Who is a dietitian?
Dietitians are the only qualified health professionals that assess, diagnose and treat diet and nutrition problems at an individual and wider public health level. They have the professional knowledge and experience to assess nutritional needs and to recommend appropriate dietary treatment to help optimise nutritional status, help with recovery from illness, control symptoms and improve well-being. They work with both healthy and sick people, advise on healthy eating for all ages, ethnic groups and socio-economic groups.
Dietitians are legally able to supply and administer nutritional products and supplements without prescription as well as all approved borderline substances (ACBS) and some prescription only medicines e.g. insulin, phosphate binders and pancreatic enzymes, through trust boards. They can also adjust this medication.
Dietitians are referred to as the 'Gold Standard' of food and nutrition professionals.
What dietitians do?
Uniquely, registered dietitians use the most up-to-date scientific research on food, health and disease. They are highly regarded for their ability to interpret and translate the complex science of nutrition into practical information and guidance to enable people to make appropriate lifestyle and food choices.
They develop dietary therapy for medical conditions and diseases, according to individual needs. Advice from dietitians is safe and reliable, since they use recognised methodologies to critically appraise the evidence base. They hold a responsibility to give options for clients, patients, carers and colleagues using a broad range of disciplines such as communication, behaviour change psychology and pharmacology. Dietitians provide motivational tools and effective programmes that deliver results.
What is their role?
A key role of a dietitian is to promote nutritional well-being and prevent nutrition-related problems by educating people. They help maintain nutritional status when individuals want to trial dietary interventions like exclusion diets, nutritional supplementation or to follow alternative therapies in areas such as autism, for which data is still emerging.
Much of dietitians’ work is spent on training and counselling medical staff and social care workers about the best course of action in patient’s best interest. They give talks, lectures and presentations to other health professionals, university students and the public. Dietitians advise on diet to avoid the side effects and interactions between food and medications. They also plan and implement nutritional awareness programmes to improve public health.
Where do dietitians work?
You will find dietitians in a great variety of settings within the community, acute and public health such as hospitals, clinics, and private sector practices. They can work in the food service, pharmaceutical and food industries, catering, education, public relations, sport and leisure, publishing, schools, workplaces, management, health-related agencies/departments, public and not-for-profit sectors, local and national government and Non Government Organisations (NGOs). Dietitians get involved in, and publish research, write and consult for, and liaise with the media as well as influence food and health policy across all spectrum.
They often work as integral members of multi-disciplinary teams to treat complex clinical conditions such as diabetes, food allergy and intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, eating disorders, chronic fatigue, malnutrition, kidney failure and bowel disorders. They provide advice to caterers to ensure the nutritional care of e.g. nursing/care homes residents. Dietitians work across all age groups and many care pathways including mental health or learning disabilities.
How to become a dietitian?
To qualify as a dietitian one needs to complete a degree that include basic and applied sciences underpinning nutrition and dietetics, complemented by social and behavioural sciences and the theories of communication in order to support development of the skills required for professional dietetic practice.
In the United Kingdom, the curriculum is designed by the British Dietetic Association, the professional body and Trade Union for dietitians. It must be approved by the HCPC and demonstrate that graduates meet the Standards of Proficiency.
Dietetic courses are structured with a comprehensive list of modules:
All courses require a period of supervised practice in National Health Service settings, where students must demonstrate clinical and professional competence before being eligible to apply for registration.
The ‘Trust a Dietitian’ campaign aims to highlight the importance of choosing a Dietitian and to satisfy that they have an appropriate background before seeing them privately. It is crucial to remember that there exists many other individuals who style themselves as ‘diet coaches’ or ‘nutrition experts’, sometimes with many letters after their name, having no more than an interest in food. Sadly, the truth is anyone can set up and practice, which means there is no real protection for customers.
Refer to this guide for an explanation of different functions.