Dieticians and Nutrition: Are you what you eat?

Author:  Madeleine Jepsen

Institution:  Hillsdale College

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

For many people, "eating healthy" involves more than just avoiding excess fat and adding in plenty of fruits and vegetables. People of different ages, activity levels, and health backgrounds  all have unique nutritional needs. Whether it be a professional athlete, a businessman with diabetes, or a small child with an iron deficiency, dietitians play an important role in maintaining people's health by applying their expertise on food and nutrition.

From hands-on patient care to research administration, there are many opportunities for dietitians to build their career in this growing field. Dietitians can work at hospitals, clinics, or other healthcare facilities. They work with patients with special dietary needs or conditions, and may also help supervise food services at nursing homes. Additionally, dietitians may also work in a private practice or as consultants in food and nutrition-related industries. They can also apply their knowledge in a public health setting to help inform the general public about proper nutrition, or sports nutrition or corporate wellness programs, educating specific clients about what nutrition levels are best for their lifestyle.

In addition to the variety of settings in which a dietitian can work, there are any number of specialties for individual dietitians to focus on. Some may work almost exclusively with diabetic patients or people with heart disease. Others may specialize in working with a specific gender or age group. The nutritional needs of an older woman with a severe iron deficiency differ greatly from a 20-year old athlete with a vitamin deficiency.

Some dietitians work with patients in the short-term, providing them with the information necessary to make necessary dietary changes in light of a recent diagnosis or health issue. Others patients with especially complex or intensive dietary needs require long-term meetings with a dietitian. For example, a dietitian may meet with a hospitalized patient recovering from heart surgery to talk to them about reducing their sodium or sugar intake, and reviewing specific foods to avoid eating. Others with uncategorized allergic reactions may meet with a dietitian over longer periods of time to help get to the root of the problem.

Nutrition and dietary habits can have long-reaching effects for people's overall health, and doctors may refer their patients to a dietitian to see if unexplained symptoms have a nutrition-based cause. Dietitians can even help to solve symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, or migraines. Some symptoms may lead to serious diagnoses, others may only require smaller dietary adjustments, and dietitians can help distinguish between the two and make the appropriate recommendations.

Current research about the human microbiome, the array of microbial life residing in the human gut, is also shedding new light on the importance of dietary health. The types and amounts of food people eat can affect the types and amounts of microbes in their gut. These microbes have been shown to prevent the colonization of harmful types of bacteria, strengthen the immune system, and help synthesize important nutrients such as vitamin B-12 and vitamin K. Harmful changes in the microbiome can manifest in symptoms elsewhere in the body, and are even linked to issues such as type two diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and obesity.

The picture of health can vary greatly between individual patients. An approach that seems to produce nearly-miraculous results for one person may be completely ineffective for another. It is up to dietitians to help find logical, scientific explanations for these different causes. While some trial and error may be involved before the solution is found, professional dietetics use evidence-based approaches to treating dietary issues.

While dietitians and nutritionists often work with the same types of health problems and patients, these two terms are not interchangeable. The title of "nutritionist" can indicate any level of professional knowledge or education, but the professional title of registered dietitian (RD) is protected by law in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia. These countries require at least a bachelor's degree and a certain amount of hands-on training in hospitals or other healthcare settings. In September of 2016, the International Confederation of Dietetic Associations will hold a conference during which they will re-evaluate their international standards for dietitians in order to standardize global expectations and education levels for the profession. This is intended to foster additional international collaboration and improve the field of dietetics.

By applying their knowledge of nutrition and the human body, dietitians provide patients with suggestions to help manage and resolve medical conditions. Even amid advances in technology and the general medical field, people of all ages will always need to maximize their nutrition in order to improve their overall health.




Interview with Sarah Ohlhorst, MS, RD

Correspondence with Janice MacDonald