The Role of the Bariatric Dietitian with Shannon Wickman, RD, LD

Shannon Wickman, RD, LD speaking about becoming a bariatric dietitianLast month, the Master of Science in Applied Nutrition program at the University of New England co-hosted the 7th Annual Bariatrics Conference with Southern Maine Health Care, where one of the topics was the role of a bariatric dietitian.

In order to more fully understand this profession within the health industry, we sat down with conference presenter Shannon Wickman, RD, LD. We discussed the function of bariatric dietitians and explored her thoughts on the future of this branch of healthcare.

What is a bariatric dietitian?

Bariatric dietitians work primarily as part of bariatric programs, which are the programs that offer weight loss surgery for patients with morbid obesity.

A significant component of weight loss surgery is diet and lifestyle change prior to surgery – and that is where most bariatric dietitians do the bulk of their work. They work with patients to help them get ready for their weight loss surgery by modifying the patient’s diet and lifestyle approach.

The process can take six months to a year, depending on the patient. The preoperative period is generally fairly intense, with the bariatric dietitian seeing the patient every two to four weeks or so. Visits taper off postoperatively as the patient experiences more success.

Is there a correlation between involvement with a bariatric dietitian and positive surgery outcomes?

I would say yes. Postoperative follow-up and careful patient monitoring improve the odds for successful surgical outcomes, and bariatric dietitians play a very important part in this process. Additionally, sometimes working with a patient can be similar to nutrition counseling. There are many complex emotions that are wrapped up in being overweight, deciding to have surgery, and getting the people around you to embrace the changes that you are making in order to be more successful. The sessions can become fairly intense and emotional.

Most bariatric dietitians function as a part of team, with most teams consisting of the surgeon, the program manager, the dietitian, and a behavioral health specialist like a psychiatrist, psychologist, or Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

Often, the entire program team will meet monthly to discuss all of the patients in the pre-op process, and the bariatric dietitian generally has a significant amount of authority in judging whether the patient is ready to have surgery.

What’s a typical day in the life of a bariatric dietitian?

Most bariatric dietitians hold their counseling sessions using some combination of one-on-one appointments, support groups, and classes. The counseling format used by the program depends on the size of the program. Large programs tend to have so many patients that they hold group classes led by a bariatric dietitian.

For the initial consultation within smaller programs, the bariatric dietitian will see patients one-on-one in an office setting for about an hour, set the expectations of the program, work together to set goals, and then schedule a follow-up appointment. Follow up appointments are then 30-minute sessions every three to four weeks.

What kind of degree or degrees do you need?

There is not one single “required” degree to become a bariatric dietitian. There are different routes. I have a B.S. in Nutrition, and I did a coordinated program, so there’s the classroom component, and there’s a clinical component similar to nursing school. Some programs are coordinated so that you do classwork some days, and then you’ll go to a hospital and do your clinical rotation. That’s what I did.

The majority of bariatric dietitians have their Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and then apply for their clinical rotation. Many dietitians will also do a Master’s in Nutrition at that same time as they do their clinicals. Regardless of which way you go about it, you can’t practice as a Registered Dietitian without sitting for and passing the board exam.

Is it a growing field?

Yes, It’s definitely an area of growth in the healthcare realm, because bariatric surgery itself is on the rise. Because of the growing rates of obesity in our country, bariatric surgery is now approved by most insurance companies. There is also the fact that bariatric surgery continues to prove to be the best treatment for someone once they reach a certain BMI or weight.

Applied Nutrition at UNE Online

Many aspects involved in the bariatric field mirror the coursework and learnings that students of the Applied Nutrition program experience. With three dedicated focus areas built into the curriculum, UNE Online allows students to select preferred areas of study that support their individual career goals. This construct equips each student with many of the tools and skills Shannon highlighted, such as adept communication across teams, effective practices for nutrition counseling, and successful program development in community nutrition. Whether you’re interested in becoming a bariatric dietitian, or a professional in the nutrition industry, UNE Online provides you with a relevant education to help you reach your career goals.

The Master of Science in Applied Nutrition program at UNE Online strengthens each student’s potential to remain competitive in the industry, and many have recognized the coursework as highly applicable to their current positions. Earning your master’s degree with UNE Online also helps you meet the degree requirement changes taking effect in 2024 for all nutrition professionals.

To learn more about how UNE Online can help you reach your professional goals in nutrition, contact a dedicated member of our enrollment team by email at or by calling (855)751-4447.

Watch Shannon’s presentation on the advantages of the bariatric support group model and strategies on keeping patients engaged, at the 7th Annual Bariatrics Conference, held at the University of New England:



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