As a dietitian, it pains me to see how much bad publicity my profession has received in recent years. I was initially drawn to this field because of my desire to help others and it’s sad to see so many people bashing dietitians and raising question to our credibility. This bad press has caused many to be apprehensive about working with a dietitian, and, consequently, many people are left not knowing where to turn and are not getting the help they need as a result. Perhaps understanding some of the factors that contributed to our not-so-stellar reputation will help put things into perspective. Here’s my take on how dietitians got to where we are today:
Many of us in the dietetic profession have been groomed to think that we are the absolute experts in all things pertaining to nutrition. This, I think, has contributed to the fact that many in my profession come off as cocky and will ‘poo-poo’ information from others who do not have our education and training. This, in turn, created a huge rift between dietitians and various other groups who practice nutrition without the “RD” or “RDN” credentials. Not all dietitians feel this way, but some do and, unfortunately, are quick to dismiss others, resulting in huge push-backs and bad press. I am not saying that dietitians shouldn’t consider themselves experts in nutrition (we certainly have extensive training and are held to a certain standard), but we also shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss others just because they’re not dietitians.
State licensure laws have come back to bite dietitians in the ass.
Many of us were brainwashed to push for licensure in our prospective states in order to ‘protect the public’ against wrong/harmful information from ‘non-credible’ sources. In a few states, it’s basically illegal to provide nutrition advice unless you possess the coveted RD/RDN title (regulations vary from state to state). This was actually a move that was pushed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) to secure our ‘top dog’ status and to make nice with insurance companies and hospitals and other institutions in an attempt to make our profession less dispensable. Not surprisingly, this move made non-dietitians practicing nutrition quite perturbed as it essentially put them out of business or forced them to move to a different state without strict licensure laws. This, in turn, has created some bad press as others call into question why dietitians are so special that they should have a monopoly over the nutrition industry.
(For the record, I am not pro-licensure for many, many reasons that I won’t get into here, but if others want to be able to practice nutrition without going the dietitian route, I think it should be their choice, whether I or anyone else agrees with it or not. Would I prefer that those wanting to pursue a career in nutrition get the extensive training that I received? Sure. But to try to have a monopoly over a field that so many people are strongly passionate about doesn’t seem right to me either.)
Many dietitians try to take on more than they can handle.
This goes back to the ‘dietitians are the experts’ mentality – many, mistakenly, interpret this to mean ‘dietitians are the experts at everything’ and take on clients/cases that they know very little or next to nothing about. Don’t get me wrong, the intentions behind this are probably good (and we all have to start somewhere), but the dietitian is actually providing a disservice to the client when they take them on without the specialized knowledge/training/experience under their belt that would better help the client with their particular problem/area of concern (especially if the dietitian isn’t up-front with the client about their lack of experience/knowledge from the get-go). If/when the client doesn’t improve, they interpret this to mean ALL dietitians are wrong or unhelpful, which is absolutely not the case. Unhappy clients = bad publicity.
I would encourage those who are looking for a dietitian to do some digging and look for someone who specializes in the particular area that they need help in. To put it a different way – would you see a cardiologist for your annual pap smear? Of course not! If you have diabetes, find a dietitian who specializes in diabetes. If you have food sensitivities, find a dietitian who specializes in food sensitivities (such as myself). In cases where I feel the client’s particular needs are over my head, I refer them out to someone who is better suited to help, but not all dietitians do this, unfortunately.
We come off as wishy-washy.
One week eggs are bad, the next week eggs are good. One week saturated and trans fat are at the root of heart disease, the next week sugar is to blame. I’m not sure why dietitians are the only ones being portrayed as wishy-washy, but here’s the thing: RESEARCH, especially when it comes to nutrition or the human body, IS WISHY-WASHY. For every study showing that something is good/beneficial, there is another one showing that same thing is bad/detrimental. There are many reasons for why this happens (including different study designs, flawed studies, bias, populations used, length of study, number of study participants, discrepancies in interpretations of results, etc.), but just know that the body is incredibly complex and we’re just at the tip of the iceberg as far as what we know about the body’s inner-workings. Sometimes we change our standpoint on things when there’s sufficient evidence and findings that warrant it. This does not mean that dietitians are wishy-washy; this just means that we do the best we can with the data that’s available to us.
We look like we’re in bed with big food companies.
Many people have fixated on the fact that we have had food company sponsors, such as McDonald’s, at various conferences and meetings. I can understand, to an extent, how this looks to the public – it sends a mixed message and it makes many people question our advice. Let me tell you this: I am NOT by any means happy with the fact that companies who produce foods that are commonly seen as ‘unhealthy’ or ‘junk’ have pumped dollars into our conferences (and many, many, many other dietitians are also very unhappy with this sponsorship); however, I don’t think that all dietitians are so gullible as to believe that the mere presence or financial involvement of these companies at our conferences means that we need to promote their products or believe everything they say about the research relating to their products. We all have minds of our own and are capable of making our own analyses.
Outside of being an elected chair member on the board of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (or voting for those who are in those positions in hopes that elected officials will make decisions aligned with our values), the vast majority of dietitians have very little control over who sponsors conferences. Some dietitians have actually discontinued their membership in the Academy because of this very issue. I do not think that dietitians as a whole should be penalized because of some sponsors at a conference for which a majority of us have little to no control over.
We generally suck at marketing.
Several other nutrition training programs (outside of dietetics) will typically include training on marketing in order to gain a large following. Many of these organizations are, quite openly, anti-dietitian because of some of the reasons that I outlined above. Typical dietetics programs lack that business and marketing side of things and, as a result, the anti-dietitian regime wins out in the media.
In addition to that, controversy = hot headlines. Some people feel the need to bad-mouth dietitians in order to get their 15 minutes of fame. More ‘hits’ and ‘views’ typically means a bigger bottom-line for the contributor.
I would love to see more emphasis on business and marketing in future dietetic programs as more and more dietitians are going the entrepreneurial route. In the meantime, those of us who have a particular interest in marketing are left to make our own way – our profession as a whole isn’t as successful at marketing because of this.
We’re all lumped into one group.
When many people speak of dietitians, they generally lump us all into the same category as if we all have the same viewpoints and teachings and backgrounds and techniques. This couldn’t be further from reality. As someone who is active in several different dietetic practice groups and is in communication with THOUSANDS of dietitians from all types of disciplines and walks of life, let me make this clear: dietitians have VASTLY different views and ways of doing things. Some are anti-gluten, some are anti-dairy, some are paleo-fanatics, some are pro-supplements, the list goes on and on. To speak of dietitians as if we all share the same brain is irresponsible and highly inaccurate. Do doctors all share the same views? Hell the f*ck no! So why would dietitians? Sometimes it seems like we agree on about as much stuff as politicians. 😉
Those who spread negative and outlandish claims stating that all dietitians are bad or wrong or unhelpful probably haven’t found a dietitian who is aligned with their views yet. Trust me, there is a dietitian for just about every viewpoint out there, you just have to do some digging to find the right one for you.