Dietitian and Nutritionist

Career Information

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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.

While dietitians and nutritionists are both experts in food and nutrition, there is a difference between these healthcare professionals, explains Shereen Lehman in her article "What's the Difference Between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist?." Lehman says "dietitians are considered to be nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians." The distinction between the two lies in their training and licensing.

You can read more about this under "Education, Training and Licensing Requirements."

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 2014, dietitians and nutritionists earned a median annual salary of $56,950 and hourly earnings of $27.38.
  • Nearly 67,000 people worked in this profession in 2014.
  • Hospitals employ the largest number of dietitians and nutritionists. Others work for the government, as well as for nursing and residential care facilities.
  • Most jobs are full-time.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies this a "Bright Outlook" occupation because of its excellent job outlook. The agency predicts that employment will grow much faster than the average for all occupations through 2024.

    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 we found in some 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 the 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. College students in these majors take courses in foods, nutrition, institution management, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, microbiology, and physiology.

    Other suggested courses include business, mathematics, statistics, computer science, psychology, sociology, and economics. According to Lehman's article about the difference between dietitians and nutritionists, other health practitioners, for example, chiropractors, osteopaths, and physicians, may study and then practice clinical nutrition.

    Many states require anyone calling himself or herself a dietitian to be licensed or otherwise registered with, or certified by, that state. Fewer states require the same of anyone who calls himself or herself a nutritionist as it isn't a protected occupational title. It is important to investigate thoroughly 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 that you can contact to see what the regulations are in the state in which you want to practice.

    The Commission on Dietetic Registration awards the Registered Dietitian credential to those who pass a certification exam after completing their academic coursework and supervised experience. This designation isn't required and is unrelated to state licensure although requirements for both are usually similar. Read "How to Become a Dietitian" for a more detailed look on how to enter this field.

    The Soft Skills You Need to Succeed in This Field

    This occupation requires certain soft skills, which are personal qualities that one typically acquires outside the classroom. Some of them are:

    • 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 successfully.
    • Interpersonal Skills: People skills will allow you to instruct and persuade your clients. They will also help you in your interactions 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 need the ability 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 assistant, associate, or director of a dietetic department, or become self-employed. Some dietitians specialize in areas such as renal or pediatric dietetics. Others may leave the occupation to become sales representatives for equipment, pharmaceutical or food manufacturers.

    What Will Employers Expect From You?

    In addition to training in your field and experience, employers will want you to have certain characteristics. Again we turned to actual job announcements 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 case load"
    • "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?

    Should You Become a Dietitian? Take a Quiz to Find Out

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    Sources:

    Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 (visited April 11, 2016). Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online (visited April 11, 2016).

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