Since National Nutrition Month is right around the corner (hint: March), it seemed like the perfect time to talk a little bit about dietitians, AKA the experts in nutrition! I wrote this guest article for Andy the RD‘s blog almost a year ago, and for some reason, I never shared it here on Wellness For The Win! I added a lot of information to this version, so if you read the original, keep reading for even more details.
As the title mentions, this post is about my journey to becoming a Registered Dietitian. I talk about why I chose this profession, what it means to me, the steps it took to become an RD, what I’m doing now and a little bit about my personal health journey through it all. I also discuss my decision to start my blog and how my experience with that has been over the past couple of years.
I decided to share this because I get a lot of inquiries from women (and men!) who are passionate about nutrition and health, and are trying to decide if they want to pursue Dietetics as a career.
Let’s get started!
A Little Bit of Background:
I have had this passion for health for a long time now, but it only seems to intensify as the years go by.
My interest in food and nutrition began all the way back in high school. I was a fit, active cheerleader and probably could’ve eaten whatever I wanted without gaining weight; however, I started really paying attention to what I put in my mouth during those years. In hindsight, probably a little too much. I didn’t necessarily restrict myself back then or engage in any binge/purge behaviors, but it was around that time that I started tracking my food intake in the MyFitnessPal app. Little did I know, this was a habit that I would continue for the next seven years or so. I stopped counting calories a little over a year ago now, and it has been extremely freeing — possibly one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. (Read my blog post to learn more about Why I Stopped Counting Calories in the first place, and Why I Still Don’t Count Calories.)
Fast forward to college and I was a little overwhelmed by the fact that I needed to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, as most freshmen in college are. I went to Kansas State University, which is where my dad went back in the day, so I was pretty much brainwashed from birth that I would attend KSU as well. ; ) Luckily, I loved everything about small-town Manhattan, KS, and they also happened to have several majors that suited me perfectly.
I started out my college career with a dual-degree; Nutrition and Kinesiology. It seemed like the perfect fit for me. I obviously had this growing interest in food and nutrition, and I really loved exercise, too. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with all of that yet, but I felt confident that I was on the right path. It wasn’t long before I heard about Dietetics, and all of the different job opportunities that are out there for dietitians. Once I learned just how much you can do with the letters “RD” behind your name, I knew that’s what I was meant to do. I soon switched Kinesiology to a minor (although I still loved exercise, I didn’t feel that I was meant to be a personal trainer, physical therapist, etc.), changed my major to Nutrition and Health, and added a second major, Dietetics.
I have to admit, school was pretty tough with that workload, especially because I put a lot of pressure on myself to get A’s in every class, and I was also very involved in my sorority, Pi Beta Phi, and wanted to have a social life. (Go figure.) Dietetics, Nutrition and all other health-related majors are typically very science-heavy, and require a lot of studying and dedication on your part. If you are considering going into any of those things, mentally prepare yourself for that. You will have to get through some boring and super hard classes (i.e. microbiology) before you get to the stuff that really interests you.
I have to brag for a second and say that I only got one B throughout my whole college career (damn you, Biology) and graduated Summa Cum Laude (twice), only because it helps me lead into my next point. And yes, in case you’re wondering, I was — and still am, and always will be — an overachiever. Most dietitians are. It comes with the territory, I guess.
This type A, perfectionist personality of mine has been both a blessing and a curse throughout my life. Obviously, it helped me perform extremely well in school, which is something that I am very proud of; however, it also caused me a lot of unnecessary stress in an attempt to be perfect all the time, which ultimately resulted in over-analyzing my food intake, disliking my body, freaking out if I missed one day at the gym, and has even caused some GI issues that the doctor ultimately diagnosed as “IBS”, most likely triggered by stress, and who knows what else. (I have yet to try an elimination or FODMAP diet, because sometimes, ignorance is bliss. I am aware that this is a bad example, but I’m just being honest.) I still have my good and bad days with my “IBS”, unfortunately, although it has improved significantly over the last year or so. Wedding planning last year was oddly therapeutic for me and I’ve been so happy with married life that I guess I haven’t been as stressed. I’m not sure the reason, but I’ll take it!
Despite all of the difficult things I’ve been through on this health journey of mine (obsessive behaviors, poor body image, GI distress, skin issues), I can honestly say that I have a very healthy relationship with food and myself today. We all have our ups and downs and our own way of getting there, but now that I am an RD, I love helping people discover what they can do to not only improve their health, but also boost their self-confidence and quality of life. Being a dietitian has given me the opportunity to teach others how eating healthy food and exercising can truly improve their overall well-being, and that they don’t have to give up everything they love in order to achieve good health.
