Dietitians and nutritionists are experts in food and nutrition. They advise people on what to eat in order to lead a healthy lifestyle or achieve a specific health-related goal.

Duties

Dietitians and nutritionists typically do the following:

  • Assess patients’ and clients’ health needs and diet
  • 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 nutrition by speaking to groups about diet, nutrition, and the relationship between good eating habits and preventing or managing specific diseases
  • Keep up with the latest nutritional science research
  • Write reports to document patient 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 those foods to avoid—to improve their health.

Some dietitians and nutritionists provide customized information for specific individuals. For example, a dietitian or nutritionist might teach a client with high blood pressure how to use less salt when preparing meals. Others work with groups of people who have similar needs. For example, a dietitian or nutritionist might plan a diet with limited fat and sugar to help patients lose weight. 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 and preparing 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 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 lead a healthier lifestyle. Clinical dietitians and nutritionists may further specialize, such as working only with patients with kidney diseases or those with diabetes.

Community dietitians and nutritionists develop programs and counsel the public on topics related to food 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 meal 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.

Work Environment: 

Dietitians and nutritionists held about 67,400 jobs in 2012.

Dietitians and nutritionists work in hospitals, nursing homes, cafeterias, and schools. The industries that employed the most dietitians and nutritionists in 2012 were as follows:

Hospitals; state, local, and private 31%
Government 13
Nursing and residential care facilities 9
Offices of health practitioners 7
Outpatient care centers 7

About 11 percent of dietitians and nutritionists were self-employed in 2012. Self-employed dietitians and nutritionists work as consultants who provide advice to individual clients, or they work for healthcare establishments on a contract basis.

Work Schedules

Most dietitians and nutritionists worked full time in 2012, although about 1 out of 5 worked part time. Self-employed dietitians have more flexibility in setting their schedules. They may work evenings and weekends so that they can meet with clients.

Education and Training: 

Most dietitians and nutritionists have a bachelor’s degree and receive supervised training through an internship or as a part of their coursework. Many states require dietitians and nutritionists to be licensed.

Education

Most dietitians and nutritionists have a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, foods and nutrition, food service systems management, clinical nutrition, or a related area. Programs include courses in nutrition, psychology, chemistry, and biology.

Many dietitians and nutritionists also have advanced degrees.

Training

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. Other states require only state registration or certification, 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, 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 to become 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 Program. Students may complete both criteria at once through a Coordinated Program, or they may finish coursework requirements before applying for an internship. These programs are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). In order to maintain the RDN credential, Registered Dietitian Nutritionists must complete continuing professional education requirements.

Nutritionists may earn the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential to show an advanced level of knowledge. The CNS credential is accepted in many states for licensure purposes. To qualify for the CNS exam, applicants must have a master’s or doctoral degree and 1,000 hours of experience. The credential is administered by the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists.

Dietitians and nutritionists may seek additional certifications in an area of specialty such as sports or pediatric nutrition.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Dietitians and nutritionists must keep up to date with the latest 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 dietary issues and any related emotions.

Listening skills. Dietitians and nutritionists must listen carefully to understand clients’ goals and concerns. They may also work with other healthcare workers as part of team to improve the health of a patient and 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 have the ability to stay organized. Management dietitians, for example, must consider both the nutritional needs of their clients and the costs of meals. Self-employed dietitians and nutritionists may need to schedule their appointments and maintain patient files.

Problem-solving skills. They must evaluate the health status of patients and determine the most appropriate food choices for a client to improve 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.

Pay: 

The median annual wage for dietitians and nutritionists was $55,240 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $34,500, and the top 10 percent earned more than $77,590.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the median annual wage for Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) was $60,000 in 2013.

Most dietitians and nutritionists worked full time in 2012, although about 1 out of 5 worked part time. Self-employed dietitians have more flexibility in setting their schedules. They may work evenings and weekends so that they can meet with clients.

Job Outlook: 

Employment of dietitians and nutritionists is projected to grow 21 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations. In recent years, interest in the role of food in promoting health and wellness has increased, particularly as a part of preventative healthcare in medical settings.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese. Many diseases, such as diabetes and kidney disease, are associated with obesity. The importance of diet in preventing and treating illnesses is now well known. More dietitians and nutritionists will be needed to provide care for people with these conditions.

As the baby-boom generation grows older and looks for ways to stay healthy, there will be more demand for dietetic services. An aging population also will increase the need for dietitians and nutritionists in nursing homes and in home healthcare.

Job Prospects

Overall, job opportunities for dietitians and nutritionists are expected to be favorable. Dietitians and nutritionists who have earned advanced degrees or certification in a specialty area may enjoy better job prospects.

For More Information: 

For a list of academic programs and other information about dietitians, visit

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

For information on the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) exam and other specialty credentials, visit

Commission on Dietetic Registration

For information on the Certified Nutrition Specialist exam and credential, visit

Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.

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