'We're not the food police': Registered dietitians bring whole-person healing through nutrition

Mar 23, 2021


Greek philosopher Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food,” but how often do people think about that in a hospital?

When most people come to the hospital, they probably consider different medications they’ll be prescribed and procedures conducted, but few fully appreciate how much diet plays a role in combatting disease.

At Adventist Health Simi Valley, registered dietitians Maren Stein, MSRD, and Maria Gru Hernandez, RDN, have made that their full-time jobs.

“Your nutrition while hospitalized is so important,” said Maren. “You don’t feel good, you’re sick for some reason and you have increased needs since your body is under stress – especially elderly populations whose hunger and thirst cues aren’t as strong.”

Dietitians play a critical role in the hospital, consulting with physicians and care teams on how diet impacts disease progression and providing patients with medical nutrition therapy to help them recover. Although there are plenty of nutritionists who provide generalized counseling on diet, only registered dietitians hold the specialized training on how diet impacts disease needed to practice in hospitals.

“We’re not just telling people to eat their veggies,” Maren said.

In some cases, general nutritionists who provide diet advice to somebody with a chronic condition may be doing more harm than good, Maria said.

“Everybody knows that if you’re eating more fruits and vegetables, it’s probably beneficial to you. You don’t need to be a registered dietitian to know that, but when you get somebody who’s dealing with chronic renal failure or on dialysis, there are certain fruits and vegetables that are not beneficial,” Maren said. “That’s where registered dietitians come in.”

It’s a specialized field. Registered dietitians carry bachelor’s degrees, in some cases master’s degrees, and are required to complete a 1,200-hour internship before they can practice.

The most satisfying moments, Maria and Maren say, are when they’re able to educate patients with new diagnoses who have misconceptions about how it will impact their diets. Most patients who are newly diagnosed with diabetes, for example, think they can never touch bread or pasta again.

“We educate them that their whole life won’t be turned upside down because of this, but they will have to think more about what they eat,” Maren said. “It’s alleviating that fear … and it’s really nice to have somebody say how appreciative they are that I came in and spoke with them.”

It’s about working with people, meeting them where they’re at and providing nutritional advice that works for them.

“We’re not here to make you suffer. We’re not the food police,” Maria said. “We’re here to work with you.”