Psychology

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At a large family gathering over the weekend, a distant relative asked me about my work. Upon hearing that I am a dietitian, he smiled, leaned in, and asked me one of the most common initial questions that dietitians field, “So, do you practice what you preach?”

Whenever this question comes my way, I experiment with different permutations and phrasings of the same core truth in order to see which version best resonates with people. In this instance, I told him that what I “preach” might not be what he imagines, and that in reality a large chunk of what I do involves helping people to listen to and honor their internal cues regarding hunger, fullness, and food cravings.

His eyes wandered elsewhere as I spoke, and I could tell that this version of my answer was most definitely not resonating with him. When I finished, he reflected back to me, “That sounds like psychology.” He is not alone in his confusion, as other people have reacted similarly upon hearing a summary of intuitive eating. However, reconsider my answer within the framework of the following examples.

When a diabetes educator discusses the symptoms of low blood sugar with his or her patient, is that psychology?

When a physical therapist instructs a patient on how to modify an exercise in response to pain or discomfort, is that psychology?

When a primary care physician listens to his or her patient recount the side effects he or she experienced on a particular medication, is that psychology?

When a personal trainer talks with his or her client about the difference between the temporary discomfort that sometimes accompanies exertion and warning signs of injury, is that psychology?

Of course not, none of these examples are psychology; they are just examples of various discussions that take place between patients and practitioners regarding the feedback that our bodies give us in particular situations.

Yet when a dietitian engages in a similar discussion with a patient, whoa, suddenly it is seen as psychology. What does it say about how disconnected our culture teaches us to be from our internal signals regarding eating that an approach that encourages us to pay attention to said signals triggers connotations of therapy?

Dietitians are not psychologists, psychiatrists, or social workers (Well, some are, but the vast majority do not hold such a license in conjunction with their dietetic credentials.) and we know our professional boundaries. Discussions of said internal signals are not only within the realm of our work, they are critical to its success.

Just as my relative expected a more concrete and specific answer that would have put some label on my personal style of eating, new patients often expect that a similar external structure, such as a meal plan or a calorie recommendation, will drive their care. Nutrition is not that simple. In fact, long-term success often hinges on paying less attention to external cues regarding what and how much to eat and putting more focus on the internal signals that our bodies give us. Does that sound like psychology to you?

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