What is your profession?

I’ve been in the fortunate position of being able to do a lot of traveling in the last few years. My wife and I have visited a variety of countries ranging from those that are completely modern and developed to others that would traditionally be considered “third world”. When meeting people from all these different places, you tend to get asked a handful of very similar questions. “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “How do you like our country?” And of course “What is your profession?”

Depending on where you come from this last question about what I do for a living might seem like an easy answer. However, the more I travel, the more I realize this is not really the case at all.

In Canada and other similarly developed countries dietitians are like any other healthcare professional. While there still may be confusion about the differences between dietitians and nutritionists, the general public is quite familiar with the term and have a decent understanding that a dietitian is an expert on diet and nutrition. Not so, in less developed countries. It’s something I’ve encountered elsewhere, but I’m not sure it was highlighted ever more so than our recent trip to Ethiopia. It seemed that very few people I met had any idea what I was talking about.

Of course language is part of the issue. Most people that even speak a little English are rarely familiar with the term dietitian and honestly I can’t really blame them for that. If you only speak enough English to get by, learning the word “dietitian” is probably pretty low on your priority list. Overall I tend to have a little better luck with “nutritionist”, but usually I’ll just describe my job as “teaching people how to eat healthy”.

However, after moving to Egypt something I found out that honestly surprised me a bit was that many languages don’t even have a term for dietitians or nutritionists. In Arabic for example (at least in Egypt), the profession is sometimes referred to by a term that translates to “food doctor” (which almost certainly contributes to the notion that nutritionists are more qualified than they actually are, but that’s another issue for another blog). But when you think about it, it totally makes sense why.

For much of the world’s population all food is in a sense healthy.

Aside from the past 50-100 years, at no point in human history would making optimal dietary choices been a priority to anyone because most people didn’t have the luxury of making “healthy choices”. Food was simply something that nourished us and kept us alive. It’s tough to get more healthy than that.

Unfortunately in Ethiopia (and many other places in the world) this is still true. For the most part people there literally still need to eat whatever is food available to them just to survive. It may not always be what we in Canada consider healthy, but it’s all they’ve got. It stands to reason that in such a place you would never need a word for a profession for someone who tells what you should be eating? It was a humbling revelation to say the least.

Just another example of how travel and exposure to different people and cultures can really flip your preconceptions on their head…


originally published on on January 22, 2016

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