This is one for the students who may be thinking about studying to become a nutritionist either straight out of school or later in life. I’m a Registered Nutritionist and I’ve worked for the Food Standards Agency and in the food industry before setting up my own business. I now have a freelance career working mainly with food manufacturers and the media and I also blog, vlog and am active on social media. I do careers talks at many universities and meet lots of really enthusiastic students already studying for degrees so if that’s you, read on for tips on job hunting and on the different roles a nutritionist can play. If you’re still deciding and maybe wondering what course to do, this is still for you!
Nutritionist or dietitian?
Do you want to treat patients? If you’re looking to guide people with clinical advice on managing disease, allergies or obesity then study dietetics. This will give you the appropriate medical training and a state registered qualification that enables you to practice in hospitals and private medical settings. If you want to work in public health or charities on campaigns and communications to improve the health of the nation; for industry, helping manufacturers to make their products healthier; or in academia researching nutrition in depth, do a nutrition degree. While many nutritionists see clients, they should really only offer advice on healthy eating or sports nutrition and only with the appropriate qualifications and experience. They should not treat medical issues.
Do an Association for Nutrition accredited course
If you’re picking a course, make sure it’s accredited by the Association for Nutrition so that you can apply to be an Associate Nutritionist after you qualify and show the appropriate experience. After 3 years, you can then apply to be a Registered Nutritionist. While the title is not legally protected (not yet at least – watch my video to learn about the Fight the Fads petition) it offers assurance to employers, the media and the public that they are working with a qualified individual who uses the most up to date evidence base and who conducts themselves in a professional manner.
Think you can only help people by working for the Government or charities?
While the obvious choices for newly qualified nutritionists would be to work for the Department of Health, NHS or charities and non-Government associations, don’t dismiss working for industry. The food industry en masse gets a bad reputation, accused of being the sole cause of the obesity crisis and putting profit before health. In truth, as a nutritionist in the food industry, you have just as good a chance, if not better, of influencing public health. If you can support and encourage reformulation and create positive health communications you can have a real influence on the population’s health. While most of the nation is aware of the Government’s 5 a day message, precious few actually achieve it. But if you can encourage industry to reduce portion sizes and lower sugar, fat and salt levels in their products, you’ll have a real positive impact.
Want to work in sports nutrition?
Sports nutritionists are in high demand by sports teams and athletes in the never-ending pursuit of better performance. However, the supply of sports nutritionists far exceeds the demand and it’s a competitive industry. I work with sports supplement companies to help them optimise their products and label them correctly. I don’t advise individuals because, while I have a Masters in nutrition and have studied sports nutrition, I don’t have a Masters in sports nutrition specifically.
You really need to have done a dedicated degree in sports science or nutrition, followed by a post-graduate qualification in sports nutrition. Ideally get yourself on the Sports and Exercise Nutrition Register which is the sports nutrition equivalent of the AfN Register.
For the best advice, listen to a real professional, Professor Graeme Close, who has some fantastic tips for budding sports nutritionists in his blog.
Keep an open mind
When you qualify, apply for roles in lots of different places. I’ve worked for the Government, in foodservice, in manufacturing and in the media. I’ve done scientific roles, working in R&D and quality departments, regulatory and legal roles and I’ve also worked in marketing teams. It’s given me a really broad understanding of nutrition not just from a health perspective but also given me experience of nutrition communications, legal compliance, creating training programmes and corporate social responsibility campaigns.
Use your contacts, go to networking events and don’t be afraid to take on voluntary roles or things that don’t seem perfect at first. It all gives you experience and helps expand your network. Even if you take an unpaid internship at first, it can lead to bigger better things.
Want to work for yourself?
I’ve been freelancing for nearly 5 years, working mainly with food manufacturers and start-up businesses, as well as doing media work and I love what I do. But I wouldn’t be able to do this without my experience in the workplace so think carefully before deciding whether a freelance career is for you, whether you want to see one to one clients or work on a project basis with the food inustry.
Bear in mind that you will be responsible for paying your own tax, sorting our professional insurance and arranging a private pension. You won’t get holiday or sick pay and maternity leave lasts as long as you can afford to get by on statutory maternity pay. However, it’s hugely exciting and you can, with organisation and discipline, be flexible in your working hours, work on a range of exciting and varied projects and develop a media career if that’s what you want. I wouldn’t have it any other way but it’s definitely worth weighing up the pros and cons.
To be a successful freelancer, invest in a website, blog and even video blog. Be active on social media and network lots. Always keep learning to develop and update your knowledge. Finally, remember that TV and media work is nowhere near as glamourous as you think! It takes a lot of time and is often unpaid but it is of course, good for building your profile.
In summary, the role of a nutritionist is varied and exciting. I wouldn’t change anything about the work that I do. But being a registered nutritionist comes with great responsibility. There are a great number of people out there claiming to be nutritionists, nutritional therapists or nutrition coaches. Some of them are great and use the evidence base well and most importantly, know their limits, avoiding treating medical cases in which they are inexperienced. Others may be, quite simply, a danger to the practice of evidence based nutrition and a danger to public health. It’s your job, as budding nutritionists to counter the nutri-nonsense that pervades much of our society and media. Go forth and spread the evidence!