An interesting observation I’ve made is that the moment I tell people I’m a dietitian, a barrage of assumptions and guilt ensues.
Especially when food and drinks are on the table. Usually, people's reaction would be one or all of the following:
- Hide their plate jokingly
- Ask if what they’re eating is ok
- Imagine me as some kind of food nazi health freak, force-feeding my patients rabbit food every day
This isn’t further from the truth! In fact, the term “diet” is a much more holistic one that comes from the Greek word “diata” – meaning “the way of life”.
Dietitians are humans too, and we don’t eat perfectly all the time. Many dietitians are in fact avid foodies (myself included). We enjoy fatty food, alcohol and sugary treats as much as the next person, so we certainly won’t judge
you! Here are the top 10 myths about dietitians in Singapore I’ve encountered in my varied career so far:
1. Dietitian = nutritionist
False! There are many things which differentiate us from nutritionists. We are kind of like “food doctors” in that we provide nutritional therapy for people with medical conditions. Our training includes 3 separate clinical placements (in food service, community nutrition, and clinical).
Nutritionists, on the other hand, can only give very basic and general nutrition advice for people without any medical conditions.
2. Dietitians eat salad only, and won't touch junk food with a 10-foot pole
Ask most dietitians what drew them to this field, and they’ll tell you it’s because of their love of food.
In fact, many of my dietitian ex-classmate gatherings involved pizza or fish and chips! We don’t feel guilty about this because we know it’s not a one-off food choice that affects our health, but the overall diet.
3. Dietitians only help people with weight loss. So we're all #fitspo ourselves
In reality, dietitians know so much more about managing a whole gamut of medical conditions, including the opposite spectrum of people who are underweight and malnourished!
Like all professions, dietitians come in many shapes and sizes. A healthy dietitian (or individual) will embrace their body in whatever size it comes. Having a positive and healthy body image is a big achievement and something to be proud of. We know that the number on the scale is not the only factor in somebody’s health.
4. Dietitians in Singapore are kinda redundant. I can get all the information I need from the internet.
Every individual has different dietary needs, health goals, and food preferences. What sets dietitians apart from some random "diet expert", internet article, celebrity or journalist is that we’re able to tailor unique advice for every patient.
- Did you read somewhere that a box of $500 fruit enzymes will help your chronic fatigue?
- Did a sales promoter at a pharmacy suggest you try fish oil supplements to reduce your risk of heart attacks?
- Are these really going to benefit your health (based on quality nutrition research) or are they just trying to get your money?
You can trust your dietitian to help you answer these questions without ulterior motives, and based on your body’s needs.
Furthermore, one man’s meat could be another’s poison. For example, while most people would benefit from eating more fruit and vegetables, this may not be the case for people with intolerances, or gut diseases like bowel obstruction.
5. Dietitians are all trained overseas, so they won’t understand what Singaporeans like myself eat
The first statement is true! There’s currently no course in dietetics in Singapore, so all of us are trained overseas.
The second statement, however, is false! Many dietitians are actually Singaporean. For those who aren’t (like myself), we often spend countless pennies and hours trying out the smorgasbord of Singapore’s delicious local foods, and deepening our understanding of the food culture.
In my first year here, I overzealously spent $300 on over 10 recipe books about Singapore cuisine. In fact, many of my Singaporean friends actually don’t know as much about local foods as I do!
6. Dietitians are walking encyclopaedias when it comes to the calorie count of food
Nada! Unfortunately, I've not been blessed with photographic memory! We probably know a general approximation of the various foods, but because there’s so much more to somebody’s diet and health than merely memorising calorie or macronutrient content, we don’t expend all our brain power on this.
Furthermore, there are so many new foods popping up constantly. So don’t be surprised if you see me (or other dietitians) looking something up in a nutrition database!
7. Dietitians in Singapore love their meal plans, and will ban you from eating your favourite foods forever
Nope! Many dietitians actually loathe meal plans. Patients often ask me for one, but we know that developing healthy eating habits are more important than following a rigid plan that's completely different from what you enjoy.
