Optimum nutrition is the cornerstone of good health. Just ask a dietitian.
“A registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) is the only professional who has a four-year bachelor’s degree in nutrition, has completed a professional dietetic internship and has successfully passed the RDN examination,” says Felix Santiago, RD. “Some registered dietitian nutritionists may have master’s degrees in nutrition or related fields, but this is not a requirement. Some may also have additional certifications or licensure in specialty areas. Our expertise includes evidence-based information on nutrition, and we’re trained to teach, counsel and motivate those who are interested in knowing more.
“We’re an essential member of a patient’s health care team,” he adds, “and a trusted resource when it comes to diet and nutrition. Bottom line, good nutrition and healthy eating can help prevent or slow the development of a wide range of conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, cancer, gout and more.”
A hospital’s team of registered dietitian nutritionists provides services to both inpatients and outpatients, including nutritional counseling to patients undergoing treatment for cancer.
Faster healing after surgery or illness
“While patients are in the hospital, our job is to make sure they’re well-nourished,” Santiago says. “Studies show that when patients eat well during hospitalization, it helps reduce length of stay because they get well quicker. Good nutrition — adequate amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients — helps patients heal from surgery or illness. It also reduces wound development and readmissions.”
He notes that even if a patient has lost interest in eating due to their condition, “We can provide meal supplements and work closely with Nutritional Services to create meals the patient will be more likely to eat, to help them remain nourished.”
Care also is taken to tailor meals to each inpatient’s individual health issues or personal preferences, restricting ingredients such as salt, sugar, gluten or animal products.
On the outpatient side, dietitians play an equally vital role in helping people optimize their health through the way they eat.
Achieving health goals through diet
“I work with people on a one-on-one basis to help them achieve their health goals through diet,” says Barbra Sassower, MPH, RDN, CDE, who specializes in diabetes and weight management, but sees individuals with a variety of health challenges.
“As a dietitian, my focus is to help people make dietary changes, and understand how nutrition impacts their health,” she adds.
“And it’s never a one-size-fits-all diet,” she stresses. “When you establish a relationship with a dietitian, you get someone who listens to you, develops a personalized nutrition plan, understands any medical conditions you have, and makes realistic use of diet to keep you healthy.”
One of the biggest hurdles she deals with is counteracting dietary misinformation that many people have gotten from the internet.
“I spend a lot of time just educating people about what good nutrition actually is, and why fad diets or restricting certain types of food won’t support their health goals,” Sassower says.
She also spends a great deal of time helping her clients understand how to apply the principles of good nutrition to their daily lives.
“Someone may know they need to adopt a diet low in saturated fat, but they don’t understand how to do that in the real world,” she explains. “So, I may teach them about the different nutrients that food is composed of, how to read food labels and shop for healthy food, and how to read nutritional information before going to a fast-food restaurant, in order to make better choices.”
Sassower says that a surprising number of people believe they must give up eating out entirely in order to achieve their health goals.
“It saddens me to hear this, because it’s not eating out that’s the problem — it’s what they’re eating,” she says. “But given the right information, they’re happy to discover they can still eat out, because they know what to order.
“I try to work with a person’s actual lifestyle and recommend changing just what needs to be changed,” she continues. “If they can eat what they like in a healthy way, they can enjoy themselves and succeed in reaching their goals because it gets integrated into their lifestyle.
“There are no potions, pills or powders to mix when it comes to what dietitians recommend,” she adds. “We help you make smart choices in the real world, and this will increase the chances that these behaviors will be sustainable in the long term.”
How to make dietary changes for the entire family
Another situation Sassower often sees is when someone in a family — usually the mom — wants to make dietary changes for herself, thinks the whole family must go along, and anticipates (or actually gets) resistance.
“Sometimes base meals don’t have to change all that much,” she explains. “You just prepare it differently, substituting brown rice for white rice, for example, or baking instead of frying foods, or using low-fat cheese and whole-wheat pasta to make macaroni and cheese.
“Some families never even notice,” she says with a laugh. “And what family wouldn’t benefit from eating healthier?”
Sassower also offers this advice for people who have trouble resisting certain snack foods or desserts:
“Don’t keep them in the house, or substitute healthier options,” she says. “Or allow for some splurges in a controlled setting outside the house — for example, taking the kids for ice cream after ballet class instead of keeping a half-gallon in the freezer.”
Santiago and Sassower both acknowledge that they are seeing increasingly younger patients who are overweight and have conditions such as high cholesterol and impaired glucose tolerance (often referred to as pre-diabetes), setting them up for even more serious health issues as they get older.
“If we can help turn this around early by getting families to eat more healthfully, it’s rewarding,” Sassower says.
How diet can help with medical conditions
Dietitians also provide nutritional counseling to cancer patients, helping them stay nourished while undergoing cancer treatment.
Another patient population in which diet plays a critical role is people with renal (kidney) disease.
“One of my biggest success stories was an overweight person who was on the verge of needing dialysis because their disease was accelerating,” Sassower relates. “By achieving a healthy weight loss, this patient began to feel better almost immediately and was able to avoid dialysis.
“Sometimes these patients have other conditions like high cholesterol or gout,” she continues. “And when you intervene on one problem through healthy nutrition, you can often improve them all. That’s tremendously rewarding.
“Best of all, it’s empowering for people to learn they have some control over their health,” she adds.