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What Is a Dietitian, and How Can They Help Improve Your Health?

HSS registered dietitian Danna Raphael explains the differences between dietitians and nutritionists as well as how a dietitian can help you manage chronic illnesses and improve your relationship with food.

Have you ever thought about working with a registered dietitian? Even if you’re generally a healthy eater, working with a professional can help you better recognize the connection between food and health, as well as to use food to prevent and treat diseases or issues like diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure.

photo of dietitian consulting with a patient

A registered dietitian, or RD, is different from a nutritionist, says HSS clinical nutritionist Danna Raphael, RD, CDN. “‘Nutritionist’ is not a regulated term, so this label is used more freely,” she says. This means that registered dietitians can call themselves nutritionists, but nutritionists cannot call themselves dietitians.

Registered dietitians hold at least a four-year bachelor’s degree in clinical nutrition and have met specific requirements known as the didactic program in dietetics. (This includes an internship and a registration exam.) To be sure you’re working with the right kind of professional, look for RD or RDN after their name, says Raphael.

Among dietitians, as with most healthcare professionals, there are different areas of specialty. The type of dietitian you are most likely to see if you are looking to meet with someone on your own works in private practice. “This means they provide nutrition counseling to one-on-one clients or in a group setting,” says Raphael. They can help their clients treat or prevent many different diseases and conditions. “These dietitians may specialize in specific areas, like sports nutrition, weight management or diabetes, or they might see clients for a broad range of conditions,” she adds. These RDs may offer additional services including grocery store tours or menu planning.

Types of Dietitians

You may also encounter a dietitian who works in one of these areas:

  • In the hospital. “RDs in the hospital setting assess a patient’s nutrition status by reviewing their weight, results of lab tests or bloodwork, medications they take, and their medical history,” says Raphael. After making this assessment, the dietitian will determine a nutrition diagnosis and offer ways to treat it. Examples of conditions treated with medical nutrition therapy include diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, osteoporosis, kidney disease, wound healing and gastrointestinal disorders.
  • At a community event. Community dietitians often work in clinics, school programs, athletic facilities or for nonprofit organizations, says Raphael. “RDs educate the public on various nutrition topics by designing nutrition programs, public speaking and nutrition counseling.”
  • At work. RDs in the corporate wellness setting promote nutrition education in for company employees. Many corporate wellness dietitians are available to a company’s staff for nutrition counseling. “They may review a company’s cafeteria menu, hold cooking demonstrations or recipe sampling in the cafeteria, or lunch and learns with lectures on various nutrition topics,” says Raphael.
  • In the media. Some dietitians either work for or consult for specific food companies, brands, supermarkets, and restaurants to promote products and brands. This is often done by recipe development, development of educational handouts and promotional materials as well as creating and providing presentations.

When to See a Dietitian

While its important to see a dietitian to help manage chronic diseases such as the conditions listed above, there are many reasons to meet with one, says Raphael. Here are just some of the many other ways a dietitian can help you.

  • You struggle to find a way of eating that is sustainable to follow long term.
  • You’re always either hungry or too full.
  • Your relationship with food and your body needs to be repaired. “An example of this is if you’re always feeling guilty about what you ate, or if you feel the need to compensate for eating certain foods or amounts of foods by not eating afterward,” says Raphael.
  • You want to improve your athletic performance.
  • You want help managing your weight and could benefit from working on behavior changes.
  • You need help with meal planning.
  • You have digestive concerns.
  • You want to become pregnant.

Danna Raphael, RD, CDN, is a clinical nutritionist at Hospital for Special Surgery.