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Dietitians and Nutritionists

The Job

Clinical dietitians plan and supervise the preparation of diets designed for specific patients, and they work for such institutions as hospitals and retirement homes. In many cases, their patients cannot eat certain foods for medical reasons, such as diabetes or liver failure, and the dietitians must see that these patients receive nourishing meals. Clinical dietitians work closely with doctors, who advise them regarding the patients' health and the foods that the patients cannot eat. It is often part of a clinical dietitian's job to educate patients about nutritional principles.

Community dietitians usually work for clinics, government health programs, social service agencies, or similar organizations. They counsel individuals or advise the members of certain groups—such as the elderly, families, and pregnant women—regarding nutritional problems, proper eating, and sensible grocery shopping.

Although most dietitians do some kind of teaching in the course of their work, teaching dietitians specialize in education. They usually work for hospitals, and they may teach full time or part time. Sometimes teaching dietitians also perform other tasks, such as running a food-service operation, especially in small colleges. In larger institutions, however, those tasks are generally performed by different people. In some cases, teaching dietitians also perform research.

There are many kinds of consultant dietitians, who work for such organizations as schools, restaurants, grocery store chains, manufacturers of food-service equipment, pharmaceutical companies, and private companies of various kinds. Some of these organizations have home economics departments that need the services of dietitians. Some consultants spend much of their time advising individuals rather than organizations. One lucrative area for consultants is working with athletes and sports teams, helping to maximize athletes' performance and extend the length of their careers.

Administrative dietitians, also known as management dietitians, combine management skills with people skills to organize and run large-scale food operations. They may work for food-service companies, oversee the cafeterias of large corporations, be employed by prisons, or work at long-term-care facilities—basically they work for any organization that provides food services to a large number of people. In addition to planning menus, these dietitians are responsible for such things as creating budgets, drawing up work policies, and enforcing institutional and government regulations related to safety and sanitation.

Research dietitians typically work for government agencies, universities, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and manufacturers, and they may specialize in any of a vast number of research subjects. They often work on improving existing food products or finding alternatives to foods that are unhealthy when eaten in substantial portions.

The term nutritionist can refer to a variety of people because regulations covering the use of this title vary from state to state. In some states, anyone—even those with little or no specialized education or credentials—can set up shop as a nutritionist. For the purposes of this article, however, nutritionist refers to certified clinical nutritionists. Certified clinical nutritionists (CCNs) have the same core educational and internship backgrounds as RDs. In addition, CCNs are specialists who have completed a certain amount of postgraduate education that focuses on the biochemical and physiological aspects of nutrition science.

CCNs typically work in private practice for themselves, as part of a group of health care professionals, or for a doctor or doctors in private practice. CCNs are specialists who have completed at least some post-graduate training in nutrition science. They work with clients to correct imbalances in the clients' biochemistry and improve their physiological function. Through lab tests, consultations with doctors, and discussions with the clients themselves, CCNs review the clients' overall health and lifestyle and determine what nutrients the clients have too little or too much of. They then come up with plans to enable their clients to get the correct nutrition in order to get their bodies back into balance. Their clients may range from people who are slightly ill, for example, or those who feel run down all the time but do not know why, to people with serious diseases, such as heart disease or cancers. No matter what problem brings a client to a CCN, though, the CCN's goal is to correct that client's biochemistry in order to help that person feel better.

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