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What Is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist?

Eating well can be challenging if you have diabetes, are pregnant, or are trying to lose weight. But it doesn't have to be.
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While seeing a dietitian may not seem as essential as booking an appointment with a general practitioner, gynecologist, or another healthcare professional, it may be more important than you think. Poor eating habits and unhealthy lifestyle choices are leading causes of chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. 

Working with a dietitian is one of the most surefire methods of getting your health back on track. While everyone stands to benefit from professional nutrition guidance, some individuals should strongly consider seeking out a registered dietitian nutritionist as soon as possible. If you are thinking of reaching out to a registered dietitian, here is everything you need to know about this healthcare professional. 

Should you work with a registered dietitian nutritionist?

A registered dietitian (RD), also known as a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), will collaborate with you to develop a safe and realistic eating plan that is sustainable in the long run. This plan will focus on your health goals and priorities, whether you are trying to lose weight or follow a gluten-free diet. With their vast knowledge of food and nutrition, RDs will find ways to make your diet enjoyable and healthy.

These food and nutrition experts utilize medical nutrition therapy and nutrition education to support their clients. Aside from helping you develop a healthy eating plan, an RD will teach you other methods to independently manage and maintain your wellness. Some of these strategies may revolve around planning and cooking nutritious meals at home, understanding food labels at the grocery store, and making healthy choices when dining out. 

To help you achieve your goals, your dietitian will equip you with the education and tools to assist you with your diet moving forward. These tools may include food models and diagrams that outline healthy portion sizes, sample meal plans, and healthy recipes. Your dietitian may even provide you with a grocery shopping template. 

What does a registered dietitian do?

During your first appointment with a registered dietitian, whether online or in-person, your dietitian will get to know you and what you want to get out of these sessions. This first hour-long appointment is your opportunity to outline any allergies, digestive issues, or health conditions. Rather than telling you what to do, your dietitian's job is to ensure you reach your personal goals. In the introductory session, your dietitian will ask about your current diet. They'll want to know how often, how much, when, and where you eat. They will also inquire about your food preferences and aversions, your food budget, your general health and medical history, the medications and supplements you take, and how often you exercise. 

During routine follow-up sessions, your dietitian will track your progress, adjust your health plan, and discuss the next steps in your health journey. During every visit, your dietitian will provide you with dietary tips and information that will allow you to become more independent when managing your diet. These appointments are an excellent opportunity to ask questions, give feedback, and voice your concerns. If there is something about your current diet that you don't like, your dietitian can work with you to make appropriate alterations that you are both happy with. 

What's the difference between a nutritionist and a registered dietitian? 

Nutritionists and registered dietitians have similar goals. Both healthcare professionals know about food and nutrition sciences and provide medical nutrition therapy and support. Dietitians and nutritionists usually have at least one specialty, such as pediatric nutrition, renal nutrition, or weight loss. You can find dietitians and nutritionists at hospitals, health care facilities, and telehealth platforms. The main difference between the two roles lies in their credentials. An easy way to think about it is that all registered dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians. All nutritionists in the Top Nutrition Coaching network are registered dietitians who have also completed additional training in various specialties.

Nutritionists have varying levels of credentials. Anyone who offers general nutritional advice can use the title "nutritionist," meaning that nutritionists are not as regulated as dietitians are. However, many nutritionists hold advanced degrees. For instance, a certified nutritionist specialist (CNS) must have at least a master's degree in nutrition and 1,000 hours of supervised experience. Only then will a CNS-in-training be allowed to sit for their Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists (CBNS). If they pass this exam, they will have the letters "CNS" after their name. A certified nutrition specialist is the most advanced certification for a personalized nutrition practitioner. 

On the other hand, the pathway to becoming a registered dietitian is far more streamlined. In the next section, we will discuss the necessary steps to become an RD or RDN. 

What are the credentials of a registered dietitian nutritionist?

Like a CNS, a registered dietitian must complete several steps before gaining the RD or RDN certification.

Bachelor's Degree

The first step to becoming a registered dietitian is earning a bachelor's degree in nutrition or a related field. Every student who plans on pursuing a dietitian certification must have their coursework approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics. 

Supervised Practice

After completing your coursework, real-life practical experience comes into play. A dietitian-in-training must complete a rigorous supervised practice program at a health care facility, food service organization, or community agency. 

