After having attended the annual Maine Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics conference two weeks ago, I am left both encouraged to continue my work as a dietitian and grateful to all dietitians in the state and around the world for the hard work that they do. Being a dietitian nutritionist is quite challenging at times, and also incredibly rewarding. I am moved to explain what dietitians do, reveal some nutrition misconceptions and challenges, and gush about the best moments that keep me inspired.

What is a dietitian?

This is a good question, as I often get a blank look when I tell people that I am a dietitian nutritionist. Dietitians are food and nutrition experts who have met the following criteria: earned at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university; completed a 6- to 12-month-long supervised practice program or dietetic internship; passed a national exam; and complete continuing professional education units or credits to maintain their registration. Dietitians work in many different areas and are by no means limited to hospitals. The list includes long-term care centers; outpatient medical centers; government agencies; community and public health settings; universities as teachers and professors; food- and nutrition-related businesses and industries; private practice; sports nutrition; corporate wellness programs; and food-service operations. Dietitians use their expertise in food, nutrition, and lifestyle to promote health, prevent disease, and help manage medical conditions.

A few misconceptions about nutrition:

Nutrition knowledge is innate.

In an ideal world, this would be true for everyone. Some are lucky enough to have absorbed nutrition information growing up, or to have learned how to cook from scratch. While this gift is to be honored, it is very different from the kind of information that fills up five-plus years of full-time nutrition study. Most people in today’s industrialized nations do not receive nutrition information from their elders. Many do not grow up cooking and never learn as adults. This presents both a challenge and a great opportunity for nutrition professionals to help fill in the gaps.

Nutrition is basic.

While nutrition may seem simple, the reality is that it is highly complex, extremely individualized, and never black and white. Take the mantra “Eat your fruits and vegetables” that we have all heard. It is true that it is not bad advice and will probably serve you well, but there is a lot more to the story. People are individuals with unique needs and different health conditions. If you have inflammatory bowel disease, for example, fruits may not be your friend, and raw vegetables may lead to agony. If you have irritable bowel syndrome, many healthy vegetables and fruits will cause you great discomfort, to say the least. Those with diabetes will probably do best without a large bowl of fruit salad every day. And a ripe banana will affect your blood sugar very differently from a cup of raspberries. The nuances go on into eternity, and they can have a profound effect on health. This can be disappointing for those who want a quick fix or easy answers, but it is also incredibly empowering once you have this knowledge and can put it into practice.

Nutrition is static.

Nutrition is a science, and science is not static. It is constantly evolving. One day eggs are good, the next day they are bad. This can be perplexing and frustrating for clients: “I thought margarine was good for me!” Things in the nutrition world do change. This is an added challenge for dietitians to keep up with, and a challenge for everyone to accept.

Why else is nutrition a challenging field?

If you truly want to help people, you will help them change their lifestyle. Changing how you eat, what you eat, and how you live — this can all be quite challenging. Taking a pill is much easier. All change is hard. To quote Margaret Mead: “It is easier to change a man’s religion than to change his diet.” This may be true. We are all creatures of habit. Having someone suggest that you change what or how you eat when you have had your routine for many decades may not be the easiest thing to hear. Dietitians understand, because we are also human and have the same struggles. Know that we don’t make suggestions lightly, and that you are always in the driver’s seat, deciding where to go and how to get there.

Nutrition practice is versatile, and dietitians are working in many different fields. Misconceptions exist, and the work can be challenging. It is also incredibly rewarding. When I see a client’s face light up with hope, or a little girl who can eat comfortably again, or a client tells me they are no longer a slave to the bathroom, or a parent who is filled with gratitude and relief when they finally learn what to feed their child, I feel so inspired to continue my work. Thank you for being open to the power of nutrition, and thank you for letting me — and all dietitians — help.

If you would like a nutrition question answered, please send it to the email below.

The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be used in place of medical advice from a licensed health professional.