Lessons from My First Year as a Dietitian

I remember a distinct moment in my childhood when I was about four 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 those 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 my studies with an undeclared major, dabbling in a variety of academic disciplines, hoping a lightbulb 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 lightbulb, 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 1200 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.  

Girl standing next to large poster of herself.  Poster is orange and yellow. Poster has a picture of the girl holding a banana and smiling. Poster says: "Meet Talia. Your nutrition expert at ShopRite of Burlington."
New dietitian, who dis?

Now that I’ve become a young professional, I often wonder to myself: 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. I sometimes top my extravagant TV dinner off with a session of sit-ups while watching New Girl to make up for the Nutella that I ate straight out of the jar as dessert.

A part of me expected (and still expects) that being a 20-something young professional would be glamorous than this. That working towards 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 disappear magically 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 water 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 combatting 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.

White text over black and white photo of mountains. Quote: "You are not supposed to be happy all the time. Life hurts and it's hard. Not because you're doing it wrong, but because it hurts for everybody. Don't avoid the pain. You need it. It's meant for you. Be still with it, let it come, let it go, let it leave you with the fuel you'll burn to get your work done on this earth."

10 thoughts on “Lessons from My First Year as a Dietitian”

  1. Talia,
    I too am an RD just a little over my first year. I’m 24 and I can’t tell you how happy I am to have stumbled upon this on a Sunday night with work the next day. It’s so true, it’s all SO true. There are so many things wrapped into being not only a dietitian but just being a new professional out of college that I never even thought were a thing. It’s a learning and growing process, and there is no end point where you’re feeling “settled” I don’t think that happens for anyone.

    1. Jillian,
      Thank you so much! I’m so happy that you feel the same way. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one! We will forever be learning and growing — keep doing what you’re doing. 🙂

  2. I’be been an RD for nearly 30 years and can relate! You wrote an excellent article and are right on. You’ll go far , I’m sure. I’n fact, I think you have a very mature perspective for such a young professional. Keep up the good work.

  3. Hi Talia. I loved reading your article. Life is complicated, huh? And its not perfect for anyone. I think that no matter what age or stage of life we are in, there’s lots to learn about life!
    I love the picture too! You’re beautiful!
    Love, Mom

  4. Talia, this was such a great article! Although I’m in a different career field, so many things you said resonated with me after finishing my first year teaching. It’s good to know I’m not the only way that feels this way. Thanks for sharing! I hope you’re doing well!

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