Sep 22, 2023 • 12 min read

What Does a Dietitian Do? How Do They Help Patients?

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Most people have heard of dietitians, but what do they actually do? How do they help patients? Whether it is a group setting or one-on-one, dietitians teach a variety of people evidence-based nutrition information and how to apply it to achieve their health goals. 

Dietitians help develop custom nutrition plans based on an individual’s health condition, stage of life, personal goals, lifestyle, and other factors. This includes structuring custom meal plans, developing individual meal guidelines, and/or setting specific nutrition goals.

No two nutrition plans are the same. While a dietitian’s specialty, workplace, and patient population may vary, they all work to educate, support, motivate, and guide individuals in making the best food choices. 

If you’re interested in booking a dietitian visit, you can do so through us here at Zaya Care. 90% of our patients pay $0 for appointments since our providers accept over 100 insurance plans such as AetnaUnited HealthcareEmpire BlueCross BlueShield, and many more.

This guide goes over what dietitians are, how they help patients, how to find one, and what to expect during appointments.

What is a dietitian?

A dietitian is a healthcare professional who is considered an expert in food and nutrition. They are credentialed as a Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). They help with disease prevention, weight management, and general health and wellness. 

To become a dietitian, there are certain education and training requirements that must be completed. The first step to becoming a dietitian is to earn a bachelor’s degree from a Didactic Program of Dietetics (DPD). Starting in 2024, those who want to become a dietitian must also earn a master’s degree. 

After they have received their degrees, future dietitians must complete an accredited internship that consists of 1,200 hours of supervised practice. The final step to earning RD credentials is to pass the national RD exam. 

Dietitians can specialize in different areas they are passionate about. Depending on where they work, dietitians can help just about anyone with their nutrition, from a hospitalized patient to a professional athlete. 

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How do dietitians help patients?

It’s no secret that following a healthy diet is beneficial for your health. For most healthy individuals, following general nutrition advice is adequate. However, many people have specific nutrition needs that require more than just general nutrition advice.

Dietitians can help you eat right no matter what your health condition is or what your personal goals are. Below are some specific situations where dietitians can help patients with an individualized nutrition plan

  • Manage body weight. A registered dietitian can help you lose weight or gain weight by developing a tailored eating plan that helps you achieve your goals.
  • Avoid nutrient deficiencies. If you know you are deficient in specific nutrients, a dietitian can help you incorporate more of the right foods or supplements to fix those deficiencies. If you have higher nutrition demands, such as a woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding, your dietitian can help you avoid any deficiencies. 
  • Eat well with food restrictions. Food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities can make it difficult for people to navigate food choices. Dietitians can help individuals with food restrictions meet their nutrition needs while avoiding restricted foods. 
  • Manage chronic disease. Certain health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease require patients to follow specific dietary patterns. Dietitians will educate these patients on food choices that will affect their health condition.  

>> Read More: Dietitians vs. Nutritionists

When should I see a dietitian?

From general health and fitness goals to specific health concerns, there are many benefits to working with a dietitian. Other than a doctor referral, below are some situations that indicate you should make an appointment with a dietitian.

  • You have a food intolerance or sensitivity. If you need to avoid certain foods because they trigger certain symptoms, you may want to see a dietitian to make sure you are getting a variety of nutrients while avoiding trigger foods. 
  • You experience digestive issues. If you have IBS, acid reflux, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or colitis, visiting a registered dietitian will be beneficial to make sure you are avoiding the necessary foods while maintaining a good nutrition status. Your dietitian will guide you in making the right food choices to avoid symptoms like bloating, constipation, gas, and diarrhea. 
  • Your goal is weight loss or weight gain. If you need to lose weight or gain weight, a registered dietitian can help you do so in a way that is healthy, sustainable, and fits your lifestyle.  
  • You have a chronic disease. If you have a chronic disease, such as diabetes or heart disease, and you are unsure if you are following the proper diet to manage your condition, you should see a dietitian to bring clarity around your specific nutrition needs. 
  • Your bloodwork is abnormal. If you recently had bloodwork done with abnormal results, such as high cholesterol or low iron, you can set an appointment with a dietitian to discuss how to improve your lab work results through proper nutrition. 
  • You want to improve your athletic performance. No matter what level of athlete you are, a dietitian, especially a sports dietitian, can guide you in making the right food choices to ensure you are eating enough to perform at your best. 
  • You want to improve your relationship with food. Some people have a history of trying fad diets or following poor nutrition advice, which has resulted in a poor relationship with food. A dietitian can help you restore your relationship with food while learning how to nourish your body. 
  • You are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. Pregnancy increases your nutrition needs. If you are trying to conceive or are pregnant, it is a good idea to see a dietitian to ensure that you are nourishing your body properly for a healthy pregnancy. 
  • You easily get fatigued or sick. If you have no medical conditions and get good sleep each night, but you notice that you are constantly low on energy or get sick often, you may want to visit with a dietitian to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need to stay energized and healthy. 

