My husband and I were driving over the weekend and he asked me, “What’s one thing you would tell your younger self?” Before I really thought about it I said “don’t worry so much about calories,” mostly for comedic effect. But then I thought about it seriously (in the context of my career) and realized how many bits of wisdom I would share with my younger dietitian self if given the chance.
My 18 years as a dietitian have taught me valuable lessons and there are certainly things I wish I had known earlier on in my career. I can’t say I really regret anything career-wise, other than the whole focusing on calories thing. But, if I had to choose one tidbit to share with my younger self it would be to be more of an advocate for providing nourishing foods to my hospital clients with mental health disorders.
The food system in the United States is one that leads to and exacerbates mental health issues. As a psychiatric dietitian in an acute care setting, I see the value of nutrition in the prevention, reversal and recovery from mental health disorders, but have had little impact in changing the types of foods served to my patients. I am working to be a catalyst in this area, but definitely wish I had started sooner.
I was curious what other dietitians might tell their younger selves, so I asked some awesome colleagues and got some very thoughtful responses. For all you new/young dietitians out there, here's what I learned:
1. Colleagues are a valuable asset
“Cherish your fellow dietitians, as we are all here to help people. Your reputation is golden, so never, ever stoop low to get ahead of your colleagues. Resist the urge to publicly challenge other RDs about their views, as this does the entire profession a disservice.” – Elizabeth Ward
“Don’t see other RDs as competition – see them as allies. Collaborate when you can, refer clients to them when something isn’t your specialty and learn from each other. We’re stronger together than divided” - Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD – Owner Sound Bites Nutrition, LLC
"I wish that I could tell myself that the practice counseling skills in college aren't just made up and that once you actually get in the field and counsel patients, that you WILL use those skills. I remember my classmates and I joked so much about using motivational interviewing with each other in class, but it does actually work and I use it on a daily basis with my patients now. And, connecting with other dietitians can help you so much as a young dietitian. They may have seen things that you haven't and can help you learn lots of new things!" - Stephanie Ambrose, MS, RD, LDN, CPT - Nutrition Savvy Dietitian - www.nutritionsavvyrd.com
2. Don’t limit yourself
“Be more confident and assertive in your practice. You have all the knowledge, so just own it. Don’t limit yourself because you are new to the field” – Heather Steele www.nurtureandnourishnutrition.com
“I would tell myself to go for it! Meaning if you are truly drawn to a certain aspect of the field of nutrition especially if it is something thought to be less conventional, still go for it! Don’t feel like you have to be kept in a box or start your career a certain way based on what the majority says. Still be diligent and do your research, but don’t limit yourself. There is so much that you can do!" – KeyVion Miller. Keyvion can be found on Instagram @kmillerdietitian or on Facebook at KeyVion Miller Nutrition
“With more experience you realize how much more you need to learn. For example, I have always worked in pediatrics and after I have done a ton of study in that area, I thought I knew a lot, then I had kids (and realized I needed to change some of my messaging), now those kids are teenagers and I still feel like there is so much to learn about feeding kids and I have been practicing in this area my entire career. Seek out learning opportunities that are not related to what you are currently doing. I worked in a hospital in clinical dietetics for over 18 years and then left and started freelancing with my own practice. I wish I would have known about business practices, reimbursement, etc earlier because I might have been able to better advocate for myself as an employee even when starting my own business was not on my radar” Amy Reed – www.amyreednutrition.com
“I wish I spent less time socializing and partying in college, more time really focusing on my learning so I wouldn’t have to do so much backtracking and relearning or getting experiences now. – Stacy Ramirez, MS, RDN, LD www.leafygreenswoodenforks.com
“Nutrition is a competitive advantage in sports! Your relationship with food is everything” – Michele Weissenhofer Fumagalli
“I would tell myself it’s okay to say no sometimes and to not sell myself short. I think RD’s often overextend themselves and then accept less money than their services are worth – Brandi Sentz MA, RDN, LD
"You don't have to have a "perfect" diet in order to be healthy or to be a good dietitian. That quality of food & satisfaction are far more important than total calories (and that very few people should actually eat as little as 1200 calories a day). I would help people learn to tune into their body's hunger and fullness cues, rather than let them restrict or distract themselves when their body needed more nourishment. I would never mention an individual's weight or BMI at all, and would only help them work on the behaviors that help them feel their best, regardless of the number on the scale." - Shanna Hutcheson, RD, LD, CHC - www.wellnessforthewin.com
3. Keep mental health front and center
“There is so much more to health and well-being than what we put in our mouths. I wish I would have known the incredible importance of eating behaviors in the beginning!” –Kelsey Lorencz RDN/Graciously Nourished, LLC
“You can nourish your body to the best of your abilities but if you don’t also nourish and take care of your mind, even the best food can leave your digestion and overall mood/health disrupted” Chelsea Cross RD, MAN
“To my younger dietitian self that thinks she has to follow the “perfect diet” or she is a hypocrite…Don’t forget to address your mental health! Skinny does not necessarily equal healthy! Being healthy is NOT about being perfect, it’s about being consistently better…" - Ayla Charissa
“Don’t work so hard. Work hard enough based on your passion and don’t exceed that to burnout.” - Diana Dugan Richards
“Don’t beat yourself up over your patients “failures,” you are not responsible for what they eat. You cannot fix everyone. Let your patient talk first, listen to their story, and let them identify areas in need of improvement” - Leah Calhoun Erban
“Every client has a story and understanding how their relationship with food and their body came about, directs us to understand which area is more accessible to real behavior change. Create alliances and connections with other health professionals to refer to, especially therapists. Mental health goes hand in hand. Understand that the determinants of healthy are multidimensional and food/nutrition/exercise is only one aspect/factor in wellness” – Cristel Moubarak RD founder of www.nutrifoodie.org
4. Spend more time listening
"I would tell my younger self to spend more time actually listening to my patients. We can tell someone everything they should be doing, but if the patient leaves feeling overwhelmed and decides it’s just too much, then no one wins! Small changes in the lifestyle change lives too! Focus on health at every size and intuitive eating. Listen to your body – eat when you are hungry, quit eating when you are full, sleep when you are tired. Don’t stigmatize food into categories, because all foods can fit." Brandi Sentz, MA, RDN, LD
5. Be an advocate for change in our food system
“There is a conflict of interest in our government food guidelines as well as the organizations we use as references. Think of food more as medicine and realize that it can usually be more effective than the most common prescription medications. It’s very possible to reverse most chronic diseases” Lora Jody RDN – Advanced Nutrition Therapy, LLC
These are great lessons, not just for RD's, but for us all. Whether you want to have a fulfilling career or improve your health and quality of life, you need support from others, challenges to overcome, good mental health, a keen listening ear, and knowing when to be an advocate for change.
We all have things we wish we had known earlier in life, that's the nature of being human. While we can't go back and change what's already happened, we can use past experiences to change the trajectory. Focus on what you can do today and enjoy the results!