One of my dietetics professors used to say that her cat was a nutritionist. It wasn’t a joke, she was actually being serious. She found a website online where she paid a small fee to print a certificate that stated that Fluffy was an official “nutritionist.” My professor used that story to highlight the importance of our credentials. Anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist,” but there is only one trusted and nationally regulated credential for nutrition professionals: Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN or RD).
Patients will often look to other health professionals (e.g. doctors, nurses, physician assistants, etc.) for nutrition expertise, but the RDN has, by far, the most extensive nutrition training. If Fluffy wanted to be an RDN, she would have to go through rigorous academic and clinical nutrition training, and pass a standardized exam to boot. These demanding educational requirements allow RDNs to set themselves apart as true nutrition experts.
Whether it’s on TV or at an office visit, many consumers trust physicians and other healthcare professionals for nutrition advice (IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey, 2014). Most health professionals will likely give basic nutrition advice: Watch your portions, eat more vegetables, exercise more, etc. But some physicians and other health professionals have subscribed to more controversial opinions on what constitutes a healthful diet that are not reflective of the totality of science. For example, broad and over-generalized recommendations to cut out all caffeine (that are not based on the diagnosis of a health condition) or avoiding “processed foods” (without specifying which foods those would be and why) are not supported by the scientific evidence and may lead to consumer confusion. Depending on where they read or heard the information or based on their personal beliefs, physicians’ advice may vary, due in part to the lack of required nutrition education and no requirement for continuing education specifically on nutrition issues. Indeed, a 2010 study found that medical school students receive an average of 19 hours of instruction on nutrition topics (Adams, et al., 2010), compared to the years of dedicated study on nutrition (not to mention the internship hours) needed to become an RDN.
Many allied health professionals do stay up-to-date with the latest (credible) nutrition research and want to help their patients reduce risk and manage chronic disease through nutrition. This is why interdisciplinary partnerships are critical. The RDN’s strength is in keeping up-to-date on developments in nutrition science and translating these findings into actionable dietary advice. When RDNs work side-by-side with other healthcare professionals, patients can have the best medical and nutritional approaches to address a given health condition. In fact, research has demonstrated the considerable value of medical nutrition therapy (as provided by RDNs) in the management of many chronic diseases, including diabetes. (Pastors, et al., 2002)
Becoming an RDN is no small feat. Here are the three main steps to becoming an RDN:
1. The Educational Training: RDN candidates complete coursework on nutrition & dietetics, food service management, and public health nutrition on an undergraduate and/or graduate level (including Masters of Science (MS) and Masters of Public Health (MPH) degrees, which often appear before the RDN credential (e.g. MPH, RD)).
2. The Internship: RDN candidates are required to complete an accredited, supervised practice program. The 6-12 month internship typically consists of a combination of training in clinical, foodservice, public health, and communications disciplines. (For more, see: http://www.cdrnet.org/certifications/registration-eligibility-requirements-for-dietitians)
3. The Test: The final hurdle is the RD exam. This is a national examination administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) that is designed to ensure an RDN candidate has the necessary knowledge to be an RDN.
Once you officially earn your RDN, there are still many requirements you need to meet in order to maintain your credential. These include:
- Licensure (in some states);
- Continuing education hours (75 hours of continuing education in relevant topics every 5 years); and
- Professional development portfolio (to keep RDNs focused on their short and long-term career goals).
There are many hoops to jump through in order to become an RDN and maintain that credential, but they are in place to ensure that all RDNs meet strict standards for nutrition knowledge and expertise, which make them the go-to professional for nutrition advice.
How to Know Who to Trust
Nutrition advice is everywhere these days, which can make it even harder for people to know who to trust for nutrition guidance. Advice may seem credible, but it is not always backed by the proper credentials. Others working in indirectly related fields, such as personal trainers, acupuncturists, and chiropractors, often pair their services with nutrition advice; however, their area of expertise is not nutrition. The rising prevalence of social media, TV docs, and “nutritionist” certificates only complicates matters further. Although not equivalent to an RDN credential, nutritionist certificates are often positioned as or mistakenly perceived by uninformed consumers as being equal to an RDN. However, a nutritionist certificate may not require substantive nutrition training. The RDN credential is important to look for because it highlights individuals who have been thoroughly trained and vetted as nutrition experts and have the ability to translate the science into practical dietary guidance. So if you’re looking for the “real deal” in terms of for dietary advice that is based on current science, consult with an RDN.
For more information about becoming an RDN or to find a local RDN, visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website: http://www.eatright.org/.
Liz Sanders MPH, RDN, LDN, is a Registered Dietitian and former intern at the International Food Information Council Foundation.
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