The Brainwashed Registered Dietician, Part 2

Written by Jennifer Broxterman, MSc, RD
Registered Dietitian, Founder of NutritionRx

In Part 1, I started to share what my educational training and brainwashing included as I went through school to become a Registered Dietitian. Here’s where the story picks up.

My First Year of Being a Registered Dietitian

Against the advice of my RD friends, I opened a private practice called NutritionRx right out of internship. I had no business training, no entrepreneurial experience, yet a burning desire to get as far away from “sick care” as I possibly could. I KNEW there had to be a better way to help people make positive nutrition choices to hopefully avoid the fate of the many sick patients I encountered in my year of hospital training. 

Next, I Tried to Follow What I was Brainwashed to Do

  • So, I worked on my website, started to get my first few nutrition clients, and I did what I learned in school. 
  • I taught people about the food guide. 
  • I explained why people needed to eat all four food groups to be healthy. 
  • I helped write custom meal plans that limited people’s calories to just the right amounts, and keep their macro splits in the “optimal range”. 
  • I had clients count calories on My Fitness Pal to help them stay accountable and on track.
  • I made up healthy eating resources to give to my clients, and information vomited all over them.

A few people did ok. Some lost weight, or felt a bit better. However, most of my early nutrition clients were overwhelmed. 

I Didn’t Realize How Much I Overwhelmed My Clients

  • They were overwhelmed with following the meal plans I gave them. 
  • They were overwhelmed with trying to hit some arbitrary target that I set for them. 
  • They were overwhelmed by the very narrow target window they had to hit for macros, or food guide servings, or some other goal that I deemed was important for their health.
  • There was very little consideration for what the client wanted; I figured, since they hired me to help them reach their health goals, and since this is what I learned in school and my dietetic internship, this must be the way to go about coaching nutrition.
  • So much overwhelm, and I just pushed on thinking that trying harder was the solution.

To my earliest nutrition clients, I’m so sorry. I feel so guilty that I let you down so badly. 

As the saying goes, “When you know better, do better.”

Enter, the Biggest UNLEARNING of my Entire Life

It started with a 1-day course in something called Motivational Interviewing. Two university professors who were studying the science of human behaviour change, came in to teach us about a counselling technique called Motivational Interviewing (MI).

MI teaches you to ask powerful questions, allow the client to explore problems in their own life using curiosity and openness to problem-solve, and most importantly, asks the client set the behaviour change goals (not the coach). This one day course and what I learned shook my entire professional training to the core.

This was 100% the opposite of what I was trained to do. I was supposed to be the expert. The client came to me to learn and improve. My job was to teach them what I knew, and tell them what to do to get better to help them accomplish their health goals. 

And suddenly, all of that was wrong. Maybe wrong isn’t the best word choice, more like unintentionally unhelpful.

Motivational interviewing taught me to LISTEN to what the client was saying, but also listen to what the client wasn’t saying. To listen for when there was friction or resistance inside the client. To listen for when something was too overwhelming or too big of step. Just because eating veggies every day or working out is easy for me, doesn’t mean that it’s easy or enjoyable for everyone else. 

Motivational interviewing also taught me to shut up. To talk less, and let clients control the dialogue. My counselling sessions flipped from me talking 75% of the time, to me listening 75% of the time.

To be honest, it was devastating to realize that what I was trained to do wasn’t actually helping my clients like I thought it was. I was a HELPER, and it hurt my soul to think I might have been making things worse, not better, when I knew my heart was in the right place.

Five years of learning and practice, down the drain. They shared story after story of how this approach helped people quit smoking, lose weight, start exercising, floss their teeth regularly, beat addictions, all without an “expert” telling the person exactly what to do to get better. How does that even work?!, I remember thinking.

It took trust and experimentation, but I started to use the tools I had learned in the course and put them into practice in my own nutrition counselling sessions, yet guilt kept coming up to the surface.

GUILTY – I remember the early feelings of so much guilt 

  • Guilty that I wasn’t “doing enough” in my nutrition sessions. 
  • Guilty that I wasn’t working as hard anymore to educate my clients on the nutrition topics that I thought they needed to learn more about. I felt like they were doing all of the work, while I listened, said “mmm hum” and “tell me more”, which felt lazy or that I wasn’t offering enough value for what I was charging.
  • Guilty that I was doing the opposite of what I was taught to do by “experts”.
  • Guilty that I was being less of a nutrition coach and was turning more into a life coach as I helped clients interconnect the key pieces of their health.
  • Guilty that I didn’t have any proof yet that this would even work, and that I might be totally wasting my clients time and money by using this approach with them.

But weeks turned into months, and the more I used Motivational Interviewing with my clients, the better results I saw. Client engagement was way up. We talked less about weight loss strategies and yet my clients were getting way better results than when I had them on meal plans and food guide or macro targets. They were happy and excited to come back for each nutrition session, not scared to face me if they felt “off track” or like they were going to disappointment me. Motivational interviewing taught me that there’s no disappointments or failure, only data points to explore with curiosity and to view things as a learning experience.

In the complicated year of unlearning, I’ll be honest, it wasn’t an overnight transition from one approach to another. It was more of a hybrid transition, until I finally faced my guilt and let go of the “old way” of how I was taught to practice nutrition coaching. 

When I say hybrid nutrition coaching, here’s what I mean. I used motivational interviewing and listening techniques, yet in the last 15 minutes of the appointment after listening and letting the client explore the issues in their life they wanted to work on, I still tried to jump in with a condensed nutrition plan, given by me “the expert” so they could get their money’s worth from my nutrition coaching. I supported them in making their own goals around my nutrition plan, but still, the plan came from me, not them. I didn’t quite know how to let go of what my brain was trained to do, and I tried to keep my feet planted in both camps of the old and the new.

But as time went on, things kept getting better for me and my clients.

  • I dropped Meal Plans and Macros for happy face nutrition counselling
  • I continued to talk less, and listen more.
  • I read more books on habit formation and behaviour change.
  • I started to research and write for Precision Nutrition, helping with their Level 1 Certification revamp and textbook re-write to teach Motivational Interviewing at an even deeper level to non-dietitian health coaches. 
  • I developed a course for Two-Brain Coaching on Habits-Based Nutrition Coaching, to help more nutrition coaches, and not just Registered Dietitians, develop these coaching skills so they can deliver great results for their own clients.
  • I befriended my old “enemies”, and worked closely with personal trainers, gym owners, nutritionists, naturopaths, doctors, nurses, chiropractors, really, anyone who was trying to help someone live a healthier lifestyle, where we could collaborate as partners and teammates to best serve our clients.

When I look back, I’m both embarrassed and proud. I’m proud of myself for pulling out of the RD brain washing cult that my education taught me. I’m glad that I don’t hand out food guides or meal plans to my clients anymore. I’m proud to befriend these amazing partner organizations like Precision Nutrition and Two-Brain Coaching, to have these enormous platforms to teach others how they can level up their nutrition coaching skills. And I’m proud of you for reading this far, and for hopefully not judging me too much, and witnessing my growth as a healthcare professional, flaws and all.

Unlearning is now one of my favourite skills. It has forced me to think critically about what I’ve been taught, and to keep an open mind as I encounter new information and new viewpoints. I hope unlearning is something that has touched your life in a positive way too!

I’d love to hear about your biggest unlearning experience in the comments below, and what it taught you.

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Interested in improving your nutrition coaching skills, so you can feel more comfortable and confident teaching nutrition to your own clients? Learn more about our motivational interviewing and habits-based Nutrition Coaching Course for nutrition coaches here:

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