>> Read more: Is it worth it to see a dietitian or nutritionist? When should I see one?

Where do dietitians work?

The demand for nutrition experts has grown significantly over the past several years. More companies are hiring dietitians for their expertise. Below is a list of some common places where you can find a dietitian. 

  • Hospitals and clinics. Clinical dietitians typically work in inpatient hospitals or outpatient clinics, practicing medical nutrition therapy. 
  • Cancer centers. Most cancer centers have an oncology dietitian on staff to help patients meet their nutrition needs during treatment. 
  • Dialysis centers. In most dialysis centers, you can find a renal dietitian who focuses on nutrition for kidney disease. 
  • Universities. Dietitians employed at universities assist in menu planning for the dining hall and may work with individual students on their personal nutrition needs. 
  • Community centers. Community center dietitians may provide individual nutrition counseling, teach group nutrition classes, and take part in developing health and wellness programs for their community. 
  • Collegiate and professional athletics. Sports dietitians work with college and professional sports teams to ensure the athletes are properly fueled to perform well. 
  • Private practice. Dietitians can either work for a private practice or have their own practice and work with individual clients based on their specialty. 
  • Long-term care facilities. Nursing homes and assisted living homes hire dietitians to ensure their residents are being fed properly and avoiding malnutrition. 
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What should I expect in my appointment with a dietitian?

If you have never met with a dietitian before, it is helpful to know what to expect before your first appointment. Some people think they will be judged on what they eat or told that they can never have their favorite foods again. However, you can expect your dietitian to listen, educate, support, and motivate you to adopt healthy nutrition habits and achieve your goals.  

Initial appointment

During your first appointment, your dietitian will ask several questions to get a clear understanding of your health history, food habits, and current nutrition needs. This appointment typically lasts 45 minutes to one hour. The goal is to gather enough information to provide you with the best food recommendations for you. 

You and your dietitian will also discuss your long-term and short-term goals. By the end of your first appointment, you should have a clear plan of action for how you are going to achieve each goal. This may even include a meal plan to follow, depending on the dietitian you work with.

Because developing life-long nutrition habits can take time, your dietitian will most likely schedule a follow-up appointment. The number of times you need to see your dietitian will depend on your situation, which your dietitian will discuss with you. 

Follow-up appointment 

During your first follow-up appointment, you and your dietitian will discuss how well you were able to implement your nutrition plan. Your dietitian will assess your progress with your goals and any other progress you made, such as weight loss, weight gain, improvements in blood sugar, or improvements in gastrointestinal symptoms. 

If you face specific challenges that prevent you from achieving your goals, your dietitian may provide you additional resources to help you through those challenges. Your dietitian may also make changes to your plan if necessary or add more goals to keep you progressing toward your long-term goal. 

What questions should I ask my dietitian?

To prepare for your appointment with a dietitian, it is a good idea to bring questions to ask. This helps you make the most out of your time with your dietitian. Below are some example questions that you may want to ask your dietitian but check out our full article about questions to ask your dietitian or nutritionist for more ideas.

  • How much should I be eating if I want to lose/gain weight?
  • How can I keep the weight off after I have lost weight?
  • How do I know if I am intolerant to certain foods?
  • How do I dine out and still achieve my goals?
  • I’m thinking about trying a certain diet. What do I need to know?
  • Should I be taking any supplements?
  • Do I need to be tracking my calories?
  • What are some healthy snacks/foods that I should always keep in my kitchen?
  • If I don’t cook, can I still eat healthy/reach my goals?
  • What foods do I need to avoid if I am taking certain medications?
  • If I avoid (dairy, meat, etc.), how can I make sure I still get all the nutrients I need?
  • I know what I should do with my nutrition, but I have trouble sticking to it. Do you have any tips?
  • How can I tell if a food is a good choice from a grocery store/restaurant/party?
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How many dietitian appointments are typically necessary?

The number of appointments you need with a dietitian varies based on your nutrition needs and your progress. Most people see a dietitian at least two or three times, if not more. If you need general guidance to improve your health, you may be satisfied with just a few appointments. 

However, if you have a medical condition and need to manage symptoms through nutrition, several appointments may be necessary. If you have a significant weight loss goal, you may also need to visit your dietitian more often to make sure you stay on the right track long-term. 

How much do dietitians cost? Does insurance cover appointments?

On average, a one-hour appointment with a dietitian will cost between $100 to $200 without insurance. The cost depends on the dietitian you see, where they are located, their experience, and their specialty. In some cases, follow-up appointments may cost less because they take less time than initial appointments. 

The good news is that most major insurance companies provide coverage for dietitian visits. However, there are typically certain requirements that must be met in order to receive coverage—such as needing a doctor referral—and the amount of coverage provided depends on your insurance company and policy. 

