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Powerful Tools for RDs and their clients


Empowering Clients in their Gluten-Free Lifestyle

  • Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD
  • April 2014
  • 5 min read

Have you ever asked yourself why you decided to become a dietitian? Chances are, it stemmed in some way from a need to help others with one of the most challenging aspects of life — maintaining a healthy diet. While being well versed on the scientific aspects of dietetics is critical, it’s the skills they don’t teach you in school that ultimately make you good at what you do. What are they? Compassion, the ability to motivate and above all, the ability to empower your patients. The power of these skills was made clear to me a year ago when an older gentleman from a large Italian family met with me after being diagnosed with celiac disease. Our first session was less dietary counseling and more psychological counseling as he shared with me his embarrassment and depression of having to now switch to a gluten-free diet. His pasta-loving family would never let him live down his new “special” diet. Over time, I was able to give him the skills he needed to successfully adopt a gluten-free diet and the empowerment he was searching for to deal with the comments from his family. As a dietitian, you will constantly run into these challenging situations, and it will be up to you motivate your patients in a way that keeps them on track. There are several tactics you can take when empowering a gluten-free patient. Here are a few.

Children (4-15)

A gluten-free diet may be hard for a child to understand. All he or she may feel or know is that they are “different” from other kids. Parents play a huge role in empowering their gluten-free child.

  • Their first rule of business should be to explain to their child why they are on a gluten-free diet.
  • They also should let their child know that it’s ok to say “no thank you” when being offered a food that they are unsure of.
  • Parents also can empower their children by encouraging open conversation about their diet with their teachers and friends.
  • Finally, parents can help make life easier for their little ones by meeting with teachers and cafeteria staff, camp staff, other moms, etc., to explain their child’s limitations. Having a discussion up front can help mom and dad avoid putting their child in a situation where someone of authority is asking nosy questions and subsequently, making them feel embarrassed or uncomfortable.

Young adults (15-24)

Though the landscape of a gluten-free lifestyle has changed; making things easier, growing up and making your own decisions independent from mom and dad may bring stress, fear and even embarrassment if a young adult is gluten-free. Empowerment for the high school and college student is all about planning ahead.

  • For high school students, knowing what they can order at restaurants around town is crucial. Teens love going out to eat, so having a few menu items stored in their head before they head out the door can reduce the stress of the outing.
  • Once they physically move away from home, they will run into the next challenge - doing their own grocery shopping. Knowing the ins and outs of the grocery store and where to find their gluten-free staples will make them more successful. They can ask for a grocery-shopping list from a dietitian or healthcare provider to get them started.
  • Finally, starting their first job and balancing stress and lifestyle also can be a challenge as business lunches, after-work happy hours and the vast majority of events may seem to focus on food! They should be prepared by knowing the lay of the land around their office. They can find out ahead of time who their company uses for internal catering and get to know the local hot spots where professionals frequent for lunch and happy hour. Knowing these places ahead of time allows them to pick the best gluten-free options before they even arrive. They don’t need to be afraid of suggesting gluten-free friendly food venues to colleagues — chances are high that they’re not the only person at their job who enjoys a gluten-free lifestyle!

Adults (25 +)

The key to empowering a gluten-free adult patient is to provide enough education to make them feel like the gluten-free expert. 

  • In my practice, one of the main things that has truly given power to my patients has been taking them to the grocery store. Many stores today can be huge and intimidating and the staff at the store may or may not know how to help customers in identifying gluten-free products. That’s where the dietitian comes in! Taking a patient to the store and going aisle by aisle will help him or her gain confidence to do the trip themselves without the need for assistance. 
  • Empowerment also comes in the form of research. If you’re working with someone who goes on a lot of business lunches, help him or her with choosing not only the right restaurants but also the right menu options at their next power lunch. 
  • Finally, empowerment comes in helping your patient do all of these things themselves. Your role as the dietitian will be to constantly provide bits of information through email or social media about great gluten-free recipes, new research findings, useful websites and most of all, words of encouragement.