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Dietitian and Nutritionist: Career Information

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Job Description:

Dietitians and nutritionists plan food and nutrition programs, and supervise the preparation and serving of meals. They help prevent and treat illnesses by promoting healthy eating habits and suggesting diet modifications.

While dietitians and nutritionists are both experts in food and nutrition, there is a difference between these healthcare professionals, explains About.com Nutrition Guide Shereen Jegtvig in her article What's the Difference Between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist?. Jegtvig says "dietitians are considered to be nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians." The distinction between the two lies in their training and licensing which will be discussed later.

Dietitians run food service systems for institutions such as hospitals and schools, promote sound eating habits through education, and conduct research. Major areas of practice include clinical, community, management, and consultant dietetics.

Employment Facts:

Dietitians and nutritionists held over 64,000 jobs in 2010. About half of them worked in hospitals, nursing homes, and physician's offices and outpatient clinics.

Educational Requirements:

To become a dietitian you need at least a bachelor's degree in dietetics, foods and nutrition, food service systems management, or a related area. College students in these majors take courses in foods, nutrition, institution management, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, microbiology, and physiology. Other suggested courses include business, mathematics, statistics, computer science, psychology, sociology, and economics. According to Jegtvig, other health practitioners, for example chiropractors, osteopaths and physicians, may study and then practice clinical nutrition.

Why Do You Need to Know About Educational Requirements?

Other Requirements:

Many states require anyone calling himself or herself a dietitian to be licensed or otherwise registered with or certified by that state. Fewer states require the same of anyone who uses the title nutritionist. This isn't a protected title in most states. It is important to thoroughly investigate the requirements in the state in which you plan to practice. See the Licensed Occupations Tool from CareerOneStop.

The Commission on Dietetic Registration of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) awards the Registered Dietitian credential to those who pass a certification exam after completing their academic coursework and supervised experience. This designation isn't required and is unrelated to state licensure although requirements for both are usually similar.

Dietitians and nutritionists need certain skills that aren't necessarily learned through formal training. He or she must, of course, have good people skills. Because a dietitian or nutritionist must be able to convey information to clients, good speaking skills are necessary. Strong analytical skills allow one to interpret scientific studies. Without organizational skills, it won't be possible to keep up with the many aspects of one's job.

Advancement Opportunities:

Experienced dietitians may advance to assistant, associate, or director of a dietetic department, or become self-employed. Some dietitians specialize in areas such as renal or pediatric dietetics. Others may leave the occupation to become sales representatives for equipment, pharmaceutical or food manufacturers.

Why Do You Need to Know About Advancement?

Job Outlook:

Employment of dietitians is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2020. An aging population will be partially responsible for this level of growth, particularly in nursing homes. An increase in interest about the role food plays in our general health, wellness and treatment of diseases will also increase demand for nutritionists.

Why Do You Need to Know About Job Outlook?

Earnings:

Dietitians and nutritionists earned a median annual salary of $54,470 and median hourly wages of $26.19 in 2011.

A Day in a Dietitian's and a Nutritionist's Life:

Clinical dietitians provide nutritional services for patients in institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes. On a typical day a clinical dietitian will:

  • assess patients' nutritional needs, develop and implement nutrition programs, and evaluate and report the results
  • confer with doctors and other health care professionals in order to coordinate medical and nutritional needs

Community dietitians counsel individuals and groups on nutritional practices designed to prevent disease and promote good health. They work in places such as public health clinics, home health agencies and health maintenance organizations. On a typical day a community dietitian will:

  • evaluate individual needs
  • develop nutritional care plans
  • instruct individuals and their families how to follow these plans

Management dietitians oversee large-scale meal planning and preparation in health care facilities, company cafeterias, prisons and schools. On a typical day a management dietitian will:

  • hire, train and direct other dietitians and food service workers
  • enforce sanitary and safety regulations
  • prepare records and reports
  • create a budget for and then purchase food, equipment and supplies
  • enforce sanitary and safety regulations
  • prepare records and reports

Consultant dietitians work under contract with healthcare facilities or in their own private practices. On a typical day a consultant dietitian will:

  • perform nutrition screenings for their clients
  • offer advice on diet-related concerns such as weight loss or cholesterol reduction

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Dietitians and Nutritionists, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Healthcare/Dietitians-and-nutritionists.htm (visited April 25, 2013).
Employment and Training Administration, US Department of Labor, O*NET Online, Dietitians and Nutritionists, on the Internet at http://online.onetcenter.org/link/details/29-1031.00 (visited April 25, 2013).

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