As I have grown both personally and professionally, I also recognize the importance of engaging in stress-relieving, self-care activities, which can look different from person to person. For me, that might mean getting a facial or a manicure, baking a loaf of banana bread, going to the dog park with my husband and our pup, or simply giving myself a lazy day to binge-watch Netflix, and for others, it could mean something completely different. Either way, it’s so important to find strategies to control and relieve stress, because it can have a hugely negative impact on our health otherwise (as I mentioned with my GI problems).
The Education & Internship Process:
For those of you who are seriously considering going into Dietetics, I would recommend reading this part so you know what it entails. Since I had a double major and a minor in college, it took me five years total to complete both undergraduate degrees, and the entire fifth year consisted of my Dietetic internship. However, I still completed the internship at the same time as everyone else in my class, so you can most likely expect five years total regardless, unless you earned a lot of college credit in high school. The program I did at K-State did not include a Masters degree, but programs at some other universities do, and in the future, it will be a requirement for everyone.
In case you don’t know, Dietetic internships traditionally consist of three different rotations: clinical, management and community, for a total of 1200 hours of supervised practice. These days I know there are some internships that are a little less traditional and may also include shadowing someone in private practice, integrative medicine, or other areas of the Dietetics field. But back in my day, it was just the first three. It also depends which program you choose and the university you’re completing it through.
I chose the Coordinated Program (CP) path through Kansas State University. That meant that I had a lot of support from the faculty at KSU during the internship placement process, and I got to stay fairly close to home for all of my rotations. Alternately, there is the Didactic Program, in which the student has to find their own preceptors and internship rotations, and they are typically farther away (for example, on the coast somewhere). Some people want to go away from home, so they prefer the Didactic path. I am more of a homebody and liked being close to my family, friends and boyfriend (now husband) during that year.
The summer before my fifth year, I completed my community rotation at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Olathe, KS (near my home) for a total of 6-8 weeks. During the fall semester, I did my management rotation at one of the student dining facilities at K-State. In case you’re wondering, yes, it involved wearing a hairnet and working in a kitchen with a variety of management-type responsibilities. Second semester I completed my clinical rotation at a large hospital in Kansas City, so I got to live at home during the end of my final year.
Throughout the internship on the CP path, you are also taking a few classes, so not only are you working basically full-time (without getting paid), but you are also still completing assignments, taking exams, etc. I will be totally honest; it is an extremely busy and stressful year, but like I said, I had a lot of support from my classmates, advisors and teachers at K-State since I did the Coordinated Program, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It is such a valuable time because you get real work experience in a variety of settings and really get a feel for what you like, as well as what you don’t like as much.
You learn and grow so much during that year, and that is why being a Registered Dietitian is much different than a nutritionist, or health coach, or any other “health expert” you may see on the internet. Dietitians go through extensive education and nutrition training, and we are also required to complete 75 hours of continuing education every five years, so we are constantly learning and staying up-to-date on the latest evidence-based nutrition research.
After you complete the internship and earn your Dietetics degree, you are eligible to sit for the national RD exam. I spent about 4-5 weeks studying for this, and used Jean Inman to do so. Thankfully, I passed the exam on my first attempt, but do not take this process lightly. It is very challenging, and I treated studying as a full-time job during that month!
With all of that being said, if you have any health-related issues you need to have addressed, I would highly recommend visiting with a Registered Dietitian who has been highly trained to counsel patients and clients for a variety of health concerns. Ideally, you should do this while also consulting your physician, and everyone can work together to form an individualized care plan that works for you.
I started my career working part-time as an inpatient clinical dietitian in a hospital, as well as a part-time wellness coordinator for the employees of a school district. These were two completely opposite ends of the spectrum in the dietetics world; treatment vs. prevention. Both are extremely important, and in both environments, there is so much room for education. I tried to motivate my school district clients to adopt healthy habits so they would never make it to that hospital bed. On the other hand, in the hospital I had the opportunity to educate newly diagnosed diabetic patients on carbohydrate counting, or teach 50-year-olds who just had a heart attack how to make heart-healthy choices, or administer nutrition support for patients who were intubated, or didn’t have a properly functioning GI tract at the time, etc.
Later this week, I will be starting a new full-time job doing Corporate Wellness for a large corporation in the Kansas City area, and I’m extremely excited to continue working with well individuals who want to seek out my help. Working in a clinical setting has been an amazing learning experience — and for those of you going into this field, I highly recommend starting clinical — but wellness is where my passion really lies, if you couldn’t already tell from my blog. I believe there is so much power in prevention. I want to educate people on how to be well now so they can live a happier and healthier life well into the future, avoid developing any chronic diseases, and most importantly, set a positive example for the next generation.
