Finding Reliable Nutrition Information

If my friend mentions to me that she has a tooth ache, I would recommend that she make an appointment with a dentist. When my sister says that her back has been feeling tight, see sees her chiropractor, not me, to reset it. When my dad needed a knee replacement, his surgery was performed by an orthopedic surgeon, not his fellow neighbor that had a knee replacement a few years back. If you wake up one morning and decide to dramatically change the color and cut of your hair, you would probably see a licensed beautician instead of heading for the scissor drawer.

These examples sound obvious and ridiculous, but for some reason, when it comes to health and wellness advice, we begin to perceive others that have lost weight or look fit as experts. If our friend, family member, or neighbor loses 20 pounds, we get all excited and just HAVE to know what diet he or she is doing. If a chiropractor, dentist, or other health professional were to have a dietary recommendation, then sign us up! They are professionals, right?  Unfortunately, just as if you were to get your back reset by someone other than a chiropractor, receiving nutrition advice from unqualified individuals can result in adverse health outcomes.

If only there were a licensed, nutrition professional that has spent years learning science-based techniques to help people lose weight and lower their risk factors for chronic diseases… Oh wait, there is such a professional, a registered dietitian. Last week, I officially completed all of the requirement to gain such credentials. At this point, you may be thinking, “How convenient. A registered dietitian is trying to tell me that only registered dietitians are able to give me nutrition advice.” Well, yes and no.

Two weeks or even 1 year ago, I could consider myself a personal trainer, group exercise instructor, and nutritionist, but not a registered dietitian. In the last year, I have completed difficult coursework learning nutrition interventions for hundreds of disease states. I have learned how your metabolism works, so I can base diet recommendations off of real scientific processes. Before that point, if you were to ask me for a meal plan while considering your food allergy, tendency to get kidney stones, high blood pressure, or anything else you had going on, my recommendations would have been guesses at best. Over the past year, I have been in hospitals, clinics, and wellness facilities working under a registered dietitian with real patients in order to practice my skills and gain experience in a safe environment. Two weeks ago, despite having a degree in food and nutrition in hand, I was still not qualified to give you a meal plan for weight loss, and rightly so. I had not yet passed a grueling 3 hour licensure exam that could test me on any piece of information I had learned over the past 4 years in college.

A “registered dietitian” is a regulated term requiring the professional to take specific coursework on medical nutrition therapy, chemistry, biochemistry, scientific research, and physiology, while maintaining a grade of B or better. He or she must complete a 1200+ hour internship in various settings under the supervision of a dietitian. After finishing a 4 year degree and soon to be a master’s degree, the individual must then prove one final time that he or she is competent enough to give others dietary advice via a licensure exam. A “nutritionist,” on the other hand, is not a regulated term. Does your nutritionist have an internet certificate, a college degree, or is he or she self-appointed? Your chiropractor and dentist probably learned something nutrition related at some point during school, to complement their rigorous coursework on treating the human body in a specific way. In fact, your dentist probably learned about your spine and muscles in dental school, and your chiropractor could have learned about your teeth. Personally, I still plan to get my teeth examined by my dentist, my body reset by my chiropractor, and leave the nutrition advice to a licensed dietitian.

My intention is to point out the importance of receiving care from licensed individuals, not to promote my profession. Unfortunately, dieting is a trendy, multimillion dollar industry. Because of this, most Americans, including myself at one point, could not distinguish the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist. I did not know all the steps involved in gaining my credentials until I was about 3 years into my coursework. This warning comes from the respect I have gained from the brilliant minds that taught me. It comes from the quality care I have seen patients receive from dietitians during my internship. It comes from the care I received from a registered dietitian at age 9 after I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Unfortunately, it also comes from horror stories of patients that received poor advice from unqualified individuals, such as the patient with kidney disease that received excess protein from his personal trainer, which aggravated his disease. Remember that health is more than losing weight. Your nutrition impacts your overall health and wellbeing. You are more than another customer trying a new trend. You deserve quality, science-based nutrition care from an expert, a registered dietitian.

Alicia Gilbert, RD, CPT is a registered dietitian, certified personal trainer, group exercise/ yoga instructor, and current 1 L at The University of Alabama School of Law. Follow her self-taught cooking adventures and occasional disasters on Instagram @coldbrewandcarbs.


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