Registered dietitians (RDs) and registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) possess at least a four-year degree that requires a variety of science courses.
They use their nutritional expertise to help people make individualized, healthy lifestyle changes.
It seems like everywhere we turn, there are contradictory claims about which foods are good, or bad, for our health. Fortunately, there are also qualified experts on nutritional matters to help you navigate how the science of nutrition can translate into everyday healthy living.
This year, National Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Day is celebrated on March 13.
Kari Ikemoto Exter, RD, CDE, a clinical nutrition manager at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, explains how a degree in nutrition is about a lot more than just learning about, and cooking, food.
Have you always been interested in healthy eating?
Yes. Growing up, I played a lot of sports and was always very interested to see how I could better fuel my body to excel. In high school, a soccer coach had us track what we were eating to help us see the correlation between healthy foods and strong athletic performance.
I’ve also always loved cooking. My mom often had me in the kitchen with her, and this helped guide my choice to become a dietitian.
Can you tell us a little about your background and education?
I received my Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Nutrition and Dietetics from Cal Poly Pomona. The degree required science courses such as biology, anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, general chemistry, microbiology, medical nutrition therapy and advanced nutrient metabolism.
After that, I completed a dietetic internship at Keene State College and Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. An accredited, supervised internship is one of the required steps to become an RDN. RD and RDN are the same credential, highlighting that, as the Commission on Dietetic Registration states, “all registered dietitians are nutritionists but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians.” Internship opportunities vary based on where they are done, but generally include three components: clinical training, community nutrition, and food service management.
Beginning in 2024, a master’s degree will be required to become a dietitian.
What types of issues do you help people with?
I’ve worked in oncology nutrition, assisting people who are undergoing cancer treatment to maintain good nutrition during treatment and recovery. I’ve also worked with athletes, people on tube feedings, children and teens, and many others.
Because I am also a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE), much of my work involves helping people manage diabetes. I also educate patients about weight management and heart health, since these issues are often related to diabetes.
What is your favorite part about being a dietitian?
I enjoy the education component. For many people and for many reasons, understanding nutritional needs and eating healthy food isn’t part of their daily lives. Working with a patient who has an “a-ha!” moment, after I help them look at food and nutrition in a new way, is most meaningful to me.
Recently, I encouraged one of my patients to make some small changes. I suggested she add more protein at breakfast, and encouraged her to get more vegetables at lunch and dinner. With those small changes, she soon lost over 40 pounds and improved her diabetes. All she needed was a little extra guidance.
What words of advice would you like to share with people wishing to improve their own eating habits?
First, be realistic with yourself. With diets like keto and paleo so prevalent, ask yourself whether it is realistic to try never to eat sweets or carbs again. I always encourage people to make small, manageable goals that we can work on over time. As you get confident in those things, we can build upon them.
Also, be kind to yourself. Keeping things in a positive light will lead to greater future success.
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Your doctor or registered dietitian can help you define your nutrition goals and design a personalized healthy eating plan. Find a Providence provider near you:
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.