Most people confuse nutritional science with being a dietitian and that’s okay. When friends and acquaintances ask me for advice from time to time — I won’t lie, it’s a confidence boost. When I started studying, I didn’t quite know myself what I was getting into. But during those past five years — being in the lab day and night, working with researchers in one of Germanys most reputable Institutes for Nutritional Science — I started to appreciate the deep and profound knowledge the university provided. Also, it makes me feel more confident in what I write about.
But what I can’t stand are fake-dietitians.
Who to consider a ‘fake-dietitian’
Here in Germany, the term dietitian is not regulated. Each and every person interested in nutrition and a healthy lifestyle can start a business and call themself dietitian. No wonder, that there are thousands of myths, trends, and false facts circulating the web— without anybody even realizing it. It’s most likely that you’ve already come across plenty of those non-scientific articles about “nutrition facts” or the most recent diet that’ll make you lose weight overnight — all of it surely based on high-quality scientific studies! But the problem is, the authors of those articles — have — no — clue — of what a scientific study looks like and wouldn’t even recognize if the study they’re citing is actually flawed. None of those so-called dietitians have ever seen a lab from inside, yet conducted experiments or written such a paper themselves.
I don’t want to talk down actual dietitians — on the contrary — it also requires a professional education for which they’ll get a legal certificate when passing. They’ll then have a profound knowledge about different diets, creating meal plans, and treating food-related diseases — things that I, as a nutritional scientist, have never dealt with during my studies. But they’ll most likely also have trouble evaluating and distinguishing between “good and bad” academic publishing, but at least, they have a nutritional education that is not based solely on social media.
What’s now the deal with nutritional science?
Even the term nutritional scientist is wildly used without any restriction. Usually, you use the term after having studied at a university for three to five years (and getting a degree). But even then there are differences! Let alone in Germany, there are about 18 universities where you can study nutritional science, but only a third of them are preparing their students for research. Still, they’re renowned universities, for sure, but their graduates have no clue about actual scientific work.
Nutritional science is — or at least should be — about understanding the complex mechanisms of food in your body to the tiniest detail. It is biochemistry, physiology, toxicology and microbiology. It’s research, thinking logically about experiments to prove your thesis, preparing and conducting them in the lab, evaluating and discussing it with your peers, and finally writing your scientific paper. It’s not about what you should eat to stay thin or in shape — it’s about understanding the biochemical pathways and mechanisms of food in your system.
Why I initially decided to study nutritional science was that everything is connected to what you eat. For example, diseases that will burden you at high age, can be treated without medicine — you can prevent them by a change in eating habits right now. Understanding food and what you insert into your system is key to a healthy life. Food is linked to everything, it’s your brain, your muscles, your blood, your immune system, even your aging. It’s such an entangled system we’re just starting to unravel.
And what does a nutritional scientist do, if not creating meal plans?
Most of the people I know from university stayed in research. The institute which I worked for focused on nutrition related to aging, toxicology, and diabetes research. What you do is conducting your experiments in the lab to publish scientific papers, go to conferences, and spread knowledge for eager new students. During my master thesis, I conducted a study to evaluate if a high protein intake has any beneficial effects on visceral (stomach) fat and the liver. For those experiments, I even got tissue samples from patients of the Charité in Berlin!
Although I loved working independently in the lab, kinda cooking my own soup, searching for answers, discovering the unknown, it was exhausting and often not rewarding. 90% of the experiments you conduct will fail and the other 10% conclude with “no significant difference”. It’s tremendously hard work and I wasn’t in for the long run. Although I was highly interested, I couldn’t bear the 12 hour lab days, working on Sundays for weeks and months and finally — ending up with nothing. So I went out, looking for a job in the “real world”. Busted, it’s a laboratory again, but there I’m not conducting wild experiments, but developing methods to analyze pesticide contaminations in food. Food safety is my new profession now!