by Mary Ann Dames, M.S., R.D. (Master of Science, Registered Dietitian)
Self-portrait by Mary Ann Dames
If you like imagining what you could do with food, you might love to be the kind of dietitian I am.
Planning and preparing food has such a powerful impact on our health and energy, it’s a science called dietetics. The professionals in this field are called dietitians or nutritionists. They work for schools, sports teams, companies with food services for employees, and hospitals, to name only a few.
As a hospital dietitian for many years, my job included teaching patients how to make changes in diet in order to improve their health. I also created clever nutrition programs for patients with special dietary needs.
Patients who arrive at the hospital suddenly lose control of their lives. A caring health team takes over. Doctors decide how to treat them. Nurses give them instructions. Others dictate their daily schedule.
Many patients are scared. Most are stressed. Some take it out on something. Guess what they pick on?
You got it—hospital food. It isn’t like what they’re used to. Maybe they don’t eat American food at home. Or they are on a restricted diet. Or the food tastes funny due to the aftereffects of anesthesia or medication.
And I got to hear all about it when I walked in their rooms to do one special part of my job: diet education. Patients who complain aren’t being mean—they want some control back.
I remember a man (I’ll call him Mr. Doe) whose wife paced around or hovered while I tried to give him advice. I was actually glad she was there so that she could hear it too.
I needed to talk Mr. Doe into drinking less alcohol, eating healthier foods, and exercising more. But the first thing he said was, “When I go home, I want to go back to normal.” And he really wanted his two nightly beers.
Mrs. Doe declared that he was going to follow his new diet. She started doing the one thing that wasn’t going to work: nagging him. I said to her, “Although you love him very much, you can’t make him change.” What she could do was to shop wisely to make the appropriate foods available. Then, whatever Mr. Doe ate or drank would be up to him, even if it broke her heart.
When he saw how upset his wife was, his face softened. And when I gave him back some control, he almost smiled.
I said to him, “You don’t need to change your whole diet overnight. Maybe you can think about making one small change.”
Then I told both of them, “It’s a learning process. One step at time—one food at a time, one change in exercise—would be fine.”
And just in case he’d be ready to make one more change, maybe in a week or in a month, I gave them handouts and went over them.
By the time I left his room, Mr. Doe had decided to cut back to one beer a night. He and his wife were reading the handouts and planning what to do as a team.
He was in charge again.
As a dietitian, many days people skills are even more important than scientific knowledge. All the science courses I took help me understand what is happening physically to my patients. But what it comes down to is finding a way to inspire one patient at a time to make one change at a time.
Now that I’m retired, I am fulfilling a dream. I’m giving back to the world through a blog, “Reading, Writing, and Recipes”. If children can learn about food, nutrition, and cooking through my blog and elsewhere, maybe they won’t grow up to be like Mr. Doe, because they will have been leading a healthy lifestyle all along.
Mary Ann Dames, M.S., R.D.
● For a quick-and-easy overview of dietitian and nutritionist careers, click on “Listen to the podcast…” at the Sloan Career Cornerstone Center. It’s an introduction to the required schooling, a day-in-the-life of a dietitian, salary info, where dietitians work, and the favorable job market in the years ahead.
● For another friendly overview, read "Science Careers: Dietitian or Nutritionist" at ScienceBuddies.org.
● For examples of dietitians’ jobs, from personal chef for a movie star to policy-maker in Washington, watch the American Dietetic Association video.
● Read an interview of a dietitian and nutritionist (why she chose her career, her workday, what she likes best and least about work, career goals, hobbies).
● For current trends from the point of view of another dietitian, read the article, “Hospital dietitian's job more than just playing with food.”
● See Robin, a registered dietitian, talk about her job as a pharmaceutical sales representative or "drug rep" in a 5-minute video interview about a typical day, job requirements, and the best and worst parts of the job.
● If you are a teen, and you want to get the most energy out of what you put in your body, this nutrition guide for students and athletes is for you!
Updated August 6, 2011