How to Handle Casual Nutrition Conversations

Two woman having coffee and a conversation
Photo: DGLimages/iStock/Thinkstock

As dietitians, we’ve all had an experience like this: You meet someone, introduce yourself, they ask what you do and you reply, “I’m a dietitian.” When they realize you’re a nutrition expert, they inevitably respond in one of three ways: 1) they tell you about their experiences with dieting and weight loss; 2) they say something like “Don’t judge me for eating [insert food];” or 3) they ask you nutrition questions.

We often don’t know how to respond when a friend-of-a-friend is adamantly defending her juice cleanse, or a neighbor insists you look the other way when he’s filling his plate at a potluck. In our dietetics training, we learn about nutrition education and nutrition counseling. However, we don’t receive any formal training on how to handle brief, casual nutrition conversations, likely because these interactions are not part of our job but rather a side effect of being a nutrition expert. 

As a dietitian, I’ve had many interactions like this, and based on my experience and my own opinion, here are my thoughts on how to respond in each situation.

“I’m following [insert diet plan] and have lost so much weight.”

This is the most common response I get. Once someone finds out you’re a dietitian, they tell you about the diet they’re following, or their recent weight loss success, or their attempts to eliminate ‘X’ from their diet. You may be tempted to interject your professional knowledge or opinions and correct them, especially if they’re doing something you don’t agree with. However, be careful — unless they ask you a question, they’re not looking to be challenged; they’re looking to be validated. A brief, casual interaction is not an opportunity to change how they think or teach them how to overhaul their lifestyle. The best response is something like “I’m glad you’ve found something that works for you. If you have questions about how to continue to maintain a healthy lifestyle I’m happy to answer them.” This ensures you don’t alienate them and opens the door for them to come to you with questions in the future (if you’re open to providing nutrition information for free). 

“Don’t judge me for eating [insert food].”

I hate when someone says this. I’m a dietitian, not the food police. Sometimes I like to indulge, too! This seems to happen every time I’m at an event that involves food. This type of interaction is a good opportunity to remind someone that everything is fine in moderation, and most importantly, that you’re not there to judge. This should help them relax and feel less self-conscious about enjoying their favorite treat.

“What do you know about [insert food/nutrition/health topic]?”

I LOVE answering nutrition questions! The best part about being a dietitian is having the knowledge to educate the public about nutrition. If someone asks you a question, be cautious how you answer. The best answer is neutral and evidence-based. Remember, there are no dumb questions, so don’t patronize — we often take for granted that we know more than most about nutrition and health. If you answer too bluntly or with too much of your own opinion, especially if it’s negative, they may be offended by your response, which could make them resistant to hearing your message. Answering someone’s question is an opportunity to educate and establish rapport, which will make them comfortable asking more questions.

Casual conversations about nutrition can be tricky. You’re interacting with someone you may not know well, and you only have a brief opportunity to react properly and do your part to enhance their nutritional knowledge. Remember to meet them where they’re at, provide an evidence-based response and reserve any judgment. Interacting appropriately with the public enables all dietitians to improve the health of others, both at work and outside of work.

Andrea Lobene on Twitter
Andrea Lobene
Andrea Lobene, MS, RDN, is a PhD student exploring better ways to assess sodium intake as well as the relationship between sodium and potassium intake and chronic disease risk. Andrea has presented her work at several national meetings, including FNCE. Her other professional interests include nutrition education and communicating nutrition research to the lay public. Connect with her on Twitter.