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Dietitians and nutritionists

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Dietitians and nutritionists plan food and nutrition programs, and supervise the preparation and serving of meals. They promote healthy eating habits and suggesting diet modifications, such as less salt for those with high blood pressure or reduced fat and sugar intake for those who are overweight.

Dietitians run food service systems for institutions such as hospitals and schools, promote sound eating habits through education and conduct research. Major areas of practice include clinical, community, management and consultant dietetics.

Clinical dietitians provide nutritional services for patients in institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes. They assess patients' nutritional needs, develop and implement nutrition programs, and evaluate and report the results. They also confer with doctors and other health-care professionals to coordinate medical and nutritional needs. Some clinical dietitians specialize in the management of overweight patients, care of the critically ill, or of kidney and diabetic patients. In addition, clinical dietitians in nursing homes, small hospitals or correctional facilities also may manage the food service department.

Community dietitians counsel individuals and groups on nutritional practices designed to prevent disease and promote good health. Working in places such as public health clinics, home health agencies and health maintenance organizations, they evaluate individual needs, develop nutritional care plans, and instruct individuals and their families. Dietitians working in home health agencies provide instruction on grocery shopping and food preparation to the elderly, individuals with special needs and children.

Increased interest in nutrition has led to opportunities in food manufacturing, advertising and marketing, in which dietitians analyze foods, prepare literature for distribution or report on issues, such as the nutritional content of recipes, dietary fiber or vitamin supplements.

Management dietitians oversee large-scale meal planning and preparation in health-care facilities, company cafeterias, prisons and schools. They hire, train and direct other dietitians and food service workers; budget for and purchase food, equipment and supplies; enforce sanitary and safety regulations; and prepare records and reports.

Consultant dietitians work under contract with health care facilities or in their own private practice. They perform nutrition screenings for their clients and offer advice on diet-related concerns, such as weight loss or cholesterol reduction. Some work for wellness programs, sports teams, supermarkets and other nutrition-related businesses. They may consult with food service managers, providing expertise in sanitation, safety procedures, menu development, budgeting and planning.

Most dietitians work a regular 40-hour week, although some work weekends. Many dietitians work part time. Many dietitians and nutritionists are on their feet for much of the workday.

Training and qualifications

High school students interested in becoming a dietitian or nutritionist should take courses in biology, chemistry, mathematics, health and communications. Dietitians and nutritionists 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.

Twenty-seven of the 41 states with laws governing dietetics require licensure, 13 require certification and one requires registration. The Commission on Dietetic Registration of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) awards the Registered Dietitian credential to those who pass a certification exam after completing their academic coursework and supervised experience. Because practice requirements vary by state, interested candidates should determine the requirements of the state in which they want to work before sitting for any exam.

Job outlook

Employment of dietitians is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2010 as a result of increasing emphasis on disease prevention through improved dietary habits. A growing and aging population will increase the demand for meals and nutritional counseling in nursing homes, schools, prisons, community health programs and home health care agencies.

The number of dietitian positions in hospitals is expected to grow slowly as hospitals continue to contract out food service operations. But employment is expected to grow fast in contract providers of food services, social services agencies and offices and clinics of physicians.

Employment growth for dietitians and nutritionists may be somewhat constrained by some employers substituting other workers, such as health educators, food service managers and dietetic technicians. Growth also is constrained by limitations on insurance reimbursement for dietetic services.

Earnings

Dietitians and nutritionists held about 49,000 jobs in 2000. More than half were in hospitals, nursing homes or offices and clinics of physicians. Median annual earnings of dietitians and nutritionists were $38,450 in 2000. Median annual earnings in hospitals, the industry employing the largest numbers of dietitians and nutritionists, were $39,450.

Related links

For a list of academic programs, scholarships and other information about dietetics:

The American Dietetic Association, 216 West Jackson Blvd., Suite 800, Chicago, IL 60606-6995.


Adapted from the Labor Department's Occupational Outlook Handbook.