How to pursue a career as a nutritionist

grtgretgeyghtyThere’s a growing awareness both of the value of eating healthier, and just how poor general nutrition has become across wide swathes of the population. Nutritionists specialize in the complicated field of human responses to what we eat.

More than just a diet coach, their knowledge is based on science and health research, and nutritionists are tasked with providing recommendations for a variety of wellness outcomes. They may treat patients struggling with eating disorders, diabetics, those who have suffered from heart attacks and other lifestyle diseases, as well as those with rare and challenging conditions that need help identifying and including customized nutrition in their lives.

Patients with food sensitivities and allergies can benefit from the expertise of educated nutritionists who can help them make sure they’re getting the vitamins, minerals and macronutrients they need in appropriate doses. Patients with gastrointestinal health challenges such as Crohn’s Disease or Irritable Bowel System may work with a nutritionist alongside their internal medicine specialist or family doctor to identify and eliminate foods that exacerbate their condition, and replace them with easier to digest foods that still meet their nutritional needs.

Of course, general wellness coaching can be included in a nutritional specialist’s duties. Teaching at schools and helping patients identify and make healthier day-to-day choices are common, whether that’s with an eye to weight loss, or just a better nutritional profile – less junk food, more whole foods; less carbs, more protein and vegetable, etc.

There are varying levels of education and responsibility associated with becoming a nutritionist. Depending on regional variation, a nutritionist may be considered a full medical professional, or a more casual diet coach. Since human biological responses to food are complex, and our understanding of them continues to evolve and grow, it can be a challenging field to study and stay current in. At the more casual level of nutritionist, self-study and certification can be sufficient to enter professional practice. At the most senior level, you can do a medical degree with specialization in nutrition. The cost and duration of education scales up accordingly. Here are five steps to get started heading down the path to becoming a nutritionist.

Get a solid foundation in math and the sciences

Much of nutrition is chemistry and biology, with a little physics thrown in: the interactions between molecules, the processes of the human body, rates of absorption and beneficial or detrimental interactions, and the movement of energy. Start from a strong foundation by taking a full slate of mathematics and science coursework in high school or, if you’ve already graduated, consider summer courses, remote adult-oriented classes, or one of the free online programs to build or brush up your skills before applying to a post-secondary program or practicing on patients.

Engage in self-study

Apart from foundational math and science, you should have an interest in nutrition and be taking the initiative to learn what you can about the field independently. Put into practice recommendations in your own life and learn from the results. Read and research, and find a group of friends or colleagues to share your developing knowledge with to take advantage of the boost in motivation and information retention teaching others can provide.

Do research on your career goals

What kind of nutritionist would you find it most rewarding to become? Do you want to work in a hospital with patients with critical illnesses? Are you more interested in working with patients with eating disorders that need to move toward healthier eating habits? Do you want to work with a gym, helping motivated people become more fit? Or maybe you want to work directly with restaurants? You need to understand where you want to go before you can get there, and shadowing a few different nutritionists or completing an internship can be a good way to get a look at your options without committing to expensive studies or taking a job you won’t be happy in.

Get a formal certification or education

Once you’ve got a solid academic foundation in math and sciences, explored your interests and determined the right career direction for you, it’s time to get the education and certifications or licenses necessary to allow you to practice as a professional nutritionist. These will vary depending on your interests and the requirements of your regional authorities, but may include a local or remote certificate course, degree or post-graduate program, formal internships or supervised practice, and licensing or certification exams.

Stay up to date with the latest findings

Nutrition is a rapidly advancing field, so be sure to stay up to date with the latest research so you can help your patients and stand out as a knowledgeable, skilled and engaged professional. Oncotarget is a free-to-access medical and science journal with relevant articles relating to immunology and microbiological studies. Identify a series of trustworthy go-to sources and allocate a little time on a regular basis to staying up to date in your field. You’ll also be able to give an informed response on today’s position on the health benefits (or lack thereof) of the superfood of the month, like pomegranate, green tea or red wine.

Pursuing a career as a nutritionist is a meaningful, in-demand direction for aspiring professionals. Make your way there step-by-step by establishing a solid scientific base of knowledge, doing your research, and pursuing the formal education, certification or licensing necessary to practice. Whether you’re eager to help dieters improve their patterns, remediate the suffering of the chronically ill, or work with commercial clients to offer the healthiest meals to customers, a future as a nutritionist can get you there.

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