Dietetics is the study of what and how people eat and how diet impacts health. It is also the study and application of nutrition. An expert in the field of dietetics is called a dietitian. In most states dietitians must be licensed or certified in some way and most are registered dietitian nutritionists, or RDNs. They work with patients to assess, implement, and use diet for wellness or as part of treatment for specific conditions.

Registered dietitian nutritionists are highly educated and trained professionals who work with patients and consult with other medical professionals to use food and nutrition to promote overall wellness and to achieve health goals. They work in hospitals, in outpatient facilities, in nursing homes, in government care facilities, and independently as self-employed medical professionals. The care of a dietitian can be a crucial element in an overall treatment or care plan for a variety of types of patients.

What is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist?

An RDN is a trained medical professional with extensive knowledge of diet, nutrition, and how food relates to health and wellness. Dietitians advise patients, develop nutrition plans, and change patient nutrition to help them achieve good health or specific health goals, such as losing weight, reducing inflammation, or transitioning to a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Dieticians are highly educated, holding at least a bachelor’s degree, although about half of RDs hold a graduate degree. They also undergo extensive guided training, typically through a post-graduate internship, before working independently. They are trained and educated in diet, food, nutrition, clinical nutrition, public health nutrition, food services and management, psychology, biology, and chemistry.

A registered dietitian nutritionist, RDN, is a professional who has achieved a specific credential. Every state’s requirements for working as a dietitian are different. Most include a bachelor’s degree, supervised practice hours, and a passing score on an examination, but many professionals in dietetics choose to voluntarily get credentialed as an RDN in addition to any state-level requirements. Many employers require that dietitians are RDNs.

What Dietitians Do for Patients

An RDN uses nutrition and diet to help patients. They can customize their care for specific patients, such as someone trying to use diet to reduce symptoms of chronic pain or type 2 diabetes. They can also provide general wellness advice based on diet and nutrition, working with individuals, families, or groups of people interested in nutrition. Whether they work independently or as part of a team of medical professionals, dietitians have several important duties and responsibilities:

  • Assessing and evaluating the nutrition needs, health needs, and health goals of patients or clients
  • Counseling and advising patients on diet choices and habits for healthy eating
  • Creating meal plans for patients that will help meet health goals and stay within a budget
  • Evaluating and assessing patients on meal plans for progress and adjusting diet as needed
  • Documenting patient progress
  • Educating people about good nutrition, through public speaking, writing educational materials, and leading courses or workshops
  • Keeping up to date on the latest diet and nutrition research

Dietitians may have other specific duties if they specialize in a particular type of care. For instance, clinical dietitians work specifically with medical patients to use nutrition as part of therapy. They work alongside doctors and other medical professionals to collaborate on treatment plans. Some may specialize in particular types of medical conditions, like kidney disease or digestive diseases.

Community dietitians work with the public, with local governments, and with community groups and programs to help improve nutrition in communities and in specific groups of people. They may work in community centers, clinics, or for government programs. Dietitians may also specialize in working in food service, providing healthy meal plans for corrections facilities, schools, hospitals, or other facilities.

Where Dietitians Work

Dietitians work in a variety of settings. Approximately one-third of RDNs work in hospitals, while 14 percent of dietitians work for government agencies or programs. Other major locations for employment of RDNs include outpatient care centers, which may include doctors’ offices, clinics, specialty care facilities, or in patient homes. Nutritionists also work in residential facilities, like nursing homes or rehab facilities, planning meals for all patients and working with individuals.

RDNs that are self-employed may work in a number of settings of their choice. They may take on clients individually, meeting with them at home to plan nutrition. They may consult with food service companies or schools. They may also be hired by organizations to help groups of people with nutrition or to lead educational clinics and wellness workshops related to diet and nutrition. Independent dietitians may also work as consultants for physicians, helping to manage patient care on an as-needed basis.

Who Can Benefit from the Care of a Dietitian?

Many different types of people can benefit from working with an RDN. Anyone who struggles with diet and nutrition, who doesn’t know how to eat well for overall health, or has lifestyle changes to make, like losing weight or eating less meat, can work with a dietitian to learn and plan a better diet. If a person has a nutritional deficiency, in protein, B vitamins, or specific minerals for example, can work with a dietitian to use diet rather than supplements to correct it.

People with specific health needs can also work with a dietitian to address goals, like relieving chronic pain, lowering cholesterol, recovering from a heart attack, or managing diabetes or kidney disease. Dietitians can also help people who struggle with food allergies or sensitivities. Planning a complete diet while eliminating certain foods can be challenging, but dietitians can help.

The Importance of Dietetics

The science of diet and nutrition is important for overall wellness in health patients but also for the management of illnesses. RDNs help healthy people stay healthy and maintain or achieve good overall health. They also play a big role in helping people with ongoing health problems manage symptoms, slow the progression of diseases, and live more comfortably. Dietitians are important in multi-disciplinary medical teams that treat patients with a holistic strategy and can even help prevent illness and disability.

Selecting a Dietician and Getting the Best Care

In some instances, you may not have a choice in the dietician who provides care. For instance, if you have a family member in a nursing home, there may be just one RDN on staff, or if you are in the hospital and need nutritional counseling, the staff dietitian will work with you. In those cases, you can generally expect that the RDN has been vetted and trained by the facility and is accountable for providing good care.

If you hire a self-employed dietitian, you need to take more time to ensure you are hiring someone who will provide quality dietetics care. Always look for an RDN, someone who has the highest level of credentialing. Ask about experience, especially if you have special needs, like a specific medical condition you are trying to manage. Also ask for references, and if at any point you are not satisfied with the care you are receiving, you can end your relationship with that dietitian.

Registered dietitian nutritionists have an important role to play in healthcare. They help patients maintain good health and this goes a long way toward preventing illnesses like diabetes or heart disease. They also help patients who are already struggling with illnesses, using diet to make a real difference. If you need to work with a dietitian, make sure you are getting good care that helps improve your health.