Do I Need to See a Dietitian?
Updated: Feb 8
Are you confused about which foods to choose, how to plan meals, and whether you should go on a diet? Do you feel like there is not enough time in the day to get everything done AND eat healthy? Are you living with a chronic disease and wish you didn’t have to take so many medications?
If you answered “yes” to any or all these questions, it might be time to work with a registered dietitian!
What is a Registered Dietitian?
A registered dietitian (synonymous with a registered dietitian nutritionist) is a healthcare
professional who provides nutrition counseling to improve health and wellness. They are also the main profession that uses medical nutrition therapy which means tailoring nutrition advice to treat conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and IBS. Dietitians complete rigorous undergraduate coursework in biochemistry, food science, and nutrition counseling and a 1,200-hour dietetic internship after graduation before sitting for the national
exam. Soon, registered dietitians will be required to complete a master’s degree in nutrition before sitting for the national exam, and many have already chosen to obtain a master’s degree (or even a PhD). A dietitian must complete continuing education to maintain their credential and complete additional state licensure requirements.
Since physicians cannot specialize in everything, they refer to dietitians when someone needs nutrition counseling. Physicians and other healthcare professionals that are allowed to give nutrition advice do not have the time or expertise to conduct in-depth nutrition counseling, so they refer to registered dietitians when appropriate. Although nutrition topics are integrated into medical school curriculum, most physicians never take a single nutrition class. The term “nutritionist” by itself is not a legal or regulated title.
What Should I Expect From a Visit With a Dietitian?
Since every person is unique, a dietitian will start by completing a nutrition assessment. This will involve asking questions about your daily life (work hours, household situation, habits, etc.), food and beverage intake, medical and surgical history, medications, supplements, food budget, cooking proficiency, sleep and stress, physical activity, and more. It is very helpful to keep a log of everything you eat and drink over a period of at least 3 days leading up to your first visit with a dietitian.
From there, a dietitian will use effective counseling techniques, such as motivational
interviewing, to help you create personalized SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound) goals. They will help explain the latest nutrition research and guide you on how to achieve lifestyle change.Sometimes a dietitian will recommend that you add another healthcare professional to your healthcare team such as a mental health therapist, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, etc. The dietitian may ask you to sign a specific release of information form to allow them talk with a member of your healthcare team for coordinated care. This is called an interdisciplinary approach and is the gold standard for healthcare treatment.
How Many Visits Will I Need?
Your dietitian will discuss whether follow up visits are recommended and how many. For
complex conditions such as IBS, diabetes, and disordered eating, most people benefit from weekly, biweekly, or monthly appointments at first. Once your health goals have been achieved, you may also benefit from maintenance visits every few months or annually.
Sometimes only one or two visits are necessary, such as learning what to eat while managing a food allergy.
Will I Have to Give up My Favorite Foods?
Most of the time, you will work with a registered dietitian to expand your current food choices to incorporate more foods not less! Many people over-restrict themselves (giving up all sugar, for example) which eventually leads to burnout and over-indulging in those foods (a whole box of cookies in one sitting). One exception would be if someone needed to try an elimination diet for a condition such as IBS. An elimination diet is a structured plan to avoid or limit certain foods for a short period (usually a few weeks) of time. These foods are reintroduced carefully one at a time to determine if any foods need to be avoided or limited for a longer period. People with food allergies often get stuck eating the same foods over and over and can work with a dietitian to find more safe foods and recipes.
Will I Get a Meal Plan?
Many people ask for a “meal plan.” Having what you should eat written down can sound like a good idea. However, when “life” happens, our plans change, or we forgot an ingredient at the grocery store, we need to know how to plan meals (not just follow a rigid plan).
By developing the skills to plan food choices at home or at a restaurant, you can learn how to eat for the rest of your life. A meal plan does not teach this skill. A dietitian may give you meal plan or grocery “ideas,” but long-term lifestyle changes take work,
accountability, a strong support system, and adjustments.
If you are ready to achieve meaningful change and improve your health, consider meeting with our dietitian, Nathan Slinkard, MS, RD, LD!