The top five lessons I've learned as a RD

Happy Registered Dietitian’s Day! March is National Nutrition Month and today is the day we celebrate dietitian’s commitment to improving lives through good nutrition. So don’t forget to hug a dietitian today! P.S. I accept virtual hugs.

This May will mark six years that I have been practicing as a registered dietitian. Throughout my education and dietetics internship, I was blessed with incredible professors and preceptors who inspired me to reach my full potential. Really, I can’t brag enough on the ladies (and one token man!) who trained and educated me. However, even though I’m not longer pulling all-nighters in the library and trudging my way through 600+ page books (Game of Thrones series excepted), I’ve learned more about nutrition, wellness and counseling in the years since I "finished" my education.

For those of you soon-to-be-dietitians, current dietitians, and really anyone in health care or wellness, I’d like to share the five biggest lessons I’ve learned since starting to practice as a RD. I learned these lessons the hard way, through struggles and failures, so hopefully you won't have to!

1. Everyone wants to feel healthy - their definition just might be different than yours. 

About three years ago, I completed a fantastic health coaching program that taught techniques from the field of psychology to promote healthy lifestyle changes. While discussing motivation, the professor made the statement “not everyone wants to be healthy.” For those who work outside of health care, this may seem wholly inaccurate, but when you see the dangerous behaviors many undertake with full understanding of the consequences on a daily basis, it seems pretty fair. I often reminded myself of this “fact” when I was counseling a particularly difficult patient – it made me feel better if I wasn’t able to help them. But what I’ve come to realize is that they either a.) have a different definition of health than I do or b.) they have set a limit to the level of health they can achieve. If you are able to redefine what it means to be healthy, as more than the absence of disease, or break through their barriers to change, then you'll be able to help people reach levels of health they never thought possible!

2. Correcting people is dumb. 

There’s no shortage of inaccurate and scientifically unfounded nutrition advice on the internet. I’ve heard all sorts of crazy things from my clients. Sometimes it’s outdated information, but often times it’s just exaggerated or totally wrong. I used to correct people on this. One day, I corrected a man on the old aspartame causing bladder cancer topic, which caused him to become quite perturbed. It caused irreparable damage to the patient-provider relationship I was trying to build. It was pointless for me to correct him, as I don’t even recommend the use of artificial sweeteners. Now, I try not to correct someone unless their belief is causing them harm. Really, the only reason to argue with someone is to prove you're smarter, and no one has ever changed because they thought their dietitian was smart.

3. Small, consistent changes are the most powerful.

When I first started nutrition counseling, I felt the need to squeeze every bit of information I could into each appointments. I pointed out every single area of concern in my client’s diet – too much sugar, not enough vegetables, unbalanced meals, skipping meals, not cooking enough, hidden sources of trans fat….and on and on I went. In hindsight, it was overwhelming and feeling overwhelmed rarely motivates one to change. I’ve worked with a few people who were really and truly ready for complete and total diet overhauls, but for the most part, small, consistent steps are more achievable and successful in the long run.

4. Listening > Talking

When I worked as an inpatient dietitian, I knew what I was going to tell my patients before I even saw them. I had a whole little lesson plan memorized for any possible consult. I went in their room, asked a few questions, gave my spiel, and stopped for questions. I thought I was doing a good job because I was getting good feedback from the patients, but when I moved to outpatient nutrition counseling and started seeing people for follow-ups, I quickly learned this doesn't work. When you talk more than you listen, you miss out on the big picture. I've heard you should do as much listening as you do talking and I think 50/50 is a good balance. As dietitians, we should be counselors and coaches, not educators.

5. It’s okay to be wrong.

In the past six years, my view on many nutrition topics has evolved. When I graduated with my degree in nutrition, I used splenda in my coffee, often packed Lean Cuisines for lunch and couldn't tell you the first thing about our food choices and sustainability. Looking back, I cringe a bit. One of the main issues I see with dietitians today is that we're often scared of new information, especially if it doesn't fit in with what we think to be true. But nutrition is a new and evolving field of science, and that's what makes it so fascinating and dynamic. Being able to say you were wrong really means you're still learning. And that, my friends, is a good thing. 

Are you a new or practicing dietitian? What are some of the lessons you've learned?