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Critical Creative Thinking: The Difference Between Surviving and Thriving for Dietetics

By Gurneet Kaur Dhami and Jennifer Brady | May 31, 2017

It is likely that most of us appreciate the importance of critical thinking to our practice, but have you thought about how critical thinking applies to your practice or about the importance of creativity? Researchers who study critical thinking have increasingly recognized the important relationship between critical and creative thinking, and have developed the term “critical creative thinking” to acknowledge their mutual importance and interdependence. According to researchers, critical creative thinking includes skill-based know how, but also an open-mind and a willingness to think in ways that may not be familiar or to risk being unsettled by the process. Critical creative thinking has also been connected to the growing need for health care practitioners, including dietitians, to engage as change makers in many of the social and political issues that impact food, nutrition, and health.3,6,9 

But, what is critical creative thinking? 
First, let’s start with what critical creative thinking is not. Critical thinking and critical thinkers can often be mistaken as those who simply seek to criticize or find fault in what other people say, think, or do. However, as McPeck’s definition points out, critical thinkers draw on knowledge and experience to make positive contributions that spark growth in their field:
“the most notable characteristic of critical thought is that it involves a certain skepticism, or suspension of assent, towards a given statement, established norm or mode of doing things…it does not take truth for granted…Rather, critical thinking requires the judicious use of skepticism, tempered by experience, such that is productive of a more satisfactory solution to, or insight into, the problem at hand.”7
Suspending accepted ways of doing things can, no doubt, be unsettling. Critical thinking also asks that we get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and seeing discomfort as a sign of growth. The recent addition of creative thinking more clearly expresses the positive, growthful intentions behind critical thinking. The element of creativity also recognizes the way that critical creative thinking promotes curiosity, imagination, and innovation, as well as the importance of multiple points of view to thinking about a situation or problem.
Together, critical and creative thinking form the basis of what sociologist C. Wright Mills called “the sociological imagination,” which he says is “the ability to think yourself away from the familiar routines of everyday life” and look at them from a new perspective. For dietitians, the sociological imagination offers a way toward creative problem solving and growth, for each of us as practitioners, and together as a profession. Far from only being a bit of sociological theory, Mills’ sociological imagination and critical creative thinking have practical applications across practice settings. For example, for those of us in clinical practice, suspending accepted ways of doing things may mean purposively seeking out evidence that might challenge accepted practices, processes, or modes of thinking and is essential to ensuring that accepted practice is also best practice.
Gurneet’s experience as a recent graduate of Ryerson University’s Bachelor of Nutrition highlights the common misperception that the aim of critical creative thinking in dietetics is something other than to grow the profession.
My (Gurneet) experience of becoming a dietitian throughout my undergraduate studies has supported my ability to conceptualize and apply critical thinking necessary as a future practitioner. In my first nutrition communication course, I was encouraged to read, Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (Browne and Keeley, 2007). At the time, I struggled with critical thinking because I thought it meant “criticizing” or being “negative” about others. It wasn’t until I took a few sociology courses that I realized I could merge critical views with social realities to better explain my thoughts. For instance, connecting the social determinates of health to an individual’s social identity helps practitioners paint an accurate picture of how to support patients in a meaningful way. There is no “one size fits all” solution and getting down to the critical points requires a multifaceted approach.  Practicing Critical Social Theory in academic environments promotes skills and understandings of how an approach that draws on different ways of knowing can lead to transformative knowledge4. My instructors and peers have taught me that we are “nutrition investigators” for the public and profession. When we critically examine evidence and problem-solve, we support professional growth.

