March 20, 2017 7:00 am
Updated: April 4, 2017 12:57 pm

Not just anyone can call themselves a nutritionist in Alberta


Imagine the confusion there would be in our healthcare system if anyone wearing a white lab coat could call themselves a doctor. That’s why the Alberta Health Professions Act defines who is allowed to use certain protected titles and was recently amended to include nutritionist, a title that could previously be used by anyone.

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“Different provinces have different titles protected under their legislations,” explained Doug Cook, the Executive Director and Registrar of the College of Dietitians of Alberta. “Here in Alberta, we’ve long had Registered Dietitian and Registered Nutritionist protected, as well as R.D. and dietitian. We worked with government to have nutritionist by itself protected because of the confusion amongst the public and that confusion was really because of the proliferation of people using the term nutritionist.”

Cook said that prior to the change, anyone interested in offering nutrition advice could call themselves a nutritionist, no matter what their education or level of knowledge and there was no standardization of care.

“To become a Registered Dietitian or Registered Nutritionist, and this is true across the country for dietitians, you need a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in food and nutrition along with a one-year internship which is completed in a variety of health settings including a hospital, long-term care or public health facility,” said Cook.

“The biggest difference between a Registered Dietitian versus a non-College member is that as regulated health professionals, Registered Dietitians’ practice is evidence-based,” said Cook. “Their practice is based in science, whereas someone who is not regulated is not necessarily bound to an evidence-informed practice. There are a lot of fad diets out there and food myths that are not backed by solid evidence or well-conducted research.”

Cook said that prior to the change there were many people calling themselves nutritionists who were well meaning, but weren’t necessarily dispensing useful health advice.

“People are following fad diets where there is no evidence or science to back it up,” he said. “Quite often people become frustrated because they do not see any success and of course not realizing that these diets are not supported by science or evidence so that’s always a concern. People will spend a lot of money on some of the fad diets that are out there, not knowing that it might not work in the long term, or be the best approach to good health.”

The College of Dietitians of Alberta is a professional body that regulates the dietetic and nutrition profession in the province according to the Health Professions Act. The College regulates over 1,300 professionals working in a variety of healthcare settings across Alberta.

“Protected titles are a hallmark of reliability in a regulated health system,” said Cook. “That’s what allows people to know and understand they are seeing a qualified regulated health professional and that there’s recourse if there are concerns with service or treatment received. A dietitian, because they are regulated, has to follow a code of ethics. They have to maintain their competence through continued education as mandated in the Health Professions Act; in other words, it’s life-long learning.”

Cook says that people are referred to dietitians for a variety of reasons. Diabetes and chronic disease, or the risk for those, are the most common problems they deal with and patients are often sent to them by physicians to help prevent and treat these conditions.

“Consultation with a dietitian will include a detailed health history, collecting background information on medical conditions and medications, relevant blood work, diet, weight history, and lifestyle factors, and will explore the person’s health and lifestyle goals.  Within the context of any health concerns, and using the best available evidence, the dietitian will work with the person to come up with strategies to meet jointly determined nutrition and health goals,” said Cook. “The dietitian would also monitor their progress and help with any changes to meet those goals.”

Fees for consultations with dietitians in private practice are usually covered by private health insurance plans and meeting with them in a public-hospital setting would be covered by the Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan.

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