Health Care Careers - Dietitian

Preventing disease and illness before it begins has a lot to do with what people eat. With more and more people now watching what they eat, the need for dietitians has increased greatly.

Dietitians can help prevent and treat illnesses by promoting healthy eating habits, planning nutrition programs for schools and hospitals, and advising patients as to how they can improve their diets.

Dietitians work in a variety of settings, depending upon the type of work they do. Most hospitals, schools, and nursing homes work with dietitians to help map out healthy meal plans, educate people about the importance of good nutrition, and create special diets for people with special needs (such as diabetics who must carefully control the amount of sugar they eat).

Dietitians work closely with dietetic technicians (who assist dietitians), nutritional counselors (who typically counsel individuals on eating habits and nutritional problems), and food-service personnel (who help prepare and serve meals). There are four main types of dietitians:

CLINICAL DIETITIANS. Clinical dietitians can be found working in institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes. These professionals will look closely at the needs of the patients or residents and develop a nutritional program (including planning meals) that will meet the different needs of all the patients. Clinical dietitians monitor the effectiveness of their programs and are constantly seeking ways to make sure that people's nutritional needs are being met. Often, these dietitians consult with doctors and other health care professionals to ensure that a patient's medical care and nutritional plan complement one another. It is not uncommon for clinical dietitians to specialize in treating specific patient populations, such as pediatric, diabetic, or geriatric (elderly).

COMMUNITY DIETITIANS. Community dietitians offer nutritional counseling to people in a certain community or to members of a certain organization in order to help these people prevent disease and maintain their health. These dietitians can be found working in community health care clinics, health maintenance organizations (HMOs), and home health agencies. Like clinical dietitians, community dietitians evaluate dietary needs by listening and talking to individual patients about their lifestyles. The dietitian then develops nutritional care plans for the patients and advises their families. The advice a community dietitian provides can range from tips on grocery shopping to instruction on food preparation.

CONSULTANT DIETITIANS. Many consultant dietitians see patients in their own private practices or work for an established health care facility. In either case, these dietitians most often provide nutritional screening for patients. Nutritional screening is a process in which dietitians evaluate the eating habits of their patients. Based on the results of screenings and patients' concerns, consultant dietitians can counsel patients how to lose weight, reduce their cholesterol, or adopt a high-fiber and low-fat diet. Consultant dietitians may also work with supermarkets, sport teams, and food manufacturers.

MANAGEMENT DIETITIANS. Management dietitians are experts at planning meals for large numbers of people, such as those found in major health care facilities, corporate cafeterias, prisons, and schools. Hiring, training, and supervising other dietitians and food-service workers are just part of the management dietitian's job. They also have to handle the budgeting for and purchasing of food and supplies and make certain that safety and sanitary regulations are followed.

Training to Be a Dietitian

Dietitians must have a bachelor's degree (four-year college degree) with a major in dietetics, foods and nutrition, food-service systems management, or a related area. Most bachelor's programs require students in dietetics to serve internships or have supervised work experience. Some dietitians also hold a master's degree in nutrition science. Dietitians can become registered dietitians (R.D.) by passing a certification exam that may be taken only after completing their education and supervised work experience or internship.

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