What is a Registered Dietitian?

There is a lot of misconception out there about what a Registered Dietitian is. A lot of people confuse the term with "Nutritionist". And to add to the confusion..there are also terms like "Health Coach" and "Wellness Expert" floating around as well. These may or may not be legitimate, but please understand that these terms are not protected by law.

By definition from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a Registered Dietitian (RD) is a food and nutrition expert that has completed the following: a minimum of a bachelor's degree in nutrition/food science/dietetics, an accredited supervised practice program (also known as a dietetic internship), passed a national exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), and completes continuing professional education requirements to maintain registration.

To put it more simply, any Registered Dietitian can be called a nutritionist (this is often perceived as an easier term to describe what we do) but a "nutritionist" is not a Registered Dietitian. When one becomes an RD, you are officially registered and licensed to practice and provide nutrition intervention and advice. Most states require RDs to become licensed by their state, which is why you may also see the credentials "LDN". This stands for "Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist". The "Nutritionist" was recently added in order to more protect this term. You may also see the credential "RDN" which is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. It is up to us which ones we want to use. The point is that these credentials are protected by law, while the term "nutritionist" is not. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist..whether they got their degree in nutrition but didn't become an RD, made a hobby out of reading nutrition books, or took a $40 online crash course in nutrition. 

Registered Dietitians have been trained and tested in a variety of different areas, including: clinical nutrition, nutrition counseling, food service, long-term care, research, nutrition in the life-cycle and so much more. Not only that, but a degree in nutrition requires hard work. In addition to intense nutrition courses in nutrition, metabolism and food science, RDs are also required to study anatomy, chemistry, biology, organic chemistry, biochemistry, management, and more.

So what do RD's do?

This is another one that confuses a lot of people, and that's OK. I am here to clarify :)

Since starting my job in the hospital, I've been asked the following:

"So do you feed the patients?"

"You're creating meal plans for each patient?"

"Do you cook the food and pass out trays?"

"So you see patients with eating disorders?"

"Do you write the menu?"

Clinical dietitian jobs are the most widely-known areas for dietitians to work. Contrary to popular belief, I don't do any of the above. Creating "meal plans" for each individual patient to consume while they're admitted would be extremely costly. What does happen, however, is each patient is put on a specific diet that accommodates for whatever their condition is (whether it is a low sodium diet, carbohydrate controlled, potassium restricted, puree etc). Some are also on regular, liberalized diets. Dietitians also do not prepare the food, but we do work closely with the food service director, chefs, dietary technicians and hosts/hostesses to ensure that each patient is satisfied with their meals, is meeting their calorie and protein needs, and that changes to the menu/recipes are appropriate for different diets.

A clinical dietitian's main job is to screen and assess each incoming patient and identify any potential nutrition risks. This may include abnormal labs, unintentional weight loss or malnutrition, altered gastrointestinal function, need for nutrition support (such as tube feedings), and more. We are part of the treatment team and are in constant communication with doctors, nurses, speech pathologists, pharmacists, etc to provide our expert nutrition-related recommendations. And while dietitians don't necessarily give out specific meal plans, we do spend a good amount of time providing diet education to patients who need it. For example, if a patient is admitted and newly diagnosed with diabetes, we will go and talk to them about how to manage their disease with diet. 

At my job, I also spend a few hours each week providing outpatient services, where patients come meet with me and we can discuss dietary and lifestyle changes more in-depth. The downside to working in inpatient is that you don't get to spend an extensive amount of time with the patient and you honestly may never see them again. I love outpatient because I can build relationships with my patients and can closely monitor their progress towards their goals, whether it is weight loss, lowering cholesterol, controlling their blood sugars, relieving some of their GI symptoms, etc.

Since nutrition is a fast-growing field, super trendy, and more and more people are recognizing the importance of a healthy diet, there are SO many great career opportunities for RDs! I couldn't possibly love this field any more. In addition to working in hospitals, you may also hear of dietitians working in the following:

  • Health or clinics (Dialysis centers, Diabetes clinic, Wellness clinic etc)
  • Community and public health settings
  • WIC (Women Infants and Children)
  • Sports Nutrition (Gyms, Sports facilities)
  • Corporate Wellness
  • Food Service (Hospitals, schools, nursing homes, meal-delivery services, etc)
  • Marketing, communications, and public affairs with food and nutrition-related brands and businesses
  • Consulting
  • Universities 
  • Private Practice
  • Food Photography
  • Research

Isn't it exciting?!

Check out my other pages regarding the process of becoming an RD, and let me know if there's anything else I can clear up for you!