As you can see, there are a wide variety of career opportunities for dietitians, so if you are passionate about food & nutrition, there is likely a perfect place for you. You can work in clinical settings, grocery stores, government agencies, school districts, corporations, fitness facilities and so much more. There are also a lot of opportunities for RDs in media and journalism these days. Someday I would love to either write a book or contribute recipes and/or health-related articles to magazines.
The best thing about this profession is seeing people get excited about living a healthier life and taking better care of themselves. When I see that light bulb go off, and they realize, “Wow, I can do this”, or I get an email from a client who can’t wait to report back to me that they have: worked out four times that week, started eating a healthy breakfast every morning, started drinking more water, increased their fruit/veggie intake, etc. — those are the moments that make it all worth it. Like most professions, there are always going to be frustrating and difficult times. Some people simply don’t want to change or listen to what you have to say, and that’s okay. It takes patience, persistence and great counseling skills to help people make positive lifestyle changes. Everyone goes at a difference pace, but once they get there and they are so thankful for your guidance and support through it all, it’s an amazing feeling.
On Having a Health & Wellness Blog:
I started Wellness For The Win soon after I completed my Dietetic internship, and right before I started studying for the RD exam. (Ironically, it was the day before I had a colonoscopy/EGD for the GI issues I discussed earlier.) I truly didn’t have any idea what I was doing when I started my blog. I just knew that I wanted to create a space where I could motivate and inspire others to live a healthy lifestyle by eating well, exercising often and simply taking better care of their bodies. It is amazing to look back at the past few years and see how much I have learned and grown during that time.
I am still not an expert on food photography, Instagram or blogging in general, and I don’t spend endless hours of my life trying to be. I am obviously very passionate about my blog, but it’s not my entire life. I have a family, a husband, a dog and many other things that I care about too! I just have a lot of fun sharing my life with you all, and I continue to learn as I go. Don’t overthink it; just have fun with it.
If you are wanting to start a blog or Instagram account too, I would recommend that you do the same! Follow accounts in your niche (as well as accounts that you enjoy and that make you feel good) and learn from them, but always stay true to who you are and do not compare yourself to others. As a blogger, those are my biggest pieces of advice. I think a lot of people feel pressured to post or say certain things due to what others are doing, but don’t let that get to you. If you are primarily a food blogger, but want to share something fashion or beauty-related, go for it! And vice versa. There are no rules. We are all allowed to care about a variety of things. My life consists of a lot more than just what I eat, believe it or not. You do you, girlfriends.
It is fun and exciting to get more and more followers, but that’s truly not what it’s all about for me. It’s the messages that I get from complete strangers either down the street or across the country letting me know that I have inspired them in some way. Whether they are recovering from an eating disorder and let me know that I motivate them to fuel their bodies with healthy food every day; or someone who has never liked to cook for themselves takes the time to let me know that I encouraged them to start; or someone who “fell off the wagon” with their workouts long ago started exercising again because of my account. Little moments like that are honestly the most important thing to me. Knowing that I am making an impact on the health of others, no matter how big or small, is the most rewarding part of it all.
I want to show my followers that people like us (RDs, “healthy food bloggers”, and people who appear to eat fruits and veggies 99% of the time) like to let loose and eat pizza and cake and drink margaritas, too. In the end, it’s all about balance and enjoying your life. It’s about treating our bodies well most of the time, but also knowing when it’s appropriate to give yourself a break and eat an overflowing cup of ice cream with all the toppings (and I mean all.) As someone who has been on the other end of the spectrum, I recognize that it takes time to get to that place of balance, self-acceptance and eating more intuitively.
I just want to show people that eating healthy can be fun, delicious, satisfying and most importantly, simple. Yes, it requires a little bit of effort on your part, but trust me, it is so worth it. You can’t put a price on feeling good on the inside and the outside.
I feel so lucky to have a career that I am so passionate about and to have the opportunity to help others get excited about their own health as well. I plan to continue to share my love for nutrition and health with anyone who will listen, and hope to inspire many more along the way. If there is anyone in your life who you think could benefit from following me, please feel free to share my information with them. : )
Thank you so much for reading, and as always, feel free to reach out with any questions or comments you may have if you are also interested in becoming a dietitian or starting your own blog!
Until next time,
Shanna Hutcheson, RD LD