Registered Dietitians: Who They Are and What They Do

Registered Dietitian Nicki Ver Steeg with a patient.

These days, people can get nutrition information from the internet, TV, radio and everyone from your doctor to a stranger on the street. This can make it very difficult to sort out the real evidenced-based nutrition information from the bogus advice. Luckily, there is a field of nutrition experts (registered dietitians!) that are ready and willing to help you do just that. In this article I will answer some of the common questions that people have about dietitians and what they do.

What is a registered dietitian?

A registered dietitian (RD) is a nutrition expert who has completed the education and training requirements set by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In addition to a bachelor’s degree, an RD must complete an extensive, supervised practice program at a health care facility, foodservice organization, or community agency, and pass a registration exam. Nearly half of all RDs also have graduate degrees and many others are certified in specialty fields such as sports, pediatric, oncology or renal nutrition.

Where do they work?

Registered dietitians work in a variety of settings including hospitals, long term care facilities, grocery stores, colleges and universities, food service organizations, WIC (women, infant, children) programs, dialysis units, schools, fitness centers, cancer centers and many others.

What do they do?

Depending on their workplace and clientele, an RD may do all or any of the following:

  • Review what you normally eat, including your eating habits
  • Take a health history and nutrition-related lab results
  • Obtain information such as height, weight and waist circumference
  • Estimate your daily caloric needs based on whether you want to gain, maintain or lose weight
  • Provide personally tailored nutrition advice specific to you and your needs
  • Help manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease
  • Design a safe and effective weight loss program
  • Provide guidance for food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances
  • Make a healthy eating plan that works for you and your family
  • Create recipes and provide healthy cooking demonstrations
  • Give grocery store tours
  • Help you and your family get nutrition assistance from programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or WIC
  • Initiate and manage tube feedings and/or parenteral nutrition for critically ill or malnourished patients
  • Assist in the treatment of eating disorders
  • Teach nutrition courses
  • Conduct research

Are services provided by a dietitian covered by insurance?

Medical nutrition therapy is covered by a variety of insurance plans. If you have private insurance, check with your insurance plan for specific details regarding medical nutrition therapy coverage. Nutrition counseling for a wide variety of chronic conditions and health concerns may be covered under your plan.

The Medicare Part B Program covers medical nutrition therapy for diabetes and kidney disease. If you have either of these conditions, you may be eligible for at least three hours of medical nutrition therapy in the first year and two hours each additional year.

How do I get an appointment?

Depending on where the RD works, you may need a referral from your doctor. Fortunately, most appointments can be made directly with the dietitian without a referral.

By Jocelyn Johnson, MS, RD, LN

Clinical Dietitian at Avera Heart Hospital

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