A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, also known as an RD or an RDN.
When looking for an expert in nutrition or taking nutrition advice found on the internet or elsewhere, it is important to be informed about what various credentials mean.
A registered dietitian (RD) also called a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) is the healthcare professional recognized as the specialist in nutrition.
When you see the designation of RD or RDN, then you can be assured of the following:
The first step in becoming registered as a dietitian is to get a bachelor degree from a university that has a didactic program in Human Nutrition and Foods that meets certain course requirements to be eligible for step two which is an accredited internship.
It is a rigorous degree program with a very strong emphasis in science (think biology, micro biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, bio chemistry…) along with some psychology, math, and economics. This is followed by an intense concentration of nutrition specific science (nutrition and metabolism, food science), nutrition counseling, food service management, community nutrition, medical nutrition therapy, and the list goes on. All the while there is an emphasis on research…how to read it, vet it, do it, and analyze it.
Accredited Internship Program
On top of getting the degree, it is important to make good grades and be involved in real life experience and volunteer work because the next step is to get accepted into an accredited internship program. These programs are required, limited, highly competitive, with sought after spots.
All the internship programs are approximately one to two years long, and also have specific academic and “real world” experience requirements. Some of these programs are incorporated into a Master Degree program which gives the aspiring RDN another level of expertise.
National Credentialing Exam
Once the internship program is complete, the aspiring RDN is now eligible to take the credentialing exam, and once this is passed, then they are officially a registered dietitian nutritionist! Whew, that was a long road, and a whole lot of nutrition, and that is only the very tip of the iceberg.
Continuing Professional Education and Specialty Areas
Just as doctors specialize in specific areas of medicine, so do RDNs. Cardiac, pulmonary, pediatric, community, wellness, sports, digestive health… Whatever field an RDN chooses (even if they choose not to work), in order to maintain their registration status they must complete a certain amount of continuing professional education units per five year cycle (plus more for state licensure). We are also required to complete a professional practice portfolio every five years with all of our goals and how we plan to meet them. The goals we set also dictate the type of continuing professional education (CPE) that are acceptable to fulfill our requirements.
For example an RDN who works in sports nutrition, probably cannot fulfill their CPE obligation with a conference about food service management in nursing homes. Unless of course their goals indicate that they are changing direction and heading into that field of dietetics in the coming years. RDN’s cannot just take any CPE available to RDN’s, it has to be within their specific scope of practice and goals.
Dietitians are highly educated in a very specialized field, a field in which many RDN’s continue to narrow their scope of practice becoming an extremely valuable member of the health care team. Ideally, RDN’s work very closely in the patient care process with doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, community programs and organizers, and many other professionals. Dietitians are also held to high ethical standards for practice.
This is a helping profession, and people going into this field are doing it to make a difference in the quality of life for others…We certainly can’t be going into it for the money!
When you put all this together with the fact that a dietitian has much more time with their patient or client in their standard care process; We have a unique opportunity to be able to put a whole lot of pieces of a health puzzle together.
It is amazing what you can learn when you have the time to listen to someone’s whole story. The information we can contribute to the big picture is a valuable piece of the puzzle.
In general, our society gives immediate deference to physicians, and tend to consider them experts in all areas of health. Or at the least, we give them a pretty long tether with respect to how we view their scope of practice.
Physicians deserve a whole lot of props, and we know that to be a doctor one is obviously well versed in many areas of health and the body. However, nutrition is not their specialty, and they depend upon RDN’s for this expertise, just as we depend upon them for theirs.
Anyone can put up a shingle and promote a 500 calorie weight loss diet using whatever mix up of foods they think will sell (unfortunately it’s not healthy or effective in the long run, and an ethical nutrition professional would not recommend it). And if it is a random internet quack we may know to look the other way, however when a doctor puts up this shingle, we lend more credibility to it. These are the situations in which you want to look more closely.
The moral of this story is to know who your nutrition information is coming from.
There are many people providing nutrition advice, writing books, opening weight loss clinics, etc. that do not have the credentials, the expertise, or the accountability to ethical standards that an RDN is held to. Know your sources, check credentials, and use some of the warning signs in the infograph included in my upcoming book (Ditch the Diet) as a gauge as to whether nutrition advice is above board!