Nutritionists Focus on More Than Food: Learn More About What They Do

Read on to find out what types of tasks you’ll undertake as a nutritionist.

Nutritionists do more than tell you to eat your vegetables. As more people seek help to get healthy, nutritionists have become in high demand.

Many nutritionists are self-employed with a private practice, but others contribute to a larger team in hospitals, nursing homes or clinics. In these settings, nutritionists may counsel patients, develop meal plans based on a patient’s health concerns, evaluate costs and promote better nutrition.

Nutritionists have a great opportunity to change the way we think about food and nutrition and ultimately improve people’s quality of life.

What does a nutritionist do?

Nutritionists are experts in the field of food and nutrition and help others achieve their health goals. Their duties include:

  • Provide direction to patients/clients on healthy living and good nutrition
  • Implement meal plans in health facilities or schools
  • Develop and prepare meals based on dietary restrictions
  • Work with health care personnel regarding patients’ nutritional needs
  • Teach patients and clients about food selection and nutrition principles
  • Advocate for nutrition labeling, school nutrition standards and public policy issues
  • Conduct research

A nutritionist’s job relies heavily on where they work. For instance, in a nursing home they may counsel senior citizens on food choices based on their health conditions, whereas a nutritionist in a school may develop meal plans for the cafeteria.

What education or certification will I need to become a nutritionist?

In order to become a nutritionist, you’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree in nutrition science, health and wellness or a related field. Most programs also include or require an internship so students get hands-on training with a trained nutritionist.

The requirements for nutritionist certification vary by state, but all 50 states include some type of condition. According to the Center for Nutrition Advocacy, licensing falls under four categories:

  • Illegal to perform nutrition counseling without a license or exemption. Registered Dietitians (RDs) are only eligible for licensure.
  • Illegal to provide nutrition counseling without a license or exemption, but non-RD paths to licensure are available.
  • Legal to perform nutrition counseling, but RDs are recognized by the government and eligible for insurance reimbursement.
  • Nutrition counseling is legal for all to perform but insurance reimbursement limitations may exist.

It’s important to understand that while dietitians and nutritionists share many of the same job duties, dietitians go through more training and typically work in clinical settings. Nutritionists do not go through the RD training and licensing and usually work in holistic health settings.

Learn more about what you’ll study.

What career paths can I take as a nutritionist?

Nutritionists have quite a few choices on where they can take their career. No matter the setting, the crux of a nutritionist’s job is to promote healthy eating and good nutrition.

Schools: School lunches receive a lot of criticism for being unhealthy and void of nutrition, but times have changed. As more school systems realize the importance of healthy meals, they’ve employed nutritionists to develop menus while keeping track of costs. Your role may also include monitoring the food service operations and purchasing food.

Hospitals: If you’re interested in working as part of a larger team, a hospital could be right for you. In this role, you’ll create treatment plans that address patients’ needs in a holistic manner. Hospitals can be a good setting if you’re interested in helping patients who suffer from certain illnesses or diseases.

Private practice: If you’re ready to get out there on your own, you’ll join the approximately 15 percent of nutritionists and dietitians who are self-employed. In a private practice, you’ll counsel clients, make suggestions and develop meal plans.

Research and Advocacy: Promoting good nutrition and teaching others are certainly part of the job on a regular basis, but you can also do this in a more formal way. Some nutritionists work as researchers to understand the latest advances in nutrition science, while others focus on public policy like promoting nutrition labeling.

Source: Center for Nutrition Advocacy; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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