What does a dietitian do? And, how can they help you?
As you’re about to take that next bite of your lunch, the atmosphere is tense. At any moment the sirens could start wailing and the lights could start flashing red and blue. Having lunch isn’t illegal, of course, but it can attract the attention of ‘the law’ ¬– the food police, that is.
The ‘food police’ are everyone from the latest Instagram influencer to the next news article you’re about to read. There seems to always be someone ready to give you contradictory diet advice. So who can you turn to? A qualified dietitian of course!
But what exactly does a dietitian do?
We asked Shivaun Conn, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Accredited Nutritionist, to explain. She’ll take you through exactly what a dietitian is, the difference between dietitians and nutritionists, and everything you need to know to take ‘the law’ into your own hands.
Buh-bye food police!
Dietitians and nutritionists defined
If you do decide that you’d like some expert advice on food and nutrition, knowing who to see can be a little confusing. You might find yourself wondering about the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist.
“Essentially, a dietitian is someone who’s done a university qualification in dietetics at either an Honours’ or a Master’s level,” says Shivaun. She goes on to say that, after they graduate, dietitians then need to be accredited with the profession’s governing body, Dietitians Australia. And every year after that, they also need to complete a certain amount of continuous professional development. Only when they meet these stringent conditions can they call themselves an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD).
Meanwhile, Shivaun says that, “a university-qualified nutritionist has done 2-3 years of study. So all dietitians are, by default, nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians.”
This means that university-qualified nutritionists have the expertise to provide:
- nutrition services
- public health nutrition services
- policy and research
- community health services
However, according to Shivaun, the extra level of training that dietitians receive gives them the expertise to work in more clinical settings. “A nutritionist might go out and work in health, in the media or in their own business. However, dietitians are qualified to work at a clinical level in a hospital or medical centre.”
While both APDs and qualified nutritionists might be able to help you, it’s important to know that the terms ‘nutritionist’ and ‘dietitian’ aren’t regulated in Australia. So it’s a good idea to check the qualifications of any prospective nutrition or food science professionals that you decide to see.
When should you see a dietitian?
Generally, the time to see a dietitian is when you want practical, evidence-based advice on the best diet, nutrition and lifestyle choices for you.
But what if you don’t know what you want? Shivaun shares six of the most common reasons that her clients decide to reach out to her:
1. You want to improve your relationship with food and your weight
Some people see dietitians to get advice about getting to or maintaining a healthy weight. Others want tips on how to stop eating junk food. Shivaun says that a large component of her job is helping people to have a better relationship with food, and ultimately, with themselves.
“A lot of people come to me wanting to lose weight,” Shivaun explains. “But after we sit down, have a conversation and build trust, people often realise that what they really want is a contented, fulfilled life.”
So instead of focusing on weight, Shivaun says it’s about looking at the bigger picture and developing healthy habits like:
- becoming more active
- spending more time in nature
- eating more vegetables
- cutting back on alcohol
- improving sleep hygiene
2. You’re experiencing uncomfortable digestive symptoms
Some of Shivaun’s clients talk about experiencing abnormal flatulence, consistent bloating, digestive pain, changes to their toilet habits and other related uncomfortable symptoms.
In these cases, she recommends first seeing your GP to rule out any digestive disorders or serious illness. After this, “a dietitian can work with you to develop a personalised eating plan that aims to manage or reduce your symptoms.”
3. You have a diet-related medical condition
Shivaun adds that people with some medical conditions may benefit from seeing a dietitian. Dietitians have the expertise and qualifications to help you manage your condition from a diet and nutritional perspective.
However, ensure you look for a dietitian who specialises in managing your specific health condition. Dietitians can work across and specialise in many different health areas.
4. You want to optimise your health or achieve your next PB
Shivaun says that some people see a dietitian because they want to optimise their health, prevent disease or get expert advice on how to eat to achieve their fitness goals.
“Some people just want to know they’re eating right to support their body and brain health, and are meeting their specific energy needs,” she says.
An advantage of seeing a dietitian for this is getting personalised, tailored nutrition plans to suit your unique needs. “You can get any meal plan off the internet,” Shivaun adds. “But the beauty of working with a dietitian is that we have the expertise and clinical knowledge to understand what’s going on with you.”
To better understand her clients’ needs, Shivaun will always ask them questions like:
- What’s your background?
- Do you have any health conditions?
- Are you on any medications?
- What are your goals?
- What do you hope to achieve?
She aims to not only optimise their physical health, but also help them to achieve their personal lifestyle and overall health visions.
5. You need clarity around food and nutrition from an actual expert
Should you only eat organic food? What about doing a detox or the latest fad diet? Sugar’s bad, isn’t it? What’s on the food pyramid again? Oh, and you need to eat for the planet too!
The amount of conflicting food and diet advice out there is overwhelming.
Shivaun says it’s common to feel this way. “Many people see dietitians because they are a little confused or need some reassurance about their diet and nutrition. Usually, it’s because they’ve Googled a lot and are like, ‘Oh my goodness! Should I be on a keto diet or the Mediterranean diet? Help – what should I do?!’”
She goes on to say that dietitians can really help people to get clarity. “People often feel relieved after they’ve talked to us. They go away thinking, ‘Oh, OK. I get it. I understand what I need to do now for me. And I've got a bit of an action plan with some definite strategies too’.”
6. Your child is a fussy eater
One thing that many people aren’t aware of is that dietitians can help with children who are fussy eaters.
Areas that a dietitian can help you with include:
- learning how to introduce new foods to picky eaters
- the best foods for fussy toddlers
- advice on healthy snacks for kids
- considered healthy eating for teenagers
Dietitians: more than your friend in the fridge
So now you know who you can turn to for expert, evidence-based advice on the best diet, nutrition and lifestyle choices for you. Both dietitians and nutritionists with university qualifications in dietetics (the study of the effect of diet on health) can help you.
The key difference is that dietitians receive more training and education than nutritionists, so they have the expertise to work in clinical settings. Just remember to check their qualifications, since the general terms ‘dietitian’ and ‘nutritionist’ aren’t regulated in Australia.
And that should be everything you need to know to send the ‘food police’ on their way next time they make an appearance.
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Shivaun Conn is an Accredited Practising Dietitian, Accredited Nutritionist and Certified Health Coach with particular interests in nutrition, lifestyle, executive health and health behaviour change.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Panel June 2021