It’s a common question that I am asked and understandably so. Even I didn’t really know what a Dietitian was until I saw one myself several years ago now.
Sometimes when I am asked this question I actually find it a bit difficult to answer. There are so many things that a Dietitian can do, so how can I sum it up into a short description?
I think that some people get the impression that Nutritionist’s and Dietitian’s are the food police, however this is definitely not the case! Anyone who knows me well knows that I love food (all kinds of food!) and I am not one to judge or even to pass any negative thoughts about what others are eating. I am a huge foodie!
The Dietitian’s Association of Australia (DAA) defines a Dietitian as “a person with a qualification in nutrition and dietetics recognised by national authority[s]. A Dietitian applies the science of nutrition to the feeding and education of groups of people and individuals in health and disease.” However, this definition alone doesn’t really explain a lot about what we learn and what we can do…
Being a Student Dietitian:
You need a qualification to become an Accredited Practicing Dietitian. To get this, you will need to spend a minimum of 4 years at University, and most likely will have to complete a Masters degree (however there are undergraduate Dietetics degrees). At University you will undertake a number of science units that include chemistry, biology, microbiology, physiology, anatomy, immunology and even a bit of pharmacology as well as ‘nutrition science’ for specific disease states. You may get the hint that if you aren’t a fan of science, Nutrition and Dietetics might not be for you!
These science units give us the knowledge we require to know how the body works, allowing us to apply clinical reasoning to why we decide to do what we do with specific patients (remembering that everyone is different and therefore everything must be suited to that individual).
In Nutrition and Dietetics, you also undertake a unit in statistics, professional behaviour, food service and public health nutrition. You complete practical assessments not only in a science laboratory setting, but also in the kitchen (which is so much fun and also very rewarding because at the end of the prac you get to eat what you make). Amongst all this, you complete some fun assignments (such as keeping a food diary on what would be a suitable diet for a pregnant woman) and some really tough ones (like in any course at Uni). It’s exciting, it’s hard work but it’s great fun because there is a lot of variety and many different things to learn as a Dietetics student!
So what do you do once you graduate?
Dietitian’s can work in weight loss and general healthy eating, however this is a very small part of the picture.
Our scope of practice is far and wide (and exciting!). From working in clinical practice with patients who may have gastrointestinal disorders or disease, may be in ICU and need artificial feeding, may have cancer, be malnourished, have an eating disorder, have Diabetes or Cardiovascular disease, may be a new mum that has just begun breastfeeding or may be a person with kidney disease… the scope for nutrition in clinical practice continues on and on.
As a Dietitian you could also be working in community health undertaking cooking classes, conducting group education sessions, working alongside local schools as well as with the council on a municipality plan or you could work as public health nutritionist/dietitian tackling the big health issues in Australia. You may also work in foodservice, corporate business, the media, food production and manufacturing, you may want to create your own business, provide nutrition education at schools or workplaces or undertake recipe development. The list goes on- just writing this is making me itch for graduation so I can get out there and begin practising as a Dietitian!
It’s more than just eat your veggies!
Dietitian’s know and understand that nutrition is so different for everyone. We all have different lifestyles, goals, genetics and body types, so we cant just use the ‘one size fits all’ approach . Similarly, everyone has different nutritional requirements, some people have a number of co-morbidities, are on medications, may be restricting certain foods due to religion, culture, illness or just for their own personal preference… I think you get the drift!
And let’s not forget that we are human. We have emotions, cravings, we just don’t like some foods and love others, we have many things going on in our lives and we all go through hard times. As health professionals, Dietitian’s ensure to work with people during these times, we are there for you. It doesn’t always have to be solely about nutrition!
At an individual level: Using the most recent and best available evidence as well as applying critical thought as to what works for you, Dietitian’s can tailor a nutrition plan for YOU to optimise YOUR health.
At the bigger level: Dietitian’s are able to use their expertise in food and nutrition and help to create policies and make big changes in the food system to help improve the health of Australians.
A final remark:
Dietitian’s have an important role to play in our health care system, both at an individual level and at the bigger picture level. In saying that, we understand that food is not everything, and food most definitely is not always the answer. There may be many reasons why you may or may not want or need to see a Dietitian, and that is completely fine.
If you want to know more about the exciting world of Nutrition and Dietetics check out the Storehouse Nutrition Directory for credible nutrition blogs to read and follow, go to the DAA website and read more there, or leave a comment!
And remember: Dietitian’s love, embrace and celebrate food… that alone is probably a big reason as to why many Dietitian’s (including myself) decided to make food our career!
– Your Student Dietitian, Simone Abley