In fact, variety is not only the spice of life, but hugely important in a healthy lifestyle too. Which is why we always suggest "eating a rainbow" of plant foods. Imagine eating the same foods, day in day out – how boring life would be!
We’d much prefer to empower you in making informed choices about what to eat, based on your individual needs.
A meal plan might be useful for somebody who needs some guidance on the portion size for their medical needs. But for the majority of cases, it’s more realistic to work on small but impactful changes in diet (rather than a complete overhaul).
As for banning you from foods: quite the contrary! We understand all foods fit in a healthy diet. I like to work with a glass is half-full approach, focusing on the nutritious foods you can add into your diet, rather than removing foods you like.
8. Dietitians give old-fashioned diet advice, and only recommend certain brands because they are paid to do so
We’re trained to practice in an evidence-based way, based on the most solid and up-to-date research. As such, though it may APPEAR that we are old-fashioned and resistant to jumping on the next fad diet bandwagon, there's good reason behind this
We’ve learnt about food chemistry, epidemiology, statistics, and metabolism, so we aren’t afraid to reject something that doesn’t have any scientific back-up.
Hence, you can trust us to help you determine if that cabbage diet or going back to full-cream milk is truly worth trying.
As for influence by food companies, we certainly aren’t paid to endorse certain food products.
I usually steer clear from brand recommendations as it’s the general food choice that’s important. But if it makes it easier for clients, I do sometimes suggest a range of products that are healthier, based on researching their ingredients list, nutrition information and importantly, taste.
9. Dietitians think nutrition is the solution to everything
That would be lovely, but unfortunately not the case. There're many things that nutrition may not be able to solve.
For example, a healthy diet may help with mood but can’t cure depression or anxiety. It may boost your energy, but can’t replace good old sleep and stress management. However, a healthy diet can help you better manage or prevent illnesses.
10. Dietitians in Singapore only work in hospitals
Many dietitians in Singapore work outside of the hospital! Here are some of the diverse areas you might come into contact with one of our species:
- Patient care in hospitals and nursing homes
- Community or public health nutrition (e.g. HPB)
- Consultancy and private practice (eg. Sport Nutrition Unit)
- Food service management (eg. Compass Group or Sodexo)
- Food and medical nutrition industry (eg. Abbott, Fresenius Kabi or Nestlé)
- Public relations, marketing or media
- Research and teaching (eg. universities, polytechnics or research centres like CNRC)
- Digital healthcare (an innovative field eg. where I work, dietitians at GlycoLeap are health coaching through a mobile app!)
How can I get an appointment to see a dietitian in Singapore?
To see a dietitian at a hospital or polyclinic, you can request your doctor to make a referral. Without a referral, you can see a dietitian working in private practice.
The Singapore Nutrition and Dietetics Association (SNDA) is the local association for nutritionists and dietitians. There's no compulsory registration for dietitians in Singapore. But to work in a hospital or healthcare organisation, a dietetic degree/diploma certificate is required.
To ensure you see the most qualified nutrition professional (ie. dietitians) in Singapore, ask if they:
- Are university trained and have a degree or diploma in nutrition and dietetics
- Have dietetic credentials (e.g. Accredited Dietitian of Singapore (ADS) from SNDA, Accredited Practising Dietitian of Dietitians Association of Australia, or Registered Dietitian of British Dietetic Association (BDA))
Hopefully, this post dispels any misgivings about seeing a dietitian, and encourages you to get moving towards a healthier lifestyle!
Bonnie Lau is a guest writer at Human, and Australian-trained dietitian with over 4 years of working experience. She used to work at SGH and TTSH, and now works at GlycoLeap. Bonnie believes in the empowerment of clients to take greater control of their own health. She's passionate about balancing health, while enjoying Singapore’s amazing food scene. Her hobbies include cooking, art, nature hikes, and travel.