The food we eat is a hot topic in the UK media - due to our high rates of obesity and the associated increase in heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
And we know we can reduce the chances of being affected by these lifestyle diseases by eating a healthy balanced diet so it’s unsurprising that increased interest in the population’s nutritional health has led to a similar increase in the number of people considering roles as dietitians and nutritionists, both in academia and in professional practice.
If you are interested in becoming a nutritionist, I hope this blog will answer some of the questions you may have and offer useful tips to help you on your new found career path.
Nutritionists study and train to enable them to assess and advise on population dietary intake. They can work for a range of organisations including public bodies, universities, charities, food companies and supermarket chains.
Some have specific training that enables them to provide one to one advice in a similar way to dietitians, whose training is more specifically related to advising on individual dietary issues for medical conditions.
Nutrition has been recognised as being associated with health for a long time and indeed nutritionists have helped support our population at key times in history.
One famous nutritionist Elsie Widdowson grew up in London during the First World War and her initial studies at Imperial College London launched her into one of the most remarkable careers of the last century.
She specialised in the scientific analysis of food, nutrition and the relationship between diet and health before and after birth. Her joint work with Professor Robert McCance, which lasted 60 years, is the basis of our current nutrition tables and revolutionised the way the world assessed the nutrient content of food and how it investigated the problems of dietary deficiency.
Over long periods of self-deprivation, McCance and Widdowson helped to develop the basis of war time rationing, which enabled our parents and grandparents to achieve a healthy diet despite the food supply issues of the war. She was also consulted on the approaches to responding to the starvation suffered by concentration camp victims. Elsie’s story is now part of the education curriculum in England and has even appeared in Absolute Genius with Dick and Dom!
The title ‘nutritionist’ is not a protected term in the UK unlike the title ‘dietitian’. A protected term is a title that has restrictions as to whom may use it and a governing body ensures that those who use it have the required training and qualifications. However, the Association for Nutrition (AfN) holds a voluntary register of nutritionists. In order to join this register, your training and experience would have demonstrated that you have the knowledge, skills and competence to deliver the work of a nutritionist.
So how do you go about the business of actually becoming a qualified and registered nutritionist?
Many UK universities have nutrition degree courses, often consisting of a minimum of 3 years full-time studying; and masters degrees will be at least 1 year full time (or equivalent). Some of these courses are accredited by the Association for Nutrition, which helps demonstrate the high quality of the courses with teaching provided by qualified individuals.
Those completing accredited courses can automatically become Associate Nutritionists on the voluntary register held by the AfN whereas those taking non-accredited courses will have to apply for associate registration, in the process demonstrating the knowledge, skills and competence that are known to be provided by the accredited courses.
Associate Nutritionists can move to become Registered Nutritionists after they demonstrate 3 or more years of experience across a range of competencies. Nutritionists who meet the knowledge, skills and competencies with more than 3 years’ experience can apply for direct entry as a Registered Nutritionist by portfolio application.
The impact of nutrition on health continues to be wide-ranging and I can illustrate this by outlining the career path of one of PHE’s registered public health nutritionists and PHE’s Deputy Director of Diet & Obesity Dr Louis Levy who has had an extensive career in public health, working in academia and the public and voluntary sectors.
Louis has degrees in physiology, neurophysiology of behaviour and nutrition. He started his research career in human nutrition and then cardiovascular research, moving into social science research and then health promotion before joining government as the nutrition and policy advice manager with the Food Standards Agency, a function now transferred to PHE via the Department of Health.
This varied career means Louis understands the differing needs of the various stakeholders that any nutritionist would interact with.
His advice to those considering this career path is simple; ensure your advice is based on good science, help untangle the jargon and myths and keep messages consistent. This means keeping up to date with developments in scientific journals and critically analysing these to help you deliver your role and reflect on your learning.