Definition and Overview
A nutritionist is a medical specialist whose job is to advise patients regarding the impacts of food and nutrition on their overall health. They are also known as nutrition scientists, dietitians, clinical nutritionists, sports nutritionists, community nutritionists, or public health nutritionists, depending on their location and work setting. They can also work as independent entrepreneurs offering their services in hospitals, schools, and other settings and environments. The role of nutritionists is growing more significant as the obesity rate continues to reach record highs.
Education and training
To become a registered nutritionist, an individual should have a bachelor's degree in any health-related field, such as:
- Food science
- Food service system management
- Clinical nutritional care
Most nutritionists, in order to advance in their field or obtain higher positions, move on to study a graduate program in nutrition. The curriculum may include subjects such as molecular biology, probability and statistics, and public policy and health. Those who wish to continue their education may do so with a doctorate program in nutrition, biology, or chemistry.
Nowadays, several online nutrition degree programs are widely available for those who wish to take up nutrition but are unable to do it full-time. These online programs hold online classes with minimal hands-on components.
Licensing and certification
The licensing and certification requirements of nutritionists differ based on the country they are in. Most places, however, require that a nutritionist graduate from an accredited bachelor's degree program, complete a practice program under professional supervision, pass a national certification exam, and complete the requirements for continuing education.
A certified nutrition specialist is a prestigious credential offered by the Certification Board of Nutrition Specialists; it is awarded to nutritionists who have completed a master's or doctoral program with over 1000 hours of experience.
Roles and responsibilities
After graduating with a degree in Nutritional Science, registered nutritionists can work as public health information managers, nutrition and dietetics coordinators, health promotion specialists, and project managers for various health-related programs. They can also serve as private nutritionists for certain communities, groups, or organizations. They are also often invited to speak at schools, businesses, and conferences to spread awareness about good nutrition, proper health maintenance, and prevention of nutrition deficiency and related diseases.
Nutritionists are considered as the experts on food, helping patients choose the right food to eat and come up with a healthy menu or meal plan that will have positive effects on their health. The goals of nutritionists are to instill healthy eating habits in their patients, evaluate whether meal plans are working as expected, and reporting on a patient's health progress. If meal plans are not showing positive health effects, it is the nutritionist's job to adjust this, which will require knowing a lot about the patient's body and overall health.
In the medical field, nutritionists are also called upon to assist patients suffering from long-term conditions that require a supervised diet. Some examples are chemotherapy and diabetic patients. They can also work alongside patients with allergies and autoimmune disorders.
Traits and abilities
For them to play their roles well, nutritionists should have certain traits and abilities. One of these is problem-solving skill, which will come in handy when the nutritionist is helping in the diagnosis of nutritional deficiencies and challenges and in coming up with nutritional health solutions to overcome these problems. Nutritionists are also expected to have good communication skills, both written and oral, which they can use when explaining and reporting the expected benefits of certain diet plans. Since it can be challenging for some patients to modify their dietary habits, nutritionists should also have a lot of patience to keep their patients on track in the long term, and should also be able to relate well to different types of people. It is important that nutritionists are also able to listen and understand what their patients are going through. They should also be compassionate and encouraging, capable of persuading their patients to eat healthier foods.
On top of all these, nutritionists are also expected to have the ability to learn quickly and acquire new skills, as the field of nutritional science is always changing. Nutritionists should be able to keep up with the dietary trends and be aware of the potential hazards of these trends.
There are several specialties in the field of nutrition, so nutritionists can also choose what to focus on. Here are some of the most popular examples:
Registered Dietitian – A Registered Dietitian is responsible for providing medical nutrition therapy to his patients as a way to help them prevent diseases. They can work in a hospital or other healthcare facilities, but can also run a private practice in different fields, such as business, sports, or the corporate world.
Human Nutrition – A Human Nutrition Specialist studies the functions of different nutrients, how a person's metabolism works, and how this can affect his health. Those who wish to specialize in human nutrition should focus on subjects such as biology, organic chemistry, micronutrients and macronutrients, and human physiology, among others.
Animal Nutrition – Some nutritionists may also focus on the nutritional and dietary needs of animals. They can work in zoos and wildlife preservation facilities. Those who wish to specialize in animal nutrition should take courses such as animal behavior, food processing, and economics.
When should you see a nutritionist
If you are struggling with health or weight problems and no dietary trends and self-help nutritional guides seem to help, you may benefit from an appointment with a nutritionist.
For disease prevention – Proper nutrition can help prevent the onset of disease or degenerative conditions. A nutritionist can customize a meal plan that can maximize the body's ability to fight off diseases.
For illness management – When diagnosed with certain health conditions and diseases, the body needs as much support as it can get to manage the symptoms of the disease or even to delay its progress.
For weight management – Proper and effective weight management often require holistic lifestyle changes, which should also be customized based on a person's physical appearance. A nutritionist can tailor-fit a specific diet plan that will take into consideration your activity level, metabolic rate, and so on.
For general fitness – A good nutrition plan can increase a person's sense of well-being as well as his energy levels. A nutritionist can help introduce positive changes into your lifestyle by helping you eat right.
When asking for the assistance of a nutritionist, be sure to look for board-certified nutritionists who have received high-quality training and a lot of experience in this field.
- Cook D, Arabi Y. (2014). “The Route of Early Nutrition in Critical Illness.” The New England Journal of Medicine.
- Casaer M, Van den Berghe G. (2014). “Nutrition in the Acute Phase of Critical Illness.” The New England Journal of Medicine.
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: http://ajcn.nutrition.org
- McLachlan G, To TP. (2015). “The Effect of Fasting Diets on Medication Management.” The Medical Journal of Australia.
- The Journal of Nutrition, Health, and Aging