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  • Angelique Smith

What do dietitians really do?

What do dietitians really do? I have been asked this question numerous times and there is a big misconception as to what dietitians do. The majority of the time when I mention that I am a dietitian, people either ask for a meal plan, hide their food, ask if I ever eat any “bad” foods or think that we studied food at university.

Part of that is slightly true, yes, we do provide meal plans, but there is a lot more to creating meal plans than you may think. It is very individualised where calculations are involved and it is based on the individual, their goal, medical and dietary history, age, gender, activity levels and so on.

Dietitians do eat unhealthier food items. I mean, imagine life without chocolate, but we do not call them “bad” foods. We eat these foods in moderation and small portions. At university we did learn a bit about food, but that was not the only thing that we studied. We had a variety of subjects, many of them were science based. Things like chemistry, anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, biostats, clinical nutrition, nutritional therapy for various disease conditions also formed part of our subjects.

Based on the reactions we get, we have concluded that most people do not really know what dietitians do, so I thought I would tell you a bit about what a dietitian really does.

First off, dietitians and nutritionists are not the same. Yes, both do help with food choices and meal plans, but there are major differences. They are vastly different in terms of education, qualification and what they do daily.

In South Africa, to become a Registered Dietitian you need to study a four-year BSc Dietetics degree, be registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) and complete a year of community service to be able to practice.

Dietitians can provide a wide range of evidence-based nutrition services and have the expertise to work in food service units, hospitals, clinics, private practices, lecture at universities, work with athletes and provide individual dietary counselling and medical nutrition therapy to individuals.

Dietitians can see a larger variety of patients as we have the medical nutrition therapy background and are trained to work with sick people too. We are the ones you’ll be seeing if you get really sick and end up in hospital, we prescribe the tube feeds for patients who need it in ICU and prescribe the diets to help you reach your nutritional requirements in order for you to get better and recover from surgery, illness and other disease conditions a lot quicker.

Dietitians are currently quite under recognised in society, but we have a huge role we can play in society to support the population and prevent lifestyle diseases. We play a huge role in healthy and sick individuals and people often do not realise what a huge impact good nutrition can have in your health, recovery, day to day activities, mental health and prevention of a number of diseases.

Dietitians often see patients for:

- Weight Loss and weight Gain

- Gastrointestinal conditions (IBS, diarrhoea, bloating, constipation, inflammatory bowel disease etc.)

- Hormonal disorders

- Cancer

- Lifestyle diseases (hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity)

- Liver and Kidney conditions

- Breastfeeding support

- Nutritional support during pregnancy and lactation

- Growth monitoring and nutritional support for children and adolescents

- Healthy individuals wanting nutritional advice, guidance on food label reading and ways to live a healthier lifestyle

- Individuals who want to improve their sporting performance

Unfortunately, these days anyone and everyone can offer nutritional advice, but nutrition Is a lot more complex than you may think and every individual requires a different dietary treatment. For example, someone with kidney disease requires a hugely different dietary approach than someone with cancer, diabetes or a healthy individual. Dietitians have been trained and need to keep up to date with the latest scientific evidence to treat patients and clients with these various conditions.

If you have a medical condition, a dietitian is definitely the person to see as we have the expertise in this field and have close relationships with doctors and other allied health professionals to give you the best treatment possible via a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to patient care.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of what dietitians really do, but I hope this gives you a bit of insight in what a dietitian really does.

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