How to become a dietitian and what they do

Healthy foodstuffs - careers as a dietitian
Wondering what dietitians do and if you’d like to become one? Discover what the job involves and the skills and qualifications required, with help from paediatric diabetes dietitian Andrea Young.

If you're interested in food, science and helping others, a career as a dietitian might suit you. Most dietitians work in healthcare, helping patients with a range of conditions where diet is an important factor. Some have other jobs, such as in sports settings optimising performance.

Read on to find out how to get into careers as a dietitian and what dietitians do. To help you get an insiders' perspective we've spoken to Andrea Young, a paediatric diabetes dietitian who works for Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust.

How to become a dietitian

To train and qualify as a dietitian you need either:

  • an undergraduate degree in dietetics (lasts three or four years depending on the institution and is aimed at students going to university for the first time) or
  • a postgraduate diploma/masters degree in dietetics (lasts two years and is aimed at students who already have a degree).

As well as learning the theory behind working as a dietitian you'll also go out on work placements, typically in the NHS.

To get onto an undergraduate dietetics degree you need good science subjects at A level/Highers (usually chemistry and biology) and an interest in food, medicine, science and people.

To get onto a postgraduate diploma or masters degree in dietetics you need an undergraduate degree that includes a significant amount of human physiology and biochemistry. Relevant degrees will relate to human biology – for example biochemistry, biomedical science, human biology, nutrition or physiology (this list isn't exhaustive).

Commenting on her own route, Andrea says: 'I always had an interest in science in school and following a degree in physiology I completed a postgraduate diploma in dietetics.'

What do dietitians do, and what's the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?

Andrea explains: 'Once you qualify as a dietitian there are many areas you can work in, including industry, catering, hospitals, community healthcare, education and sport. Dietitians differ from nutritionists in that they can work in disease management as well as providing general nutrition advice. For this reason, to train as a dietitian requires hospital/NHS placements as part of the course.'

Working as a dietitian in a healthcare setting

If you work in healthcare, you might help individuals or groups who:

  • want to lose or gain weight (including people undergoing weight loss surgery)
  • are trying to eat in the best way to manage a condition such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease
  • have food allergies
  • have an eating disorder
  • have digestive problems.

You can be involved in assessing and diagnosing individuals, putting together treatment plans and monitoring how these work. You'll probably work closely with other medical professionals. You might choose to specialise in one particular medical condition, and/or one particular type of patient (eg children, elderly people or people with learning difficulties). Some dietitians work in hospitals; others work in community settings such as GP surgeries.

Andrea describes her own work as follows: 'I work in supporting families with children with type 1 diabetes to manage this complicated condition. As part of a multidisciplinary team I provide advice and education on carbohydrate counting, insulin requirements, healthy eating and managing exercise among other things!'

Working as a dietitian elsewhere

If you work as a dietitian outside of healthcare, activities you could undertake include:

  • advising sportspeople about their diet to help them perform at their best
  • working in food manufacturing to research and develop new products, ensure that products comply with regulations and communicate nutritional information to colleagues or the public
  • teaching others about the science behind diet, for example for university students or on courses for nurses and GPs
  • developing and implementing government policies on food and nutrition.

What are the best and worst bits about a career as a dietitian?

Andrea comments: 'I enjoy my job for the variety it brings. I like using my education and experience to try and help children and families from a range of backgrounds live with a complex disease. I also like getting to know our families and working within a small friendly team.

'Downsides are dealing with negative outcomes or very poorly children. And documentation and paperwork can sometimes feel a bit much (if essential)!'

What skills do you need to be a dietitian?

Dietitians need to be good both with science and with people. Andrea explains: 'Providing dietetic advice relies on a lot of communication – either face to face or by phone/email. So the ability to relate to people and confidently communicate is essential. It is also important to be able to translate evidence-based science into messages or targets people can understand.'

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