Today is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Day. You’re forgiven if you didn’t know that, as you won’t find it on your calendar along with Memorial Day and Christmas. But it’s a very important day, for a few reasons that I’ll tell you about right now…
What is A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)?
I get this question a lot, in different guises. Some of my patients aren’t sure how to refer to me when talking to friends or family about me. Many people ask if I’m a dietitian OR a nutritionist. Both I tell them, because all registered dietitians are also nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians. That’s an important distinction, because there are any number of “certification” programs out there (many of them brief and online only) that let people call themselves a “nutritionist.” So in most cases, “nutritionist” alone means nothing.
I say almost, but there are a few exceptions. For example, in Washington State, someone who has a master’s degree or doctorate in nutrition from an accredited school, but did not go through the specific training and supervised practice to become a registered dietitian, can be licensed with the state as a certified nutritionist (CN). [Unfortunately, some of those less-reputable programs also use CN, which is very confusing.] Certified nutrition specialists (CNS) also have at least a master’s degree in something nutrition- or medical-related and have to pass a lengthy exam.
To become a registered dietitian nutritionist, I had to
- Take two years of science classes, including chemistry, biology, organic chemistry, biochemistry, anatomy & physiology, and microbiology. (I had avoided science like the plague previously, but even if I had taken those classes way back in undergrad, they only have a three-year “shelf life,” so I would have needed to take them again.)
- Apply to my super-competitive grad school program at the University of Washington. (I got in.)
- Take two years (including summers) of graduate school, which included coursework in the Nutritional Sciences department and the School of Public Health, as well as…
- …a year of supervised practice in various settings (including an intense 10 weeks in an inpatient hospital setting).
- Complete and defend my thesis so I could earn my Master’s of Public Health (MPH) in nutrition. (And there was much rejoicing.)
- But wait, there’s more! Then I had to study for and take an exam to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. (I passed.)
Why I Love Being An RDN
It was a hard decision to transition from a career as a journalist and writer to one as a health care practitioner, and not just because of those science classes [I wavered for a year because I thought I couldn’t “do” science, but then I decided that I wanted to be an RDN so much that I took a deep breath, plunged in, and discovered that not only can I “do” science, but that science is fun!], but because, you know, change can be hard (and scary).
But now that I am fully on the other side of that major life decision, I couldn’t be happier. No only do I get to work one-on-one with amazing patients, but becoming a true nutrition expert has transformed my writing, both in terms of the depth of what I write and the publications I get to write for. I truly feel blessed, and that’s not a term I toss around easily. Even on those days when I am so busy that I contemplate tearing my hair out, I remind myself that those moments (OK, days) when I have too much to do always pass, everything that must get done gets done, and that I truly love what I do.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to a class of about 200 nutrition students at UW (mostly students working toward an undergraduate minor in nutrition, but also the current class of first-year nutrition graduate students) about nutrition entrepreneurship, and I acknowledged that while combining my day job at the Polyclinic with multiple freelance writing assignments, online programs and other entrepreneurial ventures means I’m typically working most evenings and weekends, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love what I do, and I love that dietetics is such a diverse field. No, we don’t all work in hospitals (but if you’re ever in the hospital, you’ll be glad that some dietitians do)!