Nutritionists do more than just count calories. Their goal is to prevent disease and promote good health through eating habits and diet modifications. They need to know the vitamins, minerals, and food sources that will serve patient needs, such as helping obese patients to lose weight, stabilizing insulin levels in diabetics, reducing blood pressure in people at risk of heart attacks, and increasing energy levels for an improved quality of life.
Most nutritionists, also known as dietitians, are on their feet for much of the day. They work alongside chefs and cooks in hot kitchens, they control dining room operations, and they plan for the general flow of food service operations. The main duties of nutritions are to prepare meal plans, supervise food preparation and serving, enforce food safety regulations, and answer dietary questions.
The most common employers for nutritionists are hospitals, medical offices, nursing care facilities, and outpatient centers. You can also find work at correctional facilities, schools and universities, health departments, and private businesses that serve food to customers, such as cafeterias, airlines, and restaurant chains. The variety of work you will do depends on the level of education that you obtain and the career path that you choose.
Nutritionist Schools By State
Clinical dietitians work with doctors and other medical professionals to improve patient health in medical facilities. They may be generalists, or they may care for patients with specific diseases, such as renal failure, diabetes, and critical illnesses. Some also manage food service departments in nursing homes, regional hospitals, daycare centers, and prisons.
Community dietitians focus more on overall community health. They work with state or local agencies to develop nutritional plans and instruct families on the best ways to shop for groceries and prepare meals. They may specialize in the needs of children, the elderly, or people with special needs. Community dietitians may also work in private businesses to analyze foods, prepare public relations reports, and improve marketing.
Consultant dietitians are the third type of nutritionists. These individuals generally operate their own practice and work with a variety of clients. They may perform nutritional screenings at health fairs, offer advice on weight loss and cholesterol reduction to employees, teach athletes way to boost performance, or help food service managers with sanitation, food safety, menu development, and planning. Consultant dietitians may also perform research and design experiments for pharmaceutical companies or other businesses. Sports teams, supermarkets, and wellness programs are just some of the employers for these specialized nutritionists.
What You’ll Study in Nutritionist Training
No matter which career path you choose, you will need the appropriate education. While a few Associate’s degrees do exist, nutritionists in the United States must hold a Bachelor’s degree in order to be certified. Additional licensing, certification, and/or registration requirements are set by each state. Some states will expect you to pass an exam, complete an internship, or both. More employment opportunities open up when you possess a graduate degree as well.
While the work life of a nutritionist centers on food, that is not all you will be dealing with. A well-rounded nutritionist understands the science behind the food and the patient’s medical condition, knows how to interact with people in order to meet goals, and can manage budgets, reports, equipment purchases, and other administrative needs. Some nutritionist positions are more patient-focused, others are business-focused, and still others are operation-focused. Consequently, nutritionist training is multi-faceted. A typical nutritionist training program includes the study of:
- Nutrition and Health
- Weight management
- Food service management
A supervised internship will help to fit all of the pieces together and ensure you are ready to begin your new career. Internships are generally integrated into the degree program and last six to twelve months. Nutritionist interns are placed in healthcare facilities, community agencies, or food service corporations.
Nutritionist Training: Time to Completion
A Bachelor’s degree in a nutrition-related field can be obtained in as little as three years. Students may pursue an Associate’s degree in nutrition as a “mid-way” point to step into employment, but a Bachelor’s degree will be required to work as a nutritionist officially. If you gain an Associate’s degree, you may be able to work as a paraprofessional under the supervision of a registered dietitian and gain on-the-job experience as you continue your nutritionist training.
Many universities offer programs in nutrition and food studies. If you plan to pursue certification, make sure that whatever degree you choose meets the following three criteria:
- The degree has been approved by the American Dietetic Association’s Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education (CADE).
- The degree is granted by a regionally accredited U.S. institution.
- States such as Washington also require the degree to be approved by the state dietetic association or state board of health. Check with your state for specific requirements.