Dietitians are qualified experts who specialize in the science of nutrition. They assess, develop, implement, and evaluate nutrition care plans in order to improve people’s diet and eating habits, thus, ensuring a positive impact on their overall health and quality of life. Unlike Nutritionists, Dietitians also work with patients suffering from eating disorders, diabetes, and other medical conditions.
The main difference between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist is what each can legally do. In the United States, Dietitians need to have a bachelor’s degree, whose academic program is approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics. Unlike Dietitians, whose title is protected by law, Nutritionists don’t have any legal restriction associated to their title, meaning that practically anyone can claim to be a Nutritionist. The title of “Dietitian” guarantees that the individual meets all of the council’s standards in terms of nutrition and dietetics.
Both Dietitians and Nutritionists may be self-employed, usually running their own clinic. However, Dietitians are often hired by government institutions dedicated to public health and welfare, as well as healthcare centers. Nutritionists, on the other hand, usually working in community health centers or in food producing companies as advisors or counselors.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of common tasks Dietitians are required to complete.
- Maintaining and improving patient’s overall health by providing them with individual nutritional counseling and/or group nutrition sessions:
- Assessing patient’s nutrition status by administering questionnaires and laboratory tests to find out which nutritional factors are affecting the patient’s health;
- designing menus, taking into consideration their nutrition value, as well as the patient’s nutritional preferences and restrictions;
- providing practical nutrition recommendations to help patients meet their goals;
- advising patients on what food they should eat and what food can have a negative effect on their health;
- overseeing patients’ progress and response to the diet;
- changing the diet plan if the meals are negatively affecting the patient;
- preparing nutrition assessment report for patients; and
- addressing patient’s questions and concerns.
- Maintaining patient records and statistical data reports.
- Developing catered menus for schools, healthcare centers, or retirement homes, aiming to meet their respective nutrition requirements:
- Fighting and preventing malnutrition by implementing specialized nutritional programs designed to tackle the needs of several population sectors.
- Giving nutritional advice and recommendations to government agencies dedicated to healthcare, as well as holding nutrition-related conferences in community centers and schools:
- Participating in clinical program development and research initiatives.
- Staying updated on nutritional best practices, constantly analyzing current scientific nutritional studies and conducting research in order to better inform patients and healthcare professionals.
- Promoting their business and performing clerical tasks when self-employed.
- Conducting regular check-ups in order to determine the nutritional status of individuals.
- Maintaining patient records and collecting data.
- Holding conferences and demonstrations on the proper methods to prepare foods.
- Developing catered menus for schools, healthcare centers, or retirement homes, aiming to meet their respective nutrition requirements.
- Advising healthcare colleagues in matters of nutrition.
- Holding public speeches and conferences aimed towards educating a certain population in matters of good nutrition.
- Staying updated on nutritional best practices.
The average Dietitian salary in USA is $55,263 per year or $28 per hour. This is around 1.9 times more than the Median wage of the country. Entry level positions start at $39,000 while most experienced workers make up to $77,000. These results are based on 583 salaries extracted from job descriptions.
- Strong interpersonal, communication, and assessment skills:
- Communicating clearly, both in writing and verbally, and being able to simplify and contextualize complex scientific jargon in order to effectively impart knowledge to patients and other health professionals;
- displaying strong customer service skills, setting high standards of patient care and safety, treating every patient with dignity and respect;
- using tact, professionalism, and optimism when communicating with patients and health professionals in order to maintain effective and collaborative relationships; and
- being able to negotiate and advocate for both patients and the Dietetic profession.
- Strong sense of empathy and compassion:
- Demonstrating sensitivity to individual needs of patients; and
- being able to work within a multicultural environment, showing consideration and respect to a diverse range of cultural beliefs which may influence eating habits.
- Optimistic, can-do attitude and a strong ability to motivate others.
- Analytical, problem-solving, and decision-making skills:
- Being able to analyze, assess, and diagnose patients’ condition in order to provide them with the proper treatments;
- being able to use initiative and intuition in decision making, as well as to exercise good professional judgment;
- using creativity and imagination to develop new insights and to apply innovative solutions to problems; and
- referring patients to other medical professionals, as required.
- Organizational and time management skills:
- Strategically structuring and customizing treatment programs and educational sessions; and
- multitasking; being able to prioritize tasks and responsibilities.
Aside from the skills listed above, Dietitians must have completed a bachelor’s degree with major credits in Food and Nutrition and/or Dietetics from a university program approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Dietitians need to be licensed in order to be legally able to perform their job in the state where they choose to work. Licensing is obligatory in order to be able to use the “Dietitian” title and working without it may cause legal problems for aspirants with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Additionally, when specialized in a specific nutritional field, applicants need to be certified. Requirements for both licensure and certifications vary from state to state.
Although not a common requirement, these professionals can pursue the “Registered Dietitian Nutritionist” designation, granted by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. To receive the RDN title, aspirants need to pass a national examination issued by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) as a way to demonstrate their knowledge on the field and to meet a 1,200-hour ACEND dietetic internship program.
Additional certifications on specialty fields (e.g. oncology nutrition, renal nutrition, pediatric nutrition) are available and interested parties can pursue credentials if they meet the necessary requirements.
Most Dietitian positions require a minimum of 1 to 2 years of experience working in a similar environment (e.g. within a healthcare or community setting). Voluntary work, as well as pediatric and/or gerontology experience, are often considered strong assets.