What Is a Registered Dietitian? An Interview with Khursheed Navder, PhD, RDN

What Is a Registered Dietitian? An Interview with Khursheed Navder, PhD, RDN

Most of us would be hard-pressed to go a day without thinking or talking about food and nutrition. After all, everyone needs to eat. But what about those who want to make nutrition their career? In honor of National Nutrition Month, we’re exploring the world of registered dietitians (RDs): what it takes to become an RD, what sets them apart from other similar-sounding specialties, and how the field of nutrition is changing and adapting to new healthcare challenges.

For this two-part series, we interviewed Dr. Khursheed Navder, a professor and director of the nutrition program at Hunter College in New York City, where she oversees the undergraduate, graduate and dietetic internship programs. She created the master’s of science in nutrition curriculum at Hunter and has worked to provide unique pathways for inner-city students to pursue a full-time nutrition education. She has been a recipient of the Outstanding Dietetic Educator Award from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and she has held several elected positions within the Academy and the Commission on Dietetic Registration.

What first made you interested in nutrition as a career path?

KN: I was always fascinated by the basic sciences, by how chemistry, biology, physiology, biochemistry were all so woven into the fabric of nutrition courses. I came from India to pursue my PhD, and back then, in the mid-80s, I had absolutely no intention of working toward the RD credential since I felt I was going to be working in academia and research. Boy, am I glad my major professor at Kansas State University pushed me to pursue this credential, because this has opened many doors for me!

As we all know, there is a tremendous shortage of PhD-RDs, and having had this credential has allowed me to move up the administrative ladder in academia. In fact, when I hire faculty, I make sure that they are not only grounded in nutrition science, but that they are also RDs. Even when advising students, especially doctoral students, I encourage them to take the time to complete some of the additional coursework to get the credential.

Can you tell us what it is, in a nutshell, that RDs do?

Let me begin by saying that it is a great time for folks to be in nutrition. We always hear that “we are what we eat,” and now more than ever it is very well known that the food we eat does have a significant impact on our health. “Prevention,” as you know, is a big buzzword in healthcare—and a healthy diet is a cornerstone of preventive care. Therefore, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the fastest-growing fields in healthcare today is nutrition. When we look at the leading causes of death in the United States, what are they? Well, you look at heart disease, you look at cancer, stroke, diabetes; and when you see these killer diseases, what is one common factor that they all have? They all have relationships with diet. To a certain extent it is rather unfortunate but increases in epidemics like obesity and diabetes have translated to more jobs for RDs.

So, what do registered dietitians do? RDs work to translate the science of nutrition into practical applications. The RD is a credentialed individual and their role is to make sure that the science of nutrition is applied to improve the health of people. RDs work in many settings, and when I look at our students from Hunter, I find that most of them go into three broad areas: a clinical setting, a community setting, or a food-service setting. In the clinical area you find the RDs work one-on-one with patients and their families in assessing, designing and implementing dietary strategies and nutrition therapies. In the community setting, RDs work in schools, correctional facilities, daycare centers and local, state, and federal government agencies. Here, they are involved with teaching, monitoring and advising to improve the quality of life for these specific subgroups, whether it be children or the elderly or at-risk families. And then we have RDs in the food-service management area who work in food-service operations where they are responsible for feeding employees, patients, etc. Here, the RDs are going to be involved with managing and optimizing the performance in these facilities, menu planning, long-term budgeting, recipe testing—all to improve the health and nutrition status of the people they are feeding. So, these are the three broad areas where most RDs work: clinical, community, and food service.

And then of course we have other areas—you have some who will go into sports nutrition, some RDs work in supermarkets, some RDs will go into food companies to help improve the nutritional quality of some of the processed foods that are being put out. Some will work in universities and medical centers, educating students in dietetics and others interested in allied health programs like nursing, public health, [and] physicians assistants.

We know that credentialed dietitians officially are permitted, I guess you could say, to use the title RD. But recently we’ve seen some people using the credential “RDN,” which stands for “Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.” Why that additional letter “N,” and how is an RDN different from people who would call themselves a nutritionist?

Great question. There is a big difference between the term “nutritionist” versus “dietitian.” One simple way to say this is [is that] all dietitians are nutritionists, but all nutritionists are not dietitians. And why is that so? Because the term “dietitian” is a well-regulated one. Only those nutritionists that become credentialed can legally declare themselves as registered dietitians. So, there is a big difference between just calling oneself a “nutritionist” and being a dietitian.

Much of the harm is done when we have some of the undereducated, self-proclaimed “nutritionists” who are advising consumers and misleading them with fad diets or other radical methods which do not have any evidence base. Most folks feel that just because they eat every day, they are qualified to speak and talk about nutrition. The word dietitian, therefore, is important because this is a credentialed individual who has gone through a lot of training.

Now the difference between the RD/RDN that you mentioned basically started back in 2012. In 2012, the parent organization, which was then the American Dietetic Association, changed its name [to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics] to convey that nutrition science is what RDs talk about and that RDs translate the science of nutrition into practical application. When the word “Nutrition” was added into our parent organization, many RDs felt that the word “nutrition” should also be reflected in their title. As a result, the option was created to call oneself either a registered dietitian (RD) or a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). The credential and training are identical, but it is an individual choice. I, for instance, like to show in my title the word nutrition, and so I decided to use “RDN” after my name, but there are many who use “RD.” For all practical purposes, the word “dietitian,” the words “registered dietitian,” or the words “registered dietitian nutritionist” are really all the same.

Stay tuned for the second half of this interview, which will be posted next week!