Nutritionists, dietitians, and food scientists are experts in how food interacts with the body, and also how people interact with food. While understanding and creating balanced diets is part of the job, these professionals may also address why some people have trouble making healthy food choices or why some foods are appealing and others are not.
Some doctors are nutritionists, or at least have some knowledge of nutrition, but nutritionists generally are not doctors. Yet they are healthcare professionals and play a vital role in protecting and advocating for public health.
The Difference Between Dietitians and Nutritionists
All dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians. “Nutritionist” is a general term for anyone who attempts to give advice about healthy eating. Because the term is not legally protected, anyone can go into private practice as a nutritionist. Doing so without any real expertise is unethical, but not illegal. A qualified nutritionist will generally have at least college-level training but could, in theory, be self-taught.
But there are legal and ethical limitations to working without certification. An uncertified nutritionist cannot diagnose an eating disorder or a nutritional problem, for example. It is also very difficult to get a job without any type of credentials. With an advanced degree in a relevant field and appropriate practical experience, it is possible to become a certified nutrition specialist, or CNS. An RD, or registered dietitian, is a nutritionist who has completed a relevant bachelor’s degree and a supervised training program before passing a national examination. It is illegal to claim to be a dietitian without being a real RD.
Skills Required for Dietitians and Nutritionists
Besides appropriate certification, being hired to work as a nutritionist or dietitian requires certain skills. The specifics vary depending on the position. For example, someone who consults with patients directly needs excellent interpersonal skills, while a food scientist working for a fast-food company might not. Hiring supervisors also vary in their priorities, even for very similar positions.
Always read job descriptions carefully before putting together your application materials. The following list summarizes many of the skills most in demand by most employers.
Technical knowledge includes a thorough understanding of nutrition. It also includes a thorough understanding of the psychological issues surrounding eating, including eating disorders (whether or not one is certified to diagnose and treat such disorders), as well as other medical conditions that can change how the body processes and assimilates food.
Nutritional advice is basically useless if nobody follows it. Dietitians and other nutritionists must be able to communicate in a clear, effective way that makes their recommendations - and the reasons for them - plain. Many must also explain the basics of nutrition science to people who either know nothing about nutrition, or have deep misunderstandings about nutrition. Such communication may be written, visual, verbal, or some combination, depending on the nature of the position.
Many people have a great deal of shame and emotional pain about their bodies and about eating. People who are either over- or under-weight especially may erroneously believe that their health problem is a result of bad choices and thus a moral failing, even though psychological disorders, endocrine disorders, or poverty are all more common culprits.
Direct client contact requires solid interpersonal skills, including a strictly non-judgmental affect and a gentle sensitivity to the client’s feelings. Dietitians and other nutritionists who lack these abilities can harm clients by unintentionally discouraging them from seeking care.
Nutrition professionals of all kinds need good, basic computer skills in order to conduct research, communicate with colleagues and sometimes clients, and to organize client information. Some may also use publishing software to create educational materials. Others might maintain websites or blogs on nutrition.
Jobs in the field of nutrition tend to have a lot of varied responsibilities, and the hours are often long or inconvenient. As with other healing professions, nutritionists can also become burned out over concern for ill patients. Excellent time management skills, organizational skills, and proper personal boundaries are critical.
Nutritionist / Dietitian Skills List
Here's a detailed list of skills that employers seek in candidates for dietitian and nutritionist jobs.
A - D
- Assess Client Nutritional Status
- Assessment of Client Nutritional Needs
- Collaborating with other Medical Professionals
- Complying with Professional Standards
- Controlling Costs
- Creating Educational Materials
- Critical Thinking
- Customer Service
- Data Entry
- Decision Making
- Design Nutrition Programs
- Develop Nutrition Programs
- Developing Policies and Procedures
- Diet Management
- Diet Planning
E - M
- Enhancing Quality of Services
- Establishing Rapport with Clients
- Evaluating Client Progress
- Evaluate Nutritional Progress
- Evaluate Nutritional Status
- Evaluate Patients
- Facilitating Group Sessions
- Foreign Language
- Implement Nutrition Programs
- Interacting with Diverse Populations
- Interpreting Current Research
- Lifestyle Intervention
- Meal Planning
- Menu Planning
- Mentoring Interns and Junior Staff
- Microsoft Excel
- Motivating Others
- Nutrition Advising
- Nutrition Management
- Nutrition Planning
- Nutritional Counseling
- Nutritional Education
O - R
- Ongoing Learning
- Planning Educational Programs
- Preparing Menus
- Problem Solving
- Record Keeping
S - W
- Securing Funding
- Supervising Staff
- Taking Initiative
- Upholding Patient Confidentiality
- Verbal Communication