Dietitians and nutritionists are experts in the use of food and nutrition to promote health and manage disease. They advise people on what to eat in order to lead a healthy lifestyle or achieve a specific health-related goal.
Dietitians and nutritionists typically do the following:
- Assess patients’ and clients’ nutritional and health needs
- Counsel patients on nutrition issues and healthy eating habits
- Develop meal plans, taking both cost and clients’ preferences into account
- Evaluate the effects of meal plans and change the plans as needed
- Promote better health by speaking to groups about diet, nutrition, and the relationship between good eating habits and preventing or managing specific diseases
- Keep up with or contribute to the latest food and nutritional science research
- Write reports to document patients’ progress
Dietitians and nutritionists evaluate the health of their clients. Based on their findings, dietitians and nutritionists advise clients on which foods to eat—and which to avoid—to improve their health.
Many dietitians and nutritionists provide customized information for specific individuals. For example, a dietitian or nutritionist might teach a client with diabetes how to plan meals to balance the client’s blood sugar. Others work with groups of people who have similar needs. For example, a dietitian or nutritionist might plan a diet with healthy fat and limited sugar to help clients who are at risk for heart disease. They may work with other healthcare professionals to coordinate patient care.
Dietitians and nutritionists who are self-employed may meet with patients, or they may work as consultants for a variety of organizations. They may need to spend time on marketing and other business-related tasks, such as scheduling appointments, keeping records, and preparing educational programs or informational materials for clients.
Although many dietitians and nutritionists do similar tasks, there are several specialties within the occupations. The following are examples of types of dietitians and nutritionists:
Clinical dietitians and clinical nutritionists provide medical nutrition therapy. They work in hospitals, long-term care facilities, clinics, private practice, and other institutions. They create nutritional programs based on the health needs of patients or residents and counsel patients on how to improve their health through nutrition. Clinical dietitians and clinical nutritionists may further specialize, such as by working only with patients with kidney diseases or those with diabetes.
Community dietitians and community nutritionists develop programs and counsel the public on topics related to food, health, and nutrition. They often work with specific groups of people, such as adolescents or the elderly. They work in public health clinics, government and nonprofit agencies, health maintenance organizations (HMOs), and other settings.
Management dietitians plan food programs. They work in food service settings such as cafeterias, hospitals, prisons, and schools. They may be responsible for buying food and for carrying out other business-related tasks, such as budgeting. Management dietitians may oversee kitchen staff or other dietitians.
Most dietitians and nutritionists have a bachelor’s degree and have completed supervised training through an internship. Many states require dietitians and nutritionists to be licensed.
Most dietitians and nutritionists have a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, foods and nutrition, clinical nutrition, public health nutrition, or a related area. Dietitians also may study food service systems management. Programs include courses in nutrition, psychology, chemistry, and biology.
Many dietitians and nutritionists have advanced degrees.
Dietitians and nutritionists typically receive several hundred hours of supervised training, usually in the form of an internship following graduation from college. Some dietetics schools offer coordinated programs in dietetics that allow students to complete supervised training as part of their undergraduate or graduate-level coursework.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Most states require dietitians and nutritionists to be licensed in order to practice. Other states require only state registration or certification to use certain titles, and a few states have no regulations for this occupation.
The requirements for state licensure and state certification vary by state, but most include having a bachelor’s degree in food and nutrition or a related area, completing supervised practice, and passing an exam.
Many dietitians choose to earn the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) credential. Although the RDN is not always required, the qualifications are often the same as those necessary for becoming a licensed dietitian in states that require a license. Many employers prefer or require the RDN, which is administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The RDN requires dietitian nutritionists to complete a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and a Dietetic Internship (DI), which consists of at least 1,200 hours of supervised experience. Students may complete both criteria at once through a coordinated program, or they may finish their required coursework before applying for an internship. These programs are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND), part of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In order to maintain the RDN credential, dietitians and nutritionists who have earned it must complete 75 continuing professional education credits every 5 years.
Nutritionists may earn the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential to show an advanced level of knowledge. The CNS credential is accepted in several states for licensure purposes. To qualify for the credential, applicants must have a master’s or doctoral degree, complete 1,000 hours of experience, and pass an exam. The credential is administered by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists.
Dietitians and nutritionists may seek additional certifications in an area of specialty. The Commission on Dietetic Registration offers specialty certifications in oncology nutrition, renal nutrition, gerontological nutrition, pediatric nutrition, and sports dietetics.
Analytical skills. Dietitians and nutritionists must keep up to date with the latest food and nutrition research. They should be able to interpret scientific studies and translate nutrition science into practical eating advice.
Compassion. Dietitians and nutritionists must be caring and empathetic when helping clients address health and dietary issues and any related emotions.
Listening skills. Dietitians and nutritionists must listen carefully to understand clients’ goals and concerns. They may work with other healthcare workers as part of a team to improve the health of a patient, and they need to listen to team members when constructing eating plans.
Organizational skills. Because there are many aspects to the work of dietitians and nutritionists, they should be able to stay organized. Management dietitians, for example, must consider the nutritional needs of their clients, the costs of meals, and access to food.
Problem-solving skills. Dietitians and nutritionists must evaluate the health status of patients and determine the most appropriate food choices for a client to improve his or her overall health or manage a disease.
Speaking skills. Dietitians and nutritionists must explain complicated topics in a way that people with less technical knowledge can understand. They must be able to clearly explain eating plans to clients and to other healthcare professionals involved in a patient’s care.