What does a dietitian do, anyway – can’t I just Google that?

What is a dietitian?

I get this question a lot. Usually, it looks like this: “So, a dietitian, so you make meal plans and stuff?” Or it looks like this: “Like a nutritionist, right?” Or this: “So you tell people what to eat? Can’t they just Google that?”

Admittedly, when I first thought about pursuing a career in nutrition, I also thought I’d help people make meal plans and that’s all we really needed – the knowledge of what to eat. Fortunately, there is so much more to being a dietitian than just telling people what to eat. (To be honest, telling people what to eat is a very small part of what I do.)

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If not meal plans, then what?

I receive many requests to “just provide a list of foods.” If the person asking is a client, I may share lists such as foods that raise blood sugars, foods that can cause gas, or foods that are rich in calcium for example. This can be important, but it is usually a small part of the appointment.

I may also explain how different parts of our body function and how certain food and lifestyle behaviours can improve that function. Outside of providing education, I help my clients uncover the skills and tools they need to move forward. Usually, this involves figuring out what barriers are in the way and breaking down our goals to address that. (This is why follow-up is so helpful!)

If somebody is not a current client, I seldom provide food lists or nutrition information. This isn’t because I’m trying to withhold information. It’s because there’s always a bigger picture. When we have complex problems, we seldom have simple solutions. If you could “just Google it,” you already would have. 🙂

What does a typical day look like?

I wear a few different dietitian hats. Lately, I spend the bulk of my work time in my office in an outpatient area of Abbotsford Regional Hospital with Fraser Health. This position involves individual nutrition counselling for anything from home tube feeding to eating disorders, IBS, and heart failure. I also teach group classes about general healthy eating, celiac disease, and heart health.

In my private practice, much of my work is similar. I love the opportunity to hear people’s stories and come alongside them to build skills and habits for long-term health.

What about other dietitians?

Dietitians do a lot of different things! Generally, we all tend to LOVE of food! This comes out in various roles from clinical nutrition, to foodservice management, community work in grocery stores, schools, and government policy. The blog What RDs Do by Steph Langdon features many great interviews of several dietitians around the world.

How do you become a dietitian?

In Canada, becoming a dietitian is a multi-step process: obtain a dietetics degree, complete a dietetic internship, pass the Canadian Dietetics Registration Exam, and then register with the local college. This takes at least 5 years. Following completion, our college ensures we maintain practice competency with continuing education requirements.

In BC, this starts with 2 years of science prerequisites before applying to UBC’s dietetics program, which is years 3 to 5. (I say UBC because UBC is the only university in BC that offers a dietetics program.) Third and fourth year courses include clinical nutrition, biochemistry, physiology, and research methods. The final year is a 10 month internship with a health authority. This is composed of various placements including clinical (mostly in hospitals and clinics), community, research, and foodservice management.

What’s the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?

The simplest way I can explain this is that the term dietitian is regulated. This means that you need certain credentials to call yourself a dietitian. And you need all of them! If I decided not to practice as a dietitian for a couple years for whatever reason, I’d still need to pay fees to my regulatory body in order to still keep my title. The term nutritionist, however, is not regulated. This means that there is no specific criteria to become a nutritionist. Programs to become a nutritionist vary widely from weekend online programs to 2 year certificate programs and beyond. Because this title is so wide-ranging, people with a wide variety of skills can call themselves a nutritionist – including dietitians!

This is definitely not to say that non-RDs aren’t worth seeing – there are certainly some very wise and helpful people out there! They may or may not have the skill set you’re looking for, though, so look into credentials and training…whether you see somebody in person or you find an article through a Google search. 😉

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