Nutritionist is only a legally sanctioned name in about half the states, like licensed nurse practitioner, respiratory therapist or registered dietitian. And while nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists may require a license or certificate in every state, dietitians are certified or licensed in all but a few states.
Those with a nutritionist career may work in labs, kitchens, offices and classrooms. Clinical nutritionists may work in hospitals, nursing homes, gyms, private practices or for themselves, consulting with individuals, families or athletes to plan menus and structure meals. Some nutritionists wear white lab coats and carry clipboards; others wear aprons and carry trays of food. Yet others spend their days in front of computer monitors poring over data or writing articles or books. Some nutritionists spend their workdays chatting with clients, listening and offering advice, while others work in exotic-looking clinics where incense is burned, acupuncture is practiced and alternative therapies are taught.
Some advantages of being a clinical nutritionist include getting to work directly with people and form close relationships with them, discussing their eating habits and other lifestyle choices, activities, family, hobbies, fears and hopes. Nutritionists have access to cutting-edge research and scientific information, and can apply their work knowledge at home to make healthy choices for themselves and their families.
Doctors and nurses help sick people become healthy, but a good nutritionist can help people avoid hospitals in the first place. Helping an overweight person safely return to a healthy weight, for example, can be a lot cheaper and less risky than attempting weight-loss surgery or, if things get out of control, heart surgery following a stroke or cardiac arrest. While no nutritionist can guarantee the outcome of a patient interaction, by helping people understand how to make better food decisions, nutritionists can help empower their clients to take control over their own lives before severe medical conditions can develop.
Clinical nutritionists may look at a client’s blood chemistry, neurochemistry, stool or urine samples not just to determine what the person ate (there are much easier ways of finding that out), but to judge how the client is metabolizing and how their body is making use of those vitamins, minerals, fiber and calories. Nutritionists use many of the tools found in other medical fields, but not necessarily to cure an existing disease directly. Nutritionists help identify imbalances that might contribute to diseases—ideally before the diseases develop. But when the problem is not nutrition-related, qualified nutritionists will refer their client to a medical doctor or some other specialist.
Nutritionists gauge a client’s energy level through interviews and tests, and advise the client on what foods (as well as how and when they’re consumed) can promote a healthier lifestyle. These healthcare professionals spend a lot of time face-to-face with clients learning about their lifestyle and goals, their personal problems and fears, their childhood upbringing (as it relates to snacks, meals and exercise) and their cultural and taste preferences. Nutritionists sometimes must read past what a client says (I never eat candy . . .) to what may likely be the actual case (. . . when anybody else is watching) and help clients reflect frankly upon their own eating habits.
Some equipment used by nutritionists includes bio-electrical impedance analysis (BIA), a commonly used tool that measures body fat vs. lean body mass vs. water content of a person’s body to establish a baseline measurement from which a client can seek to improve. Nutritionists also use scales, tape measures (for waist size, for example) and a noninvasive antioxidant measuring device that uses lasers to measure through a person’s hand how many antioxidants are in their body.
Every day, new research comes out on the health benefits or dangers of popular or lesser-known foods. Very often, these stories contradict other research reported not too long before. (e.g., red wine is good for your heart, but can pose a breast cancer risk; counting calories is more important than watching fat, but some fats are dangerous while others are good for you, so pay more attention to the type of fat than how many calories are consumed, and so on.) Nutritionists follow all these articles and must determine which are likely to be useful for helping their clients achieve their goals. Many so-called “superfoods” might not be bad, but the health claims might be inflated by the companies who promote them or fund the institutions that provide the research. Nutritionists need to see through to the real story and make decisions that go beyond the hype.
Some with a career as a nutritionist work for government regulatory agencies, ensuring that the calories, sodium and vitamins manufacturers claim are in processed foods (or absent from them) are indeed there in the correct amounts. Others use their chemistry and culinary backgrounds to ensure that when foods go through an industrial cooking process that as many nutrients as possible are maintained.
Many diseases common to today’s aging (and even younger) population—obesity, diabetes, hypertension, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, allergies—can be traced to eating habits. Nutritionists in private practice may help individuals choose meal plans that help them achieve their individual health goals and relieve their nutrition-caused ailments. Nutritionists who work in institutions where many meals are served, like nursing homes, prisons or schools, help make decisions about what foods are purchased and prepared to make mealtimes palatable, profitable and healthy for those institutions and the people they serve. Some nutritionists work for private industries, helping develop or combine flavors to help create new products for the food or drug market, while satisfying government regulatory requirements and safety concerns. Some nutritionists supervise other nutritionists or work with chefs, cooks and purchasing agents, or with marketing or packaging experts to create appealing food products.