Pass a National Examination

Once you have completed your coursework and practical experience, you will be ready to take the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam. Only those who pass this national examination can become registered dietitians. 

Continuing Professional Educational Requirements

Even after passing the CDR exam, your work isn't over. In certain states, practicing dietitians may need to gain specific licensure. All dietitians must earn continuing education credits throughout their careers. This allows registered dietitians to remain up-to-date on practices and protocols in their field. Many dietitians use this requirement to pursue a clinical specialty, such as weight loss, oncology, diabetes, or prenatal and postpartum nutrition.

What are the benefits of working with a registered dietitian nutritionist? 

In addition to receiving a personalized healthy eating plan, working with a registered dietitian has many benefits. Here are a few of the advantages. 

Change Your Eating Mindset

Many people have a complicated relationship with food, whether you have a severe food allergy or are trying to avoid gaining too much weight during pregnancy. A registered dietitian is a resource to help you work through eating barriers and anxieties. After discussing life challenges and concerns with your dietitian, they can help you develop a realistic and approachable plan for making progress. 

Customization and Support

One of the downsides of reading about health and wellness online is that these resources can only offer general tips and tricks, at best. A huge perk of working with a dietitian is that their advice is aimed entirely at you. Your health plan will factor in your goals and priorities, your height and weight, and how much you exercise. Your dietitian will also consider your dietary restrictions, food preferences, and aversions. 

If you can't eat (or don't like) certain foods, then your dietitian can recommend adequate replacements to substitute into your diet. 

Make Eating Fun

One of the biggest misconceptions about "dieting" is that participants must eat the same bland and boring meals daily to stay healthy. Dietitians are there to help you avoid this dreaded scenario. Even if you need to curb your consumption of certain foods, that doesn't mean the joy of eating is completely lost. A dietitian can recommend creative ways to expand your food choices and cooking methods. For example, if you are craving pasta, your dietitian can recommend a healthier substitution that closely mimics the texture and flavor of pasta, such as squash or zucchini noodles.

Teach You the Basics

Your sessions with a registered dietitian are also opportunities to learn about the health topics that concern and interest you the most. Your RD can provide a wealth of nutrition, exercise, stress, and sleep information. They'll explain how these lifestyle factors interact with your immune system, mental health, metabolism, and more. 

Am I a good candidate to work with a registered dietitian? 

If you fall into one of the below categories, you have much to gain from scheduling a session with a registered dietitian.

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You're Pregnant

Expectant mothers often struggle to achieve a wholesome diet during their pregnancy. This could be due to nausea, morning sickness, cravings, or fear of gaining too much weight. Undereating or overeating during pregnancy can be harmful. Too much junk food could lead to gestational diabetes or complications during delivery. On the other hand, undereating can lead to low birth weight and an increased risk for infant mortality. 

A registered dietitian can help ensure that you maintain a healthy weight during pregnancy and provide your baby with the proper nourishment. If you struggle to intake essential nutrients, your dietitian can develop strategies to help you achieve your desired weight through a healthy, balanced approach.

Your Weight Loss Diet Just Isn't Working

Have you tried every fad diet, yet nothing seems to be working? It may be time to seek the help of a professional. Most trendy diets are quick fixes that rarely work for very long. More often than not, even if you lose weight, you will gain it back soon after ending your diet program. An RDN can help you lose weight by encouraging you to make incremental lifestyle changes rather than following a dangerous diet plan. They can teach you how to replace harmful habits and behaviors with healthy ones. By learning about how food fuels your body and how to achieve balance in your diet, you will gradually feel empowered to make your own food choices. 

You Might Have a Food Allergy

Do you think you might have a severe food allergy? Before cutting an entire food group out of your diet, consulting with a registered dietitian is essential. You might think that irregular bowel movements or digestive issues are due to lactose or gluten intolerance, but these symptoms could result from something else, like stress. 

An RD can help you get to the bottom of what's causing your symptoms and get an official diagnosis. Your nutritionist can guide you to the right nutrition plan and help you decide if you should incorporate other foods into your diet to make up for nutrient deficiencies. 

Still not sure? Read more about what a registered dietitian nutritionist does here. 

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About the author

Nicolette Star Maggiolo, RD, LDN
I'm a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist with education from Boston University and clinical training from both Brigham & Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. I specialize in helping the military and non-military individuals embrace nutrition as a partner in both their mental and physical health.

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