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Be smart not boring: How to be an engaging and evidence-based dietitian

I’ve been a dietitian for almost 20 years, but only recently – about two or three years ago – moved into the media, blogging, and private practice stage of my career.

I’m already in my forties, so I knew I didn’t have time to mess around. I needed to get where I wanted to be quickly. I’ve already surpassed my personal expectations, which is great! Although, I will always strive to be better at everything because I’m type A and a workaholic.

I’ve always been outspoken – blame it on my orthopedic surgeon father – and I thought I needed to get rid of that part of me to be in the media. I was afraid that no one would touch me with a ten-foot pole if I was my opinionated self. I couldn’t have been more wrong – it has become part of my brand.

The profession of dietetics was born from home economics. I hate to say this, but our line of work didn’t come from the most game-changing, outspoken, or innovative roots. Many people still think that dietitians wear hairnets and work in the kitchen. Mrs. Garrett, from the Facts of Life TV series, is who many picture when they think of a typical dietitian.

Throughout my nutrition degree, internship, and early years working with inpatients, I was taught very firmly to brandish research in front of uncooperative doctors’ faces to convince them that we were the nutrition experts. I’m sure a lot of you were taught this too.

Slowly, I learned that this wasn’t working. Physicians didn’t want to listen to someone who obnoxiously shoved research in their faces. I learned that they recognized my expertise when I engaged them in a conversation as a peer.

I refused to wear a lab coat; I refused to be anything but one of them. An equal. I spoke to them like I would speak to anyone else, and I was subtle but insistent in my requests and recommendations. An iron fist in a velvet glove, if you will. My work remained top-notch, but it was a great lesson. I could get places by breaking the mould.

Fast forward to 2016 

Celebrities, self-proclaimed experts, and Instagram stars are providing nutrition advice in magazines, on TV, and even to clients – they are everywhere. Using out-of-the-box methods like good branding, current fashion (don’t laugh), and an openness to explore new and alternative therapies has contributed to their success. It irks a lot of dietitians, and many of us want to fix the situation, but how?

Don’t be afraid to step out of the traditional dietitian box with your counselling.

In the age of blogs and flashy branding, people don’t want to be pandered to with Canada’s Food Guide or be told what they can’t eat. In this Instagram world, they want to be told what they can eat. They don’t want tired resources that they’ve been seeing since they were in grade seven. They want to be entertained.

Guess what? Nothing bad is going to happen to you if you don’t use Canada’s Food Guide. There’s no hard and fast rules about what resources you need to use to educate people. I find the EatWell Plate a whole lot easier for clients to understand.

Clients want to know that you enjoy food too and that no one’s diet is perfect. Imperfect is the new perfect. Enjoy food and show people that you are just like them. You just know a bit more about nutrition, that’s all.

Don’t be afraid of being fun, entertaining, and well-dressed (read: current) – especially in the media.

I don’t mean going on TV wearing a bikini, but looking typical old-school dietitian frumpy is a total turn off for people. You may hate me for saying this, but most of you know what I’m talking about here.

I don’t care how old you are: If you wear loafers, silk scarves, and polyester, they need to go. Your wardrobe doesn’t have to be expensive, but it shouldn’t be buttoned up, cafeteria lady chic. Think whatever you want, but looking put together does matter.

Remember this: You can be entertaining and fun and still deliver legitimate, current nutrition information. Don’t be so serious! Smile and laugh. It is okay. It doesn’t damage your credibility one. single. bit.

In fact, people will listen to you more. As I said, they want to be entertained, and if you don’t entertain them, they’ll get their information elsewhere. It’s the truth. Deal with it. It no longer cuts it to be just “the nutrition expert” and expect people to listen to you for that reason alone.

Don’t be afraid to speak up and be open.

You don’t have to follow the traditional dietitian way of being as quiet as a mouse. Stand up for what you believe in, and don’t be afraid to challenge convention. I’ve built an entire brand on doing just that. I am not saying that you should start promoting crazy, woo-woo pseudoscience, but don’t shy away from standing up for what you believe in. Immediately shunning new approaches to nutrition is detrimental to your practice. At least consider that other approaches may have some validity and may be worthwhile to your clients.
 
I love nutrition and dietetics as much as you do, and I want to see our profession grow and flourish and continue to be respected for the work we do. Be yourself, be professional, be entertaining, and continue to do great stuff. Onwards and upwards!

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Editor’s note: What do you think about Abby's approach to dietetics and media work? Do you have other tips or views you would like to share? Tell us in the comments section below!  

If you want to build your media and on-camera skills make sure you join Gina Sunderland, Sue Mah, and Kate Comeau at the Dietitians of Canada pre-conference media training workshop on Wednesday June 8 from 1-4:30 pm in Winnipeg. This workshop will be an excellent opportunity to build these skills in a small group setting. You’ll get to do a mock interview (a great learning opportunity) and no prior media experience is required.
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