What I didn't learn in grad school

Written by Kim Hall, a former dietetic intern at Alpine Nutrition

Sign reads D.I.E.T Diet I Eat That
"When I think back to all the crap I learned in grad school" ~ Paul Simon

There is genuine disembodiment of my education vs my actual life.

I’ve never “looked the part” of a dietitian. I've struggled with my weight and how I "should" be eating.

The stereotype of dietitians and similar nutrition professionals is that we must only eat salads and green smoothies. Wear Lululemon activewear. And run 5 miles every day before 8 AM. This definitely doesn't match my real-life experiences.

It's comical to watch this stereotype in action when I get together with my dietitian nutritionist colleagues and feel guilted into eating a certain way.

On a trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma in January 2020, I was with a group of about 15 other people also pursuing their dietetic internship. One of the nights, we all decided to go out for dinner together.

As we were sitting in this bar looking over the menu and each deciding what to order, no one dared order a cheeseburger! The server went around the table taking everyone's order; here's the gist of what happened.

Server: For you?

Nutrition student: Oh, I will have this entrée with the sauce on the side and extra veggies and a side salad instead of fries, dressing on the side.

Server: And you?

Nutrition student: I'm gluten-free. Do you have a gluten-free menu?

Server: What about you?

Nutrition student: Is this entrée vegetarian? Umm, let me check.

Server: Next?

Nutrition students: I will have this sandwich, but without the bun, no mayo, no onion.

And on and on and on - all around the table! The poor server. It's a wonder we didn't get kicked out for being difficult.

Why all the fuss?

I totally get if you've been diagnosed with celiac disease or epi-pen-required-food-allergy, but 15 people back to back all wanting special changes to their desired food item? Com'on!

And the one woman who dared to honor her satisfaction needs by ordering chicken strips kept apologizing and justifying her choices to the group.

Nutrition professionals are definitely not above diet culture. In fact, they might be more steeped in diet culture than the rest of the population - especially from an orthorexia standpoint (the fear of eating something unhealthy).

Personally, instead of over-analyzing the health of every single bite you put in your mouth. I find it more helpful to ask...

  • Does this food sound good to you at the moment?

  • Are you enjoying the company and community that comes with eating a meal together?

  • How hungry are you? Hungry enough for a meal or just a snack?

  • What textures, flavors, and temperatures of food would satisfy you?

To me, the answers to those questions are more important than having to justify whatever food you chose to eat.

Person reaching for a brownie on a white plate
A sweet tooth isn't a personal flaw

Admittedly, I have a serious sweet tooth (send all the chocolate and baked goods this way!) and I probably have a genuine addiction to coffee, strong and black

Because I'm also a nutrition professional, I intellectually know that too many sweets and caffeine aren't great for my body, but they feed my emotional wreck of a soul some days.

Of all the things I've learned about behavior modification, changing my own dietary behaviors is something I've never really dug into - and I'm ok with that.

Generally, I eat well and try to exercise (I said try) on a regular basis. But I'm not interested in developing orthorexic beliefs about food just because my education and degree give me the permission (and license) to do so.

I worked in a casual dining restaurant while I was going to school. An older man came in and asked if I was in school and what I was studying. I told him proudly, “I’m working on a degree in nutrition.” He responded with, “oh, so you always eat real healthy then.” Honestly, it made me take a step back for a minute.

I thought, "absolutely not!"

Just because I know how to calculate a tube feed and what diet to prescribe to a patient with diabetes and how many carbohydrates are in a slice of bread doesn't mean I only eat steamed broccoli and boiled chicken breast 24/7 (not that there's anything wrong with either).

It does mean that I understand the science behind why our bodies need a variety of foods to function well. Beyond that, I'm all for promoting pleasure and satisfaction when it comes to the food we eat and the experience of eating in general.

Friends making a toast with wine before eating
Pleasure is an essential side dish at any meal

It's equally important to eat food just because it tastes good and completely ignores the fact that you probably know how many calories are in it. It's important from a mental health standpoint of creating a healthy relationship with food.

So to answer your burning question and theory about dietitians and other nutrition professionals only eating kale salads, acai bowls, and green smoothies, no we don't all have a “perfect” diet.

Most of us enjoy sweets and treats as much as the next person. More importantly, as a Health At Every Size® and Intuitive Eating dietitian, I realize that there's more to life than what we eat.

We shouldn't have to justify what we eat to ourselves or anyone else. And we don't need to carry around guilt about how we nourish our bodies just because we have years of evidence-based training in nutrition.

Trying to bridge my formal education with real life is a balance of humility and compassion for myself and others. I have no doubt that my future clients will have dealt with a lot of the same food-shoulds and body image hang-ups as I have.

Figuring out a way to make dietary lifestyle changes for well-being without colluding with diet culture and the diet mentality is tricky. But in my opinion, a much-needed shift in the nutrition profession. I'm hoping that it's heading in that direction.

As I enter into this expert field, I'm taking with me a heavy dose of compassion for myself and my colleagues. As nutrition professionals, we shouldn't feel pressured to “look the part” physically or in the way that we eat.

Our clients will come in all shapes and sizes with a vast variety of food preferences and experiences. As nutrition professionals, we need to offer the same diversity to better serve clients from all walks of life.

My education and professional experience have taught me what and how we eat is important. However, my experience as a person tells me that counseling a whole person on how to live their healthiest life involves helping them create a healthy relationship with food and their body.

To learn more about how to navigate all the diet culture recommendations for healthy eating and develop your own nutrition prescription based on Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size®, join the Spring SAVOR online group coaching program starting in late April.

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