being male in a female dominated nutrition space
I will never forget when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the governing body of the dietetics profession, invited me to apply for a diversity scholarship as a white, hetero, cis-gendered man. I thought surely there must have been some mistake.
In fact, being a male Registered Dietitian (RD) is a rare thing indeed. From a 2020 survey of AND members, 92% of all Dietitians identify as female. Dietetics, much like Nursing, has historically been a profession associated with women. Sarah Rorer, the first American Dietitian, created a diet kitchen from which she could fill physicians’ prescriptions for therapeutic meals for different disease states. In hospitals today, you will often still find the RD office near the kitchen.
While early dietetics was mired in traditional gender roles, nowadays there are more reasons than ever to work in nutrition. Just like everyone’s relationship with food is personal, my own reasons for becoming an RD were fittingly personal. I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in my late teens, and struggled with the disease until I understood the importance of nutrition.
I became obsessed with how the food I ate affected my blood sugar levels. By getting smarter about my nutrition, I took control over a disease that had been controlling me. I decided to become a Dietitian in order to share these skills and empower others who might be in the same situation.
I knew that an RD credential could lead to further certification as a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE), medical professionals who are on the front lines in the battle against the diabetes epidemic. Thus, I had very clear and compelling reasons for becoming an RD. The question remains though – why don’t more men make the same decision?
Part of the problem lies in a misunderstanding about what exactly RDs do. Many still associate dietetics with foodservice environments (think hairnet) or hospital jobs. To be clear, there’s a ton of value in those paths, but people may not realize that as an RD, you can also work in clinical research, private practice, media communication, sports nutrition, science writing, higher education, or pursue advanced credentials in oncology, weight management, or diabetes.
The reality is that dietetics is such a broad field and rewards those who seek to carve out their own niche. Being a male in particular lends itself to unique opportunities. Yes, I was called a “unicorn” at least a dozen times while getting my Masters in Nutrition, but there are more tangible benefits than simply standing out amongst peers.
Male eating disorders are under-diagnosed in part because there are not more men speaking out about it professionally. A common theme amongst men who enter treatment for eating disorders is a feeling of isolation, like there was no one who understood what they were going through. For better or worse, there are some issues that men are more apt to open up to other men about as opposed to women. Male nutrition professionals can amplify conversations like these in a way that helps men everywhere find a healthier relationship with food.
All professions could benefit from greater diversity, but dietetics in particular has much to gain. Along with the massive gender gap, only 20% of RDs are non-white. When people ask me about becoming an RD, I always address the significant barriers to entry. These include a 4-year Bachelors education plus placement in a highly competitive (and unpaid) Dietetic Internship lasting as long as a year. Not everyone can afford such an investment, especially for the prospect of positions that are still generally underpaid and under appreciated. In a move that I fear may make dietetics even less inclusive, the AND is adding a Master’s degree requirement in 2024.
Drawbacks and shortcomings aside, the field of nutrition can be hugely rewarding. Time and again I found that doors would open if I just leaned into my passion and remained determined to help others the way I wanted to. I now work at Boston Children’s Hospital as part of a research team studying the best diet for blood sugar control in Type 1 Diabetes. I am so proud to say that the work I do will help other people with diabetes live better lives.
I never would have realized such a rewarding career had I assumed that nutrition was a path unsuitable for men. Along the way I’ve met such wonderful women (and a handful of wonderful men) who, like myself, strive to empower others to change their lives through food. So long as that is your guiding star, you can succeed in this field no matter your gender.