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Finding Fuel for Life: Careers as Nutritionists and Dietitians

  • Article by:Health Career Center

“My greatest satisfaction comes from providing comfort to individuals who may be experiencing one of the most difficult moments of their lives,” says Lisa Cimperman, a registered dietitian nutritionist and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.    After more than 13 years in hospitals and currently at the University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, her fascination with the connection between nutrition and disease is unabated. 

“I work with some of the best doctors and nurses,” she says.  “Dietitians are more and more a part of the [treatment] team -- and a critical part of that team.”

That’s one of the reasons why the demand for dietitians and nutritionists in the U.S. is expected to expand by nearly 16% by 2024. That’s much faster than the average for all occupations.  According to the Department of Labor, median income for dietitians and nutritionists is nearly $58,000 a year. Salary is most influenced by your employer’s pay scale, but geographic location and job experience also will have a big effect on the size of your paycheck.

Before you sit down to the three-course educational feast that will prepare you to be a registered dietitian nutritionist, spend a few days tasting the career you’re considering.  Shadow a dietitian with his or her own private practice, then check out the work of a hospital dietitian and determine if you’re comfortable in the patient-centered hospital environment. Once you have a feel for the available options and the day-to-day life of a dietitian nutritionist, find an accredited college nutrition program.  

Over three or four years you will negotiate a full plate of required science courses, resulting in a Bachelor of Science degree.  A dietitian’s educational entree is a 1200-hour accredited internship where you will sample a variety of nutrition specialties. Finally, your academic dessert is the exam you’ll have to pass to earn your Registered Dietitian Nutritionist credential.  You’ll need the RDN to practice in most states that require a license.

A “nutritionist” differs from a “registered dietitian nutritionist” in that the nutritionist is much less regulated and typically is not taught the connection between nutrition and diagnosed medical diseases.  For example, a nutritionist can help a client lose weight, but if that client is a diabetes or celiac disease patient he or she will need an RDN’s help.

Nutritionists with an applicable master’s or doctorate degree and 1,000 hours of experience can take the exam to earn the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential that also is accepted in several states for licensure purposes.

After earning an RDN or CNS, the dietitian or nutritionist begins the job search.  In 2014, 48% of all dietitians and nutritionists worked in a health care environment, with 30% employed by hospitals.

Alicia Gilmore, a registered dietitian nutritionist and clinical nutrition supervisor at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, offers some food for thought for job-seeking, newly credentialed registered dietitian nutritionists:  Look for hospitals that support continuing education, additional certification, and even research opportunities for their dietitians.  And make sure that dietitians have a seat at a hospital’s treatment table.

“A hospital that truly values dietitians recognizes that they bring evidence-based information that helps to provide the best care for patients,” Gilmore says, “and encourages respect for our role among the other members of the health care team.”

Once you find your job, a dietitian’s day is a salad of variety.

“There really is no ‘typical’ day for a hospital dietitian.  You never know what you’ll get,” says Gilmore, who has 14 years of experience as a hospital dietitian.  “In general, an inpatient dietitian can see between 8 to 14 patients a day.  They start their day by receiving consults from [doctors and nurses] about patients and put together a list of those who may be in danger of malnutrition.   For those we’ll perform a nutrition assessment that may include identifying loss of muscle or fat. We are aware of medications the patients are taking and are trained to know how they affect our patients, so we then can make the correct nutritional recommendations.”

The role of the hospital dietitian often doesn’t end when the patient goes home. 

“Patients don’t feel good in the hospital so it’s not always the best opportunity to provide nutritional information,” says Gilmore.  “That’s why face-to-face follow-up in the outpatient clinics is so important.”

And the payoff for Gilmore is the same as it was when she began her career:  “It’s the connection with the patients, and the ability to find that one thing that will really help them.  That’s what continues to make my career meaningful.”