Demand for dietitians opens career options

With increased awareness of healthy eating, dietetics grads are finding work in diverse workplaces

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      After she finished an arts degree in anthropology, Nicole Fetterly considered doing her master’s in medical anthropology. But although she loved studying different cultures, she wanted to do more than just discuss people’s health: she wanted to help others improve their health.

      So the Vancouver resident became a registered dietitian (RD) a decade ago, combining her passions for food, nutrition, and well-being with a career she loves in a field that’s expected to grow.

      “I couldn’t be more passionate about it,” Fetterly says in a phone call. “What I love about it is there’s so much interest in it; everybody can talk to you about your job because everybody eats!

      “Over the last decade, I’ve really seen a lot more people visiting dietitians, because a lot more extended health plans are covering dietitian services,” adds Fetterly, a manager of nutrition and wellness at UBC who also works in private practice. “There’s so much more awareness now of how dietitians can influence people and food service in a positive way.”

      With increasing numbers of people becoming aware of the benefits of a healthy diet, dietitians in private practice who offer one-on-one counselling have perhaps never been more in demand. Yet options upon graduating go much further than merely providing advice to individuals.

      Fetterly, for instance, has worked in hospital and palliative-care settings and was the nutrition-operations manager for Choices Markets for five years. (Loblaws is another grocer that has in-store dietitians.) Those types of jobs are just some of the possibilities in the sector.

      RD Karol Traviss is dietetics program leader in the faculty of land and food systems at UBC. She confirms by phone the many employment opportunities for RDs:

      “The work that we do is focused around improving health through food and nutrition, and people very often conceptualize that as being talking to people one-on-one about nutrition. But the number of ways one could work is quite diverse. Some [registered dietitians] work in clinical environments—for example, working with patients on kidney dialysis to meet their nutritional needs—then others work in population and public health, maybe working on policy development such as healthy-eating policies in schools or contributing to food-security initiatives. All the talk about nutrition in the world isn’t going to help if people are food-insecure because of poverty. Another big area is management and working in institutional settings, overseeing large-scale feeding [of] patients in hospitals.”

      Then there are educational and research positions, communications work, and entrepreneurial options like food- and nutrition-related websites.

      For all the career possibilities, there’s also a lot of confusion among the public about terms such as dietitian, nutritionist, registered dietitian, holistic nutritionist, and so on.

      Traviss explains that the term nutritionist is not regulated and is sometimes used to describe people with PhDs in human nutrition who do research in the area or people who work in the supplement department of a health-food store. Sometimes, Traviss says, certain dietitian jobs come with the title “nutritionist”. The dietetics profession is a regulated health profession, just like nursing, occupational therapy, or physiotherapy; registered dietitians must meet certain requirements set out by the provincial regulatory body.

      UBC is the only place in B.C. that offers the registered-dietitian program. After completing two years of university preprogram courses, students join the program for three more years: two on campus followed by a year out in the field for practical experience.

      There are other programs and designations in the province. Registered holistic nutritionists (RHNs) are self-regulated—not regulated by the government—and describe themselves as being trained in natural nutrition.

      “Their principal job function is to educate individuals or groups on the benefits and health impacts of optimum nutrition,” says RHN Kate McLaughlin, communications manager of the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition’s Vancouver branch. “Natural nutrition is, basically, the use of whole foods, avoiding processed foods; it’s not about fad diets or counting calories.”

      The program there offers a diploma following one year of full-time study or two years of part-time. “The industry is so vast; there’s so much you can do with your education,” McLaughlin says. “A lot of our grads work at the more corporate level, helping corporations set up wellness programs; a lot of students work in the sports sector as personal trainers or yoga instructors. Some work with kids in schools.” She notes that many holistic nutritionists work with EarthBites, an initiative that was founded by the Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company in 2007 to connect children with their food through gardening and cooking.

      “Getting to work in such a popular and growing industry is really exciting,” McLaughlin says. “The biggest reward is what you get from helping people on their health journey. There’s an emotional high when you help someone turn their health around. Plus, you get to talk about food all day.”

      The nutrition and food-service management (NFSM) program at Langara College, meanwhile, teaches people who go into institutional food service how to operate kitchens in places such as hospitals, prisons, and schools. Now in its 50th year, the program is offered online and is helping to meet demand: operators of health-care facilities with more than 50 beds must have membership in the Canadian Society of Nutrition Management, and Langara is the only place in B.C. to offer the qualifying program.

      “The program is, basically, nutrition and business together,” says RD Monica Molag, a Langara NFSM instructor. “When you’re operating a bigger kitchen, you usually have a very large budget and quite a few staff members. We have a lot of red-seal chefs who take the program. Cooking for an acute-care hospital is really the pinnacle of cooking, because that is where any mistakes can cause critical side effects.…A lot of people like working with food, but they’re also very organized: organized foodies. That’s where this program comes in. It’s for people who like management, dealing with labour relations, dealing with budgets.”

      Students can also do the first two years of dietetics at Langara and transfer to the program at UBC.

      “The nutrition courses are very popular,” Molag adds. “We often have waiting lists for them.”