Specialties dietitians may have

Dietitians will often specialize in a specific area to advance their knowledge and skills. This often leads to career advancement and higher compensation. Learn about common dietitian specialties below. 

  • Pediatrics. Dietitians who work specifically with infants and children are known as Pediatric Dietitians. They help children and their parents with issues like picky eating, food allergies, and failure to thrive. A Board Certified Specialist in Pediatrics (CSP) is an expert in helping children get everything they need for proper growth and development. 
  • Sports nutritionSports dietitians can work with athletes of all ages and levels to help them improve their athletic performance through proper nutrition. A Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) is often employed in collegiate or professional athletics or works in a private practice setting. 
  • Renal. Renal dietitians are typically employed in dialysis centers, working with patients who have kidney disease. They typically have their CSR certification, meaning they are a Board Certified Specialist in Renal Nutrition. A renal dietitian will help patients choose the right foods and portions to manage their kidney disease
  • OncologyOncology dietitians work in cancer centers to help patients meet their nutrition needs while going through treatment. A Board Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition (CSO) has extra education and training in helping cancer patients avoid malnutrition and maintain a healthy body weight to improve their outcomes.
  • Eating disorders. The role of an eating disorder dietitian is to help patients develop a healthy relationship with food and to support their recovery. Because working with eating disorders requires extra training and education, these dietitians will earn their CEDRD certification, a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian. 
  • Prenatal & postpartum. If you want a healthy pregnancy, a dietitian who specializes in prenatal and postpartum nutrition can help you get all the necessary nutrients you need. After birth, your dietitian can teach you to eat properly for breastfeeding, help you replace any nutrients lost during pregnancy or childbirth, and help you improve your energy levels. 
  • Gut health. Gut health has gained popularity in the health and wellness industry because of the impact your gut has on other aspects of health. Many dietitians specialize in gut health to help people manage gastrointestinal symptoms and maximize the nutrient absorption from the food they eat. These dietitians can also help individuals with inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome. 
  • PCOSDietitians who specialize in women’s health can help with specific conditions, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). A PCOS dietitian will work with women to manage their symptoms, achieve a healthy body weight, and to promote fertility. 
  • Food allergiesPeople who have food allergies, intolerances, or sensitivities benefit from seeing a dietitian who specializes in allergies. From a dairy intolerance to Celiac disease, a food allergy dietitian can help you make the right food choice to meet your nutrition needs while avoiding trigger foods.  
  • Diabetes. Dietitians who specialize in diabetes help patients adopt the proper nutrition habits to manage their blood sugar. These dietitians will often complete extra education and training to become a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE). 
  • Geriatric. A Board Certified Specialist in Gerontological Nutrition (CSG) works specifically with the older population. These dietitians are typically located in long-term care facilities, and they focus on making sure their patients get all of the nutrients they need to avoid malnutrition. 
  • Plant-based (vegan & vegetarian). A plant-based diet is a popular diet that people choose to follow for a variety of reasons, especially when trying to eat healthier. Dietitians who specialize in plant-based nutrition help vegans and vegetarians create balanced plant-based meals and meet their nutrition needs through plant sources. 
  • ThyroidThyroid conditions, such as Hashimoto’s Disease, often require people to pay special attention to their nutrition. Thyroid dietitians specialize in nutrition for thyroid health, to help people manage their symptoms, boost energy, and lose weight. 
  • Weight lossWeight management is a common area of expertise for nutrition professionals. Weight loss dietitians use different nutrition strategies to help people achieve their weight goals. This may include a structured meal plan, calorie tracking, or developing healthy nutrition habits.
  • Certified intuitive eating counselors. Intuitive eating is about trusting your body‘s natural ability to guide you to making food choices that feel good and nourish you. People who have a history of dieting or disordered eating habits may benefit from working with an intuitive eating dietitian to develop a positive relationship with food. 

How Zaya Care helps you book registered dietitians covered by your insurance

Here at Zaya Care, we’re dedicated to helping people find the care they need based on their preferences, needs, and insurance. When you request an appointment with one of our Registered Dietitians, we’ll check your insurance so you know exactly how much you’ll have to pay, if anything at all.

It’s worth noting that 90% of Zaya Care patients pay $0 for nutrition care with a registered dietitian as we are in-network with many major carriers.

Our registered dietitians offer online visits, home visits, and office visits, so you can always find care in your preferred setting.

If you’re ready to schedule your free consultation, you can see our dietitians and book a visit here.

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Kamryn is a Registered Dietitian who specializes in performance nutrition and weight management. She has experience in a variety of settings as a dietitian, including sports, clinical, and private practice. She currently provides individualized nutrition and fitness coaching to adult men and women. Kamryn is passionate about using evidence-based nutrition strategies to help people achieve long-term success with their fitness goals and to maintain a healthier lifestyle.