Moving forward into my Master’s program, critical thinking will be at the forefront of my thesis. Asking the right questions and viewing the profession through a sociological perspective encourages creative critical thinking. For example, some of the questions that I feel we need to ask of ourselves as dietitians, and that I plan to explore in my Masters thesis, include: are we, as a profession, doing all we can to promote and support diversity within the profession? What are the facilitators and barriers to diversity within the profession in Canada? How might enhancing diversity within dietetics lead to enhanced creative and critical thinking in our education and practice? The importance of “seeing the strange in the familiar” and “particular in the general” fosters an innovative approach to question our everyday lives and contextualize education into practice as dietetic professionals.1,5
As students, we are educated to be critical thinkers, but how confident are we in applying critical thinking in the real world? In my own experience, creative critical thinking has led me to seek out learning experiences in nontraditional practice settings. Working alongside business and social service-oriented professionals has allowed me to gain a unique perspective of their work, and in turn, gain a deeper understanding of how dietitians can work with other professionals. Moving forward, we need to increase our comfort in seemingly uncomfortable situations because only then will we be able to break out of our routine and challenge our creative critical thinking skills in practice.
For practitioners, adopting the sentiments of Mills’ sociological imagination is about developing expertise in our field, but also looking beyond the dietetic knowledge base to consider and learn from other ways of thinking and knowing about food, eating, nutrition, and health. One way of looking beyond is by exploring how other disciplines, such as the fine arts and humanities, sociology, cultural studies, philosophy, and women’s and gender studies, can expand our creative and critical thinking and enhance our practice. A call to look outside of our comfort zone may raise questions for many of us who work in challenging, and possibly under-resourced, practice settings about the feasibility of doing so. However, creative critical thinking is not about recklessly doing away with the status quo, but seeking out new perspectives that may challenge accepted routines.
What is perhaps most important for us to consider is how we support each other and future practitioners—today’s students and interns—to take leaps toward asking tough questions, resisting accepted ways of doing things, and seeking out new perspectives to think differently. We must support each other in thinking (and doing) ourselves away from the familiar routines—to pursue the dietetic imagination—even though doing so may feel unsettling.
As the often referenced quote by the anthropologist Margaret Mead reminds us, small groups can and do change the world. We feel that creative critical thinking is the spark that inspires small groups to come together and effect change.

  1. Berger, P. L. (1963). Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective. New York, N.Y.; Toronto : Doubleday.
  2. Browne, M. N., and Keeley, S. M. (2007). Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (8th ed.) Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  3. Huye, H. (2015). Using Poetry and Art Analysis to Evoke Critical Thinking and Challenging Reflection in Senior-Level Nutrition Students. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour, 47(3).
  4. Leonardo, Z. (2004). Critical Social Theory And Transformative Knowledge: The Functions of Criticism in Quality Education. Educational Researcher, 33(6), 11-18.
  5. MacLellan, D., Lordly, D., and Gingras, J. (2011). Professional Socialization in Dietetics: A Review of the Literature. Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research : A Publication of Dietitians of Canada = Revue Canadienne De La Pratique Et De La Recherche En Diététique : Une Publication Des Diététistes Du Canada, 72(1), 37.
  6. McDonald, B.E., Evers, S., Simard-Mavrikakis, S., Mendelson, R., Schweitzer, J., Smyth, L., and Beaudry, M. (1993). Concept of Dietetic Practice and Framework for Undergraduate Education for the 21st Century. Journal of the Canadian Dietetic Association, 54(2), 75-80.
  7. McPeck, J.E. (1981). Critical Thinking in Education.
  8. Mills, C. W. (1999). The Sociological Imagination (4th Anniversary Edition). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  9. Seymoour, B., Kinn, Se., and Sutherland, N. (2003). Valuing both Critical and Creative Thinking in CLincial Practice: Narrowing the Research-Practice Gap?. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 42(3), 288-296.

Gurneet Dhami is a nutrition graduate from Ryerson University's BASc and is in pursuit of her MSc AHN at Mount Saint Vincent University in Fall 2017. She enjoys taking part in a wide range of professional development activities and traveling around Toronto for the next big thing. Gurneet's interest revolves around the social determinants of health, and how it impacts individual livelihoods. In tune with Canada's 150th, she hopes to critically explore dietetic diversity in her thesis and professional work. Connect with Gurneet on LinkedIn or email at


Jennifer Brady is an Assistant Professor in Applied Human Nutrition at Mount Saint Vincent University. Her work draws on feminist and critical social theory to explore the history of the dietetic profession in Canada and the role of dietitians in social justice advocacy. She is working on publishing her recently completed dissertation, Trading the Apron for the White Lab Coat: A Contemporary History of Dietetics in Canada, 1954 to 2016.

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