What is a dietitian?

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I started work at the CSA this week.  Never having worked in media & communications before it’s been a fairly steep learning curve.  I’m enjoying it though.  Best I can tell, as long I’m organized it’s mostly just a matter of learning who’s responsible for sending me what information and how to format/process that information.

The CSA’s monthly staff meeting happened to be this week as well, which was perfect timing for me.  It was a good opportunity to meet all of our staff and learn a bit more about our programs.  I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but the CSA is an organization that caters its services towards expatriates living in Egypt.  They have a bunch of onsite facilities (fitness center, cafe, gift shop, library, consignment shop, showroom featuring local artists, massage/spa clinic, etc) and provide a tonne of programming, including free lectures, farmer’s markets, bazaars, trips/tours and fitness classes.

Anyways, in the meeting it was mentioned that one of the “new” services offered at the CSA was Nutrition Counselling.  This counselling is offered by Sherine El Shimi, a medical doctor and clinical nutritionist here in Cairo.  When these new sessions were announced, a personal trainer from the fitness center noted that they already offered a free nutrition assessment that, at least on paper, looked very similar to Sherine’s counselling.

A discussion ensued about what made the services different.  It seemed to me that there was quite a bit of confusion as to the training received by each party providing nutrition counselling.  In my experience, this is a pretty common area of misunderstanding.  I thought it might be good to take a moment to explain exactly what a dietitian is and if/how that might differ from a nutritionist.

What is a dietitian?

In Canada, a dietitian must earn an undergraduate university degree that specializes in food and nutrition AND complete an approximately year-long supervised practicum which gives the student exposure to clinical, community, food service management and research settings.  Dietitians are highly trained in evaluating scientific literature and applying it to their practice.

Following their training, dietitians must pass an exam before they are able to register with their regulatory provincial body.  In Canada, in order to practice as a dietitian, individuals MUST register with their provincial regulatory body.  In my case, I am registered with the College of Dietitians of Alberta.  In order to maintain my registration with the College, I must complete annual professional development (PD) to ensure I maintain my competencies in dietetics.

When you are registered with a College you can use any of the protected titles attributed to the profession.  In Alberta, there are four protected titles – Dietitian, Registered Dietitian, RD and Registered Nutritionist.  So, in Alberta, if anyone uses any of those four titles, you know that at a minimum they have undergone the training mentioned above (degree, practicum and annual PD) and they are accountable to the public.  If malpractice occurs the College can revoke their registration.

A similar system exists in most other countries in the developed world, including the US, UK, France, Australia and New Zealand.  Unfortunately there is no system for registering dietitians in Egypt.

It’s important to note that protected titles can vary between provinces and countries.  In my opinion this inconsistency probably plays a big role in the confusion that the public has about the profession.

Is a dietitian different than a nutritionist?

Yes!  Having just reviewed exactly what makes a dietitian above, I won’t touch on that again.

But what exactly is a nutritionist?  The answer isn’t quite as simple.  The fact is, in most places ANYONE can call themselves a nutritionist, regardless of their training, qualifications or experience.  You, reading this right now, could quit everything and open a business as a nutrition consultant tomorrow.  As long as you don’t call yourself a dietitian (or any of the other protected titles in your jurisdiction), you’re not breaking any laws.

Of course, the majority of nutritionists have received some sort of formal nutrition training, but the truth is the amount and quality of that training can vary tremendously.  Some nutritionists may have taken a weekend course, while others may have graduate degrees in the nutritional sciences.  Unless you ask about their backgrounds (and they’re honest with you), you have no real way of knowing how much training they’ve received because they are not regulated by any body.  This is also a huge factor in the public’s confusion about the differences between dietitians and nutritionists.  In some cases, there is very little separating them, but for others, the difference is night and day.

If we look at the CSA as an example, we have two nutritionists on staff (the personal trainer wouldn’t necessarily call themselves that, but in this capacity that’s essentially what they are).  They each have very different backgrounds.  In fairness, I can’t speak to either’s specific training or experience, but I’d expect our MD/Clinical Nutritionist to have received significantly more nutrition training than our personal trainers.   As a result one would assume that Sherine’s counselling sessions are more comprehensive than those given by our personal trainers (although the personal trainers would likely be able to provide more expertise regarding exercise).  The issue is though – and this has nothing to do with the competence of the CSA’s nutritionists – that it is very difficult for the public to determine a nutritionist’s quality ahead of time because virtually anyone can use that title.

Since I’ve just started, I haven’t had a chance to meet with either to discuss their counselling sessions.  While I’m not sure it’s my place to provide unsolicited input about their services, I’m hoping to learn a little more about what each is offering.  That way I can at least help to appropriately/accurately promote their services.  If nothing else I’ll try to do my part in eliminating some of the confusion about the profession!

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