What You Need to Know About Being a Dietitian and Nutritionist

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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.

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

Quick Facts

  • In 2016, dietitians and nutritionists earned a median annual salary of $58,920.
  • Approximately 68,000 people work in this profession.
  • Hospitals employ the most substantial number of dietitians and nutritionists. Others work for the government, as well as for nursing and residential care facilities.
  • While many jobs are full-time, about 25% of positions are part-time.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies them as "Bright Outlook" occupations because of their excellent job outlook. The agency predicts that employment will grow faster than the average for all occupations between 2016 and 2026.

    Roles and Responsibilities

    Are you wondering what a day in the life of a dietitian or nutritionist is like? Here are some typical job duties quoted verbatim from job announcements on Indeed.com:

    • Responsible for developing, planning, directing, and coordinating dietetic services at the institutional level.
    • Implement food handling and storage policies that will assure food safety.
    • Plan, organize, and conduct dietetic education for patients.
    • Complete nutritional assessments and participate in  interdisciplinary comprehensive assessments.
    • Develop and implement an individualized education plan for medical nutrition therapy in accordance with the patient's medical program goals and objectives
    • Facilitate group sessions, participate in supervised lunch groups, and meal planning
    • Help the food service director in developing and providing in-service education and training for dietary employees
    • Develop and prepare statistical reports, including documentation of patient assessments and nutritional care plans in medical records utilizing electronic database and software programs

    Education, Training and Licensing 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. You will have to take courses in foods, nutrition, institution management, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, microbiology, and physiology. Classes in business, mathematics, statistics, computer science, psychology, sociology, and economics can also enhance your education.

    If you want to be a nutritionist, you must study nutrition in college or graduate school. Other health practitioners, for example, chiropractors or medical doctors, may also call themselves clinical nutritionist by completing courses in this area of study.

    Regardless of where in the United States you want to work as a dietitian, there is a good chance you will need a state-issued license, registration, or certification. Most states have this requirement. Some don't have this stipulation for those who want to call themselves nutritionists.

    Thoroughly investigate the requirements in the state in which you plan to practice. The Commission on Dietetic Registration of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) maintains a list of state licensure agencies you can contact to see what the regulations are in your state.

    The Commission on Dietetic Registration offers the Registered Dietitian (RD) credential to graduates of dietetic education programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). Those who want to apply for this credential must complete an internship and pass an exam.

    The Soft Skills You Need to Succeed in This Field

    Dietitians and nutritionists need certain soft skills. In contrast to hard skills which you learn in the classroom, soft skills are personal qualities you acquire through life and work experience. They are as follows:

    • Reading comprehension: You must be able to understand written reports.
    • Active listening: Your clients need your complete attention when they are talking to you about their health issues and dietary concerns.
    • Verbal communication: As a dietitian or nutritionist, a significant part of your job will involve conveying information to your clients and their caregivers. Unless you have excellent speaking skills, you won't be able to do this effectively.
    • Interpersonal Skills: These "people skills" will allow you to instruct and persuade your clients. They will also help you interact with colleagues.
    • Time management and organizational skills: These skills will help keep you from becoming overwhelmed by your caseload.
    • Critical thinking: When making decisions and solving problems, you must be able to weigh your options in order to choose the one you predict will have the best outcome.

    How to Move Up

    Experienced dietitians may advance to the role of assistant, associate, or director of a dietetic department. One may also set up a private practice and become self-employed.

    Some dietitians specialize in areas such as renal or pediatric dietetics. Others may use their education and experience to become sales representatives for equipment, pharmaceutical, or food manufacturers.

    What Will Employers Expect?

    In addition to your education and training, a state-issued license, and possibly the RD credential, employers expect job applicants to have specific qualities. We turned to actual job announcements (verbatim) on Indeed.com to see which ones will make you a more competitive job candidate:

    • Must be able to work independently.
    • Proficient in basic computer use and software programs;  proficient in record keeping.
    • Must be effective at prioritizing assigned patient caseload.
    • Demonstrated ability to handle difficult situations with residents/patients and staff with tact and empathy.
    • Must have the ability to interact positively with many types of people.

    Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

    Your interestspersonality type, and work-related values help determine which careers are right for you. If you have the following traits, you may find success as a dietitian or nutritionist:

    Occupations With Similar Tasks

    Description Median Annual Wage (2016) Minimum Required Education/Training
    Occupational Therapist Helps patients recover their ability to perform daily living and work activities $81,910 Master's Degree in Occupational Therapy
    Speech Pathologist

    Treats people who have speech impairments

    $74,680 Master's Degree in Speech-Language Pathology
    Registered Nurse Treats and provides advice to ill or injured patients $68,450 Bachelor's, Associate or Diploma in Nursing
    Audiologist Diagnoses people's hearing disorders or balance problems $75,980 Doctor of Audiology Degree (Au.D.)

    Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,  Occupational Outlook Handbook; Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor,  O*NET Online (visited January 20, 2018).