My Journey to Becoming a Non-Diet Dietitian
I’ve been a dietitian for almost 10 years, but only recently started truly practicing Intuitive Eating. Since utilizing this approach I’ve seen a massive change in my client’s success rate. But this journey wasn’t easy for me – here’s how I went from being a weight loss/diet focused dietitian to a non-diet/anti-det, intuitive eating dietitian.
The first time I became aware of nutrition was in high school. It started after I gained some weight during my junior year (mostly related to puberty). What started out as a personal interest in nutrition and healthy eating quickly grew to more during a biology class my senior year, where I learned about how the foods we eat (or don’t eat) affect so much in our body. As I prepared to go off to college, I found out about that you could talk about nutrition and help people improve their health and wellbeing: a dietitian. I was all “sign me up!” and in college, I dove head first into the science coursework (well biology at least – chemistry I could have done without), totally fascinated by the workings of the human body. I used to say I wanted to go to med school just to learn more (my total fear of blood and bodily fluids actually preventing me from being a doctor). I double majored in dietetics and exercise science, combining my passions of nutrition and fitness in the hopes of eventually working with a sports team and – down the road – opening up a gym that included nutrition education, cooking classes and more (sounds normal now, but at the time nothing like this existed!).
The Dietetic Internship
I was dreading my dietetic internship, the year-long training program you have to go through to be eligible to become take the exam and become a dietitian, similar to a residency for doctors. I hated the idea of working in a hospital with sick people, yet I ended up in an internship that was very clinically focused. As it turned out, I fell in love with nutrition support and the experience of working in an intensive care unit. It was one thing to help someone improve their sports performance, but to actually help someone survive after a trauma, surgery or other illness? I loved it and after I passed my RD exam I ended up taking a job at NewYork-Presbyterian hospital where I worked in ICUs for over six years.
It’s Not All About Educating…
While I loved the work that I did at the hospital, it did nothing to prepare me for the work I do now. During my schooling and training, I was taught how to educate people about nutrition. If only people knew how many calories were in those French fries, or could see how many tablespoons of sugar were in a drink, then they’d make a different choice. So educate I did – through health fairs, presentations, speaking engagements, group coaching and one-on-one counseling. People were always genuinely interested in nutrition and what I had to say. I recommend calorie levels, weighed people, and applauded their weight loss. But over time, as I worked with more and more people I realized that despite their best efforts, no one was able to maintain the lifestyle changes that I was teaching them. Sure they’d do ok for a few months, but inevitably they would go back to their prior habits, feel like they failed, and stop coming to see me. I too felt like a failure – how come I couldn’t help them eat better?
The Turning Point
It was around that time that I discovered mindful eating. It made so much sense to me: instead of counting calories or measuring portions, be more conscious of what you are eating and why. It was all about turning off autopilot and getting back in touch with the experience of eating. I started to call myself a non-diet dietitian and began teaching mindful eating. For a while I truly believed that I was coming from a non-diet philosophy, even though I was still building meal plans, giving food suggestions, and coming up with goals around meal prep, veggie intake, and more. Then I decided to take a six-week course on Intuitive Eating and everything changed. Immediately I realized how much I was contradicting myself. I was telling people to listen to their bodies, yet I was giving them prescriptive meal plans. I was saying, “listen to your hunger and fullness cues” yet I was suggesting they not go more than four hours without eating. As I delved more into Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size (HAES) I realized I was still straddling a line between dieting and intuitive eating. Deep down I knew that weight loss is rarely maintained, yet I was still accepting clients who wanted to lose weight and was confident that “this one would be different”. But once I learned more and more about Intuitive Eating, there was no going back.
My Journey So Far
I’m not going to lie: it wasn’t an easy path and it didn’t happen overnight. The first few months after that initial Intuitive Eating course were rough. While at face value Intuitive Eating makes so much sense, it turned out to be much more of a mindset change than I expected. Many of the concepts behind Intuitive Eating and HAES were the opposite of what I was taught in school and what I had spent nine years teaching people. After being a dietitian for almost 10 years, I felt like I was starting all over again. I didn’t feel confident in my messaging, my counseling style or in my work with clients. Every single day I questioned my reactions and responses to clients, media requests, writing assignments and more. And even harder to face: the fact that I most certainly caused damage over the years with my diet talk.
I took a few months off from taking on new clients as I re-evaluated my coaching practice. I read Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size, along with dozens of studies, blogs and research papers. I spent time talking and connecting with other IE/HAES practitioners. And slowly but surely, I evolved my mission and my message and grew confident in what I believed in.
Here’s what I believe (and don’t believe) in now:
- I believe in the importance of enjoying food…ALL food
- I believe in tapping in to your intuition and listening to what you need. If that means that meal prep stresses you out or you have to choose taking a nap over going to the gym, that’s ok!
- I believe that people of all shapes and sizes can be healthy and that you don’t need to lose weight in order to improve your health
- I believe that you can feel calm and confident around food without counting calories, weighing or measuring anything
- I believe that in order to truly heal your relationship with food, you have to completely leave nutrition out of it (at least to start with)
- I believe that any kind of external factor including diets, meal plans or calorie restriction of any sort will result in diet backlash including guilt, shame, stress, overeating and binging.
- I don’t believe in labeling food as “good”, “bad” or “forbidden”
- I don’t believe that it is your lack of willpower that has caused you to “fail” at dieting or losing weight (hint: it’s the diets fault)
- I don’t believe that there is any good diet
- I don’t believe in shaming people into making changes to their eating behavior
It’s been a learning process both personally and professionally as I confront some deeply held beliefs that were no longer serving my clients or me. But yet I’ve never regretted this shift in my practice – not for one minute. Because now I know without a doubt that I am truly helping people make peace with food and their body, and setting them on the path to a happier and healthier life – for the long run.
Are you interested in learning more about Intuitive Eating?
I work with clients virtually throughout the US, helping people who are frustrated with dieting change their relationship with food and say goodbye to diets once and for all. Learn more about my intuitive eating nutrition coaching programs to see how you can find balance and develop long-term lifestyle habits, no diets required.
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Alissa Rumsey, RD.
Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS (pronouns she/her/hers) is a registered
dietitian, nutrition therapist, certified intuitive eating counselor, and the author of
Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace With Food and Transform Your Life. Alissa is
passionate about helping people reclaim the space to eat and live,
A twice-a-month round-up of inspirational stories, lessons, practical tips and encouragement for living your most authentic, unapologetic life.