As a dietitian I feel like I’m constantly shouting into a void. I can repeat myself a hundred times and then a (white male) doctor says the same thing and suddenly it’s all over my twitter feed or the news. And while of course I’m always glad for people to be receiving credible nutrition information there’s a huge part of me that resents the fact that I feel like I don’t get any respect. Is it because dietetics is such a female dominated profession? Is it because people think that all we do is tell people what to eat and run around slapping hotdogs out of their hands? Is it because there is often a lack of consensus when it comes to nutrition and there’s a lot of vocal charlatans profiting from selling people extreme ideas and diets? Maybe all of these. I do know one thing and it’s that nearly everyone thinks that they know all about nutrition simply because they eat and they like to share that “expertise” with others (usually unsolicited) in person, on social media, or by lecturing dietitians in the comments on their blogs.
I would never be so presumptuous as to refer to myself as an expert. While I think that my four years of studying nutrition at university and the nearly seven years (where does the time go??) of self-study since then do give me an edge-up on the average individual, I know that there’s loads more that I don’t know and loads more to be discovered. Unfortunately, those who know the least tend to be the most vocal and the most certain. You only have to check-out any self-styled wellness guru to see this in full effect. There’s also the weird assumption that many people have that doctors (and scientists) are experts in all areas, including nutrition. Most doctors are not and those who are have become so in spite of their standard education, not because of it. Nutrition is not standard education for doctors. Scientists also have fields of study and just because someone is an astrophysicist does not mean they know the first thing about human nutrition. Any doctor or scientist worth his or her salt will be aware of the limits to their own knowledge and adhere to their scope of practice, deferring to those in other areas of study as applicable.
If this lack of respect for dietitians comes from a lack of awareness of what we do, perhaps I can help with that. Even though the dominant view of dietitians is that we counsel people on food, nutrition, and diet, that’s only one of many different avenues that we can take. Also, those who work in clinical nutrition may focus on very different areas from pediatrics to diabetes to eating disorders to cardiac rehab, etc. Dietitians working in private practice also counsel people for a wide range of nutritional concerns and some may specialize in specific topics as well; for example, one dietitian might only work with athletes while another might only work with clients looking to manage their weight. Many dietitians work with the food industry in various roles ranging from spokespeople to product development and nutrient analysis. There are dietitians who work in grocery stores helping customers to make healthy choices, try new foods and recipes, and boosting store sales. There are also dietitians who work in various aspects of nutrition research. Others of us work in public health and in the government with the goal of improving the health of the population. Rather than working with individuals we try to improve health and nutrition through policy and large-scale initiatives. Many dietitians work in longterm care; some in administrative roles with food services and some in a clinical capacity helping residents meet their dietary needs (and wants). Some dietitians work in the community with organizations such as community health teams providing counselling and classes for clients. Some dietitians provide food skills education for clients through nutrition-focused cooking classes. Yet other dietitians work with sports teams to ensure optimal health and performance of all the athletes. And the list goes on. If you’re a dietitian reading this and I missed your area of employment please feel free to share in the comments!
My point being that we all have a strong knowledge of nutrition but we all do different things with that knowledge. We don’t just tell people what to eat (in fact, most of us don’t) and while we can tell you what’s “good for you” in spinach that’s not the real focus of what we do – unless you’re a dietitian with the spinach growers association ;) We are all trying to help people make healthier choices (directly or indirectly) in our own ways.