Lessons from My First Year as a Dietitian

Young African American woman looks at papers while sitting at her laptop, working
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I remember a distinct moment in my childhood when I was about 4 years old, sitting outside on the driveway, taking in the scenery of the houses across the cul-de-sac with their lovely trees and flowers and perfect landscaping. I thought about the people in those houses, all grown up with accomplished lives, and I wondered — What will I become? Who will I be someday? — when I’m all grown up.

There were so many times when I thought I knew the answer to that question. First, I wanted to be an artist — specifically an illustrator for children’s books. Then, an author (novels, not children’s books). Becoming a veterinarian was always looming somewhere in the background, along with my obsession with dogs and horses. The chef phase brought on a long slew of baking experiments (the baking experiments never really ended). Then, it was public relations or marketing.

Despite all of these aspirations, when I started college, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do for a career. I began with an undeclared major, dabbling in a variety of academic disciplines, hoping a light bulb would go off to alert me of my life’s destiny.

My science classes felt most natural to me. I took a nutrition class, and while there was no light bulb, I did find it interesting. So there the journey began — I was going to be a dietitian someday.

Five years, one Bachelor of Science degree, and 1,200 hours of supervised practice later, all of my hard work finally paid off when I passed my registered dietitian exam. After a long and frustrating job search, I moved across Pennsylvania from my home in Pittsburgh for a job as a retail dietitian.

There you have it, 4-year-old me: You are a dietitian. Welcome to your grown-up life.

Now that I’ve become a young professional, I often wonder: What would 4-year-old me think of 24-year-old me? Am I doing this life thing right? Should I be doing more? Less? Or just something different altogether?

There are days where I feel confident and content at work, but there are also days where work is a blur of anxiety, self-doubt, and long to-do lists that I won’t finish until the end of the week. Some evenings I spend laughing the night away with new friends under twinkling lights at one of the hot spots in the city, while there are others that consist of eating my dinner of microwaved frozen vegetables, rice and beans alone in front of the TV.

A part of me expected (and still expects) that being a 20-something young professional would be more glamorous than this. That working toward a profession and finally starting my career would somehow make me feel settled and accomplished. But truthfully? While I’m having a fun time living in a new place, working at a new job, and it’s gratifying to support myself financially, there are many days where I just feel….BLAH. I feel so very far from having it all figured out, and I definitely don’t feel like I’ve “arrived.”

If anything, this first year as a dietitian has taught me that I’ll probably never feel “arrived,” because there’s always something new to learn.  Every day brings new experiences that shape me as a person. I’m always changing and growing, so to expect a feeling of settlement is probably unrealistic. Or maybe it’s not — perhaps I will one day know what that feels like. As for now, I still have a lot more to learn.

So, with lots of ends still loose and in need of a good tie, here are a few valuable lessons I’ve learned during my first year as a dietitian, both about nutrition and life.

Gaining my credentials did not make my insecurities about my abilities and knowledge disappear.

When I was training during my dietetic internship, I often felt insecure because I was learning; I didn’t feel like I had the authority to give nutrition advice or complete tasks on my own. And guess what? Getting those credentials behind my name did not dissipate the insecurities or automatically provide me with confidence. Every day, my confidence is growing. It is a skill that I must build over time with practice, practice, practice.

I am still scared to make a mistake.

The fear of messing up also didn’t magically disappear once I passed my dietitian exam. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though — a healthy dose of fear keeps me alert and on my toes.

School did not prepare me for everything.

Every day, I get questions about nutrition that I did not learn the answer to in school. Which brand of water is the best to drink? How can you tell if your olive oil is real? How do I get my child to eat more vegetables? Thankfully, my schooling did teach me how to find the answers using reliable sources and sound logic. I also couldn’t fully learn in school how to communicate those answers effectively; as with confidence, it comes with practice.

I have to stay on top of the latest science because I will always be combating misinformation.
While this was expressed to me over and over again during my training, it’s never hit closer to home than it does now. Every time I get a question about the fad diet du jour, and I reply with sound reasoning and science only to get an eye roll, I wonder: Did everything I learned in school mean nothing? Recommendations such as eating more fruits and vegetables, cutting back on processed foods, and mindful eating are not as sexy as ketogenic diet plans accompanied by magical sounding testimonials. This is so frustrating, and I don’t have an answer as to how to deal other than to stick to my guns and stay up-to-date on the latest research.

There will always be a reason to stress out/feel insecure.

Some days, I feel confident and excited at work. Other days, I feel anxious about the tasks that lie ahead of me or my abilities as a dietitian. I don’t think those days will ever disappear; expecting to never feel anxious is unrealistic. Just as with confidence, handling the daily anxieties comes with practice.

When it comes to helping people eat better, it’s usually not about the food.

People who come to me for consultations or classes are seeking nutrition advice, but usually, my intervention involves a lot more than nutrition advice. People are often balancing life tasks such as raising a family, caring for a loved one, coping with a new medical diagnosis, or dealing with a stressful job. Thus, our interactions are so much more than providing nutrition advice. They also involve discussing how to approach the barriers that prevent implementing changes.

Just because I’m a dietitian doesn’t mean I will eat perfectly or be the pinnacle of health.
I’m a human. Sometimes I eat more than I’m hungry for, or order fried food, or have a huge serving of ice cream for dessert. Sometimes I struggle with body image or comparing myself to other people who appear fitter or “eat cleaner” than I do. While I still become frustrated in moments like these, I’ve started to see this as a good thing. My struggles with implementing/upholding healthy habits give me empathy and perspective when helping others with theirs.

Most importantly, I am reminded every day that life is messy and far from perfect. The goal, then, should never be perfection, but rather authenticity and growth.

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Talia Follador
Talia Follador, RDN, is a retail dietitian at a ShopRite supermarket in Burlington, NJ. She blogs at PeaceandPancakes.com. Follower her on Instagram and Twitter.