#TransformationTuesday: My Path to Becoming a Non-Diet Dietitian

I’ve been wanting to write this post for awhile now and thought with my big website relaunch, it was a good time to share some of my professional transformation to becoming a non-diet dietitian. 

Relaunching my blog as The Joy of Eating kinda feels like me going all in to the world of intuitive eating and body positivity, symbolically releasing some of the things I felt holding me back professionally (umm, like some of those early blog posts promoting clean eating –ugh!). I know from my conversations with clients and other dietitians there’s a lot of people out there who feel stuck with one foot in the dieting world and the other foot out. I’ve talked a bit about my personal journey to intuitive eating, but I realize I haven’t really talked about my professional journey.

Hello baby Rachael. Here’s me on graduation day, which apparently was not yesterday but rather 10 years ago. (Sidebar: how ridiculous does Scott look in those sunglasses?) In college, I started as a psychology major, then decided to double major with dietetics after realizing clinical psychology wasn’t the path I wanted to take. At the time, I wanted to open a center where parents and kids could go exercise together in a fun way and also get nutrition counseling and classes. I have zero desire to do this now – so, um, free idea for the taking!  

After Clemson, I moved on to my dietetics internship at Emory. While I loved my internship and learned SO much from my preceptors, in hindsight, it didn’t really prepare me for what I do today. As most dietitians will tell you, dietetics internships are very clinically focused, meaning you’re trained for working with patients in a hospital setting. You’re dealing with acute issues rather than learning how to promote a healthy lifestyle. Also, we’re taught that poor nutrition is the result of a lack of nutrition education. If only people knew how much sugar was in soda or how much sodium is in their fast food meal, they would make better choices. As I’ve learned, this is totally not the case.

When I started work as a clinical dietitian, educating was all I knew, so I taught patients the Food Guide Pyramid, “good” fats and “bad” fats, calorie counting and portion sizes…yup, the whole shebang! I thought I was doing a good job because the patients I worked with left feeling confident, and we always had good rapport, but in that setting, I didn’t know what happened after they left with their colorful government sanctioned handouts.

My last day of work as a clinical dietitian. Yummy cake courtesy of my boss who was a master baker!   

My last day of work as a clinical dietitian. Yummy cake courtesy of my boss who was a master baker!   

It wasn’t until I started working as an outpatient dietitian that I realized that I basically knew nothing. I started seeing people for follow ups and realized that no matter how good they felt when they left my office, almost no one made any changes, and if they did, it was just for a short time. I felt like a Failure (capitol F intended), and I’m sure my patients did too.

That’s around the time I discovered clean eating. At first, it made so much sense – stop focusing on numbers and portion sizes and instead just eat “real” food. Plus, it touched on my foodie sensibilities. You can still eat chocolate chip cookies, they should just be homemade from almond meal, honey and trans-fat free dark chocolate chips. Pizza is fine…as long as you’re using a 100% whole grain homemade crust, organic mozzarella and local vegetables for topping. Ugh.

For awhile, I thought I found the solution, but it really just opened a whole new can of worms. What about people who worked long hours and by the time they came home, didn’t have time to cook? What about people who couldn’t cook? How many ingredients is too many ingredients? Is it sodium sulfite that’s bad, or sodium nitrate? Once again, I was feeling like a failure, and to make it worse, I myself was noticing obsessive thoughts and shame over my food, making me feel like a failure as an eater, and as a dietitian.

I was probably at my lowest point in my confidence as a dietitian around the time I started my private practice, which alas, probably isn’t the best time to start a business, but hey, it all worked out in the end! I just knew there was a better way, but I also knew I didn’t have the freedom to discover what that looked like while working for someone else.

At this point, I was really straddling the line between the dieting world and intuitive eating. I had read the book, was totally on board with body acceptance, and knew from personal and professional experience that dieting didn’t work, yet when someone came to me wanting to lose ____ lbs, I felt compelled to give them what they wanted.

The straw that finally broke the camel’s back as they say, was a client I worked with in my first year in private practice, who wanted to lose a very small amount of weight for her wedding. Her desire to lose weight was consuming her life, and really robbing her of a time she’d never get again - engagement. When I looked at her food journal, she was eating really healthfully - any significant cuts or changes would have put her into starvation territory. It hit me like a ton of bricks – it was totally unethical for me to help clients diet and be less healthy in pursuit of something cosmetic.

And with that, I fully committed myself to promoting diet and deprivation free wellness. Of course, it wasn’t overnight - it’s been a learning process and I’ve grown just as much through failure as I have through success. But I can’t put into words just how good it feels to go to work each day and know, absolutely without a doubt, that you’re helping people live their healthiest and happiest lives. I know because I see it every day.

As I’m writing this story, I had a couple epiphanies. When I was practicing traditional diet-focused dietetics, I kept blaming myself for client’s failures, rather than the diet. I thought I was an awful dietitian, but really, I was just using an awful process. I mean, how many dieters have blamed themselves for “falling off the wagon” rather than the diet itself?

Also, I can distinctly look back and see moments where my intuition was guiding me and my practice in the right direction – every time I counseled on portion sizes or reading the ingredients list, I had this deep sense of unease that I just kept ignoring. If only I slowed down and listened to it earlier. When I first work with a new client, they often share the same sense of unease. Tune into that feeling – it’s probably , If you relate intuition, screaming and yelling and trying to save you from self destruction.

Are you ready to rediscover the joy of eating?

I work with clients helping them discover their happiest and healthiest selves by nourishing a healthy relationship with food and their body. Learn more about my philosophy here.