietitian’s expertise. People with diseases and conditions that respond to dietary changes should see a dietitian on a regular basis. This includes people with cardiovascular disease, obesity and overweight, diabetes, kidney disease, eating disorders, and allergies and food intolerances. A dietitian can help monitor and optimize your diet to reduce the risk of complications associated with these conditions and to help ensure ongoing health.
People looking for a healthy diet and nutrition strategy to participate in sports, have a healthy pregnancy, or maintain their weight, should also seek nutrition counseling from a dietitian.
You may also see a dietitian if you are admitted to a hospital or long-term care facility. Dietitians often play an integral role in planning treatment for people with chronic diseases or critical conditions.
When should you see a dietitian?
If your primary care doctor or other specialist believes you could benefit from nutrition counseling, he or she may refer you to a dietitian. You should also consider dietetic and nutrition counseling in the following situations:
You would like guidance for using diet to boost your immunity, alleviate symptoms, or keep you strong during treatments for cancer or other diseases.
You are losing or gaining weight and you do not know how to change your diet to achieve your optimal weight.
You are an athlete or avid exerciser and you want to ensure your body is receiving optimal nutrition for sports performance.
You have an eating disorder, such as bulimia or anorexia, and you need help learning how to eat healthfully.
You are pregnant or breastfeeding and you want to make sure you and your baby are receiving optimal nutrition.
You would like to eat a healthier diet, and you do not know what to eat or how to prepare it.
What does a dietitian treat?
A dietitian often works as part of multidisciplinary healthcare team that includes doctors, social workers, nurses, home healthcare providers, and others to help optimize treatment for:
Allergies and food intolerances including problems with soy, nuts, wheat, milk, gluten, seafood and eggs
Cancer including precancerous conditions, maintaining muscle mass and strength during cancer treatment or following surgery, and preventing or managing side effects of cancer treatment
How do I choose an excellent dietitian?
If you are admitted to a hospital or long-term care facility, you will not be able to choose your preferred dietitian. However, if you are choosing a dietitian as an outpatient, review the RD’s education, training and experience. It’s possible for a person to practice dietetics and offer nutritional counseling without formal training or being licensed to practice. Licensure requirements vary by state, but be sure your RD has a license to practice dietetics if your state requires it.
A registered dietitian (RD) has a bachelor’s degree and:
Completed the Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND), during or after a bachelor’s degree
Completed 1200 hours of supervised dietetics practice in an ACEND-accredited internship program
Passed a national registered dietitian certification exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration
To maintain RD certification, a dietitian must regularly complete ACEND’s continuing education requirements. Find an experienced dietitian in your area who can meet your health needs. Consider background information, certification, and patient ratings and reviews to help you narrow the results. Once you find a dietitian, ask yourself if their style of delivering care works with your style, health goals, and expectations.
Dietitians can pursue certification in a dietetic subspecialty, which requires additional training or experience beyond the DPD. Subspecialties of dietetics recognized by the Commission on Dietetic Registration include:
Gerontological nutrition for the elderly
Oncology nutrition for adults and children who have cancer or who are at risk of contracting cancer
Pediatric nutrition for sick as well as healthy infants, children and adolescents
Sports dietetics for exercise and organized athletics