What exactly is an RDN, and why should I trust one?

Everybody eats. All day long, no matter what you do from sun up to sun down, at some point your body needs food and you will eat. You’ll repeat that every day for the rest of your life, and so you will naturally form opinions about your food and perhaps which ones are ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Your mother and your grandmother will tell you what to do to stay healthy; the fittest guy at the gym will swear he knows how to shred fat; catchy headlines and Google searches and talk show hosts will all offer ‘the key to weight loss!’ The enemy is fat! No, gluten! No, sugar!

I’ll give you a hint: if there was one key to overall health or weight loss, one simple meal plan to solve it all, whomever discovered it would be a trillionaire and you wouldn’t be reading this article. However, nutrition is much more complex than that. 

If you feel like there is an overwhelming amount of conflicting information out there, you’re right! That’s because there isn’t really one clearcut ‘healthy diet’ for everyone. Certain people DO need to cut out gluten, or watch how much potassium they eat, or strictly cut their sodium, or follow a medically-prescribed ketogenic diet to prevent seizures. However, deep Google dives will yield a lot of discordant information if you don’t know exactly what kind of nutrition information is a) pertinent to you, b) scientifically sound, and c) safe.

That’s why we need Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDN). Most people don’t know that an RDN is different than a ‘nutritionist’ or a ‘health coach.’ I myself didn’t know the difference until I pursued this path professionally, but those three little letters — RDN — hold a lot of meaning about the quality of nutrition education and counseling my colleagues and I provide. To become an RDN, you must:

  1. Complete an undergraduate degree including about 90 semester hours (more than a standard major) of in-depth science and nutrition-focused curriculum
  2. Complete over 1200 hours of supervised professional practice internship working under dietitians in clinical settings (hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, dialysis centers), community locations (like WIC, Head Start, or Meals and Wheels programming for food security), and food service roles (implementing food safety standards and learning the managerial functions of food service directors)
  3. Pass a credentialing exam that covers principles of nutrition and food science, human anatomy and physiology, educational theory and application, counseling techniques, research techniques and interpretation, medical nutrition therapy for individuals in all stages of life and with varying diseases, employee and financial management skills, and menu creation and implementation just to name a few topics.
  4. Soon all RDNs will be required to hold Master’s degrees, though many dietitians (including myself) already hold a Master’s in areas like clinical nutrition, nutrition and food science, business, health care administration, or public health.

Other nutrition professions like ‘health coach’ or ‘nutritionist’ do not require the same degree of formal training (some have quick online courses that cover overall healthy eating without any explanation as to the scientific foundation of these principles or the medical implications). You may find some non-dietitian individuals who do have formal health education and experience, but you can’t be certain of the wealth of training your practitioner has completed unless he or she is a dietitian.

The New Jersey Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has launched a campaign to support Registered Dietitian Nutritionists as the nutrition expert– and I highly suggest you check out the launch video here!

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