Dietetics, the field of nutrition, health and the application of science-based nutrition knowledge offers a variety of distinctive career opportunities that goes beyond the usual view of the dietitian as someone who simply helps others lose weight. If you have interests in health, food, healthy lifestyle and science, you may well find your niche in this growing profession.
“A dietitian is a registered healthcare professional who is qualified to assess, diagnose and treat nutritional problems, as well as to advise on preventative nutritional strategies,” says Maryke Gallagher, registered dietitian and President of ADSA, the Association for Dietetics in South Africa. In South Africa, the minimum qualification for a dietitian is a four-year BSc degree and one-year of community service. To practice dietetics in the country, one must be registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). A registered dietitian is, therefore, a recognised expert in evidenced-based nutrition. This scientific expertise is vital in today’s world where there is an abundance of unscientific health and nutrition information, as well as a plethora of fad diets and nutrition gimmicks.
While dietitians are certainly the ‘go-to’ people for those battling with overweight and obesity, there is a lot more to the career than just sharing weight reduction and management expertise. What we eat has significant impacts on many other diseases and health conditions. Whether therapeutic nutrition or preventative nutrition, dietitians promote good health and wellbeing for all. There is much scope to tailor a career in dietetics to your personal passions. You may be interested in focusing on children's health, maternal health, food allergies or eating disorders, or on some of the many medical conditions that require a dietitian’s management such as diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS and intestinal disorders. In addition, when it comes to sports, nutrition also impacts on performance, and dietitians may often play integral roles on the teams managing high performance sportspeople.
Without doubt, there is a high need for registered dietitians in South Africa. While infectious disease such as HIV/AIDS and TB continue to be prevalent in South Africa, non-communicable diseases like heart disease, strokes, cancers and diabetes are actually the main causes of deaths . Yet up to 80% of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes and over a third of cancers could be prevented by adopting a healthy lifestyle, such as eating a healthy diet, keeping physically active and avoiding tobacco products .
South Africa is ranked the most obese country in sub-Saharan Africa . Alarmingly, two out of three women and almost one in three men are overweight or obese, and almost 1 in 4 children aged 2-14 years are overweight or obese in South Africa . On the opposite side of the coin, chronic under-nutrition is also prevalent with 1 in 4 children aged 0-3 years suffering from stunting, a condition where a child grows to be small for their age due to poor nutrition4. There is also a high incidence of micronutrient deficiencies, particularly vitamin A and iron, in South African children and women of reproductive age4. South Africa has high levels of food insecurity with around 1 in 4 food-insecure South Africans experiencing hunger and a further 1 in 4 at risk of hunger 4.
Dietitians may work in a variety of settings with different areas of focus:
Private practice – like other health professionals, dietitians can set themselves up to consult privately with patients who need advice on nutrition therapy and support to make healthy eating a lifestyle change.
Hospitals – known as clinical dietitians, these practitioners primarily work in hospitals consulting with patients who are referred to them by doctors or other healthcare professionals. Their role in a patient care team is to assess and individualise nutrition therapy (whether an appropriate special diet, tube feed or intravenous feed) as an integral part of recovery or palliative care.
Community – these dietitians may be employed in the public sector, or by NGOs or community-based organisations. Their focus is generally on the promotion, protection and support of breastfeeding; growth monitoring and the prevention of malnutrition; nutrition promotion and education; promotion of healthy lifestyles to address non- communicable diseases; prevention and treatment of vitamin and mineral deficiencies; and addressing food insecurity issues.
Institution-based – dietitians also work in food service management providing healthy and specialised diets to people living in institutions such as senior homes, school hostels, welfare care centres, prisons and health care facilities. Their work includes planning, costing and developing menus; controlling implementing, evaluating and overseeing food service systems; and managing special dietary requirements.
Industry/Corporate – there are varied roles for dietitians in the food, retail, healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. They may advise on current food labelling legislation, nutrition regulations and the nutritional analysis of food items; be involved in product development; share latest developments and trends in nutrition; participate in nutrition-related marketing activities; lead corporate wellness programmes and conduct literature reviews.
Research/Academia – dietitians employed by educational institutions are involved in continuously providing new evidence-based nutrition information through on-going research and teaching and are responsible for the training of new nutrition professionals.
Media/Publishing – in the Information Age, there is opportunity for dietitians, who have important knowledge to share, to generate expert content providing nutrition advice, latest evidenced-based nutrition news and views, commentary on nutrition issues and inspiration for healthy eating.
Do you have what it takes?
Maryke advises that a career in dietetics will suit those who:
• are interested in food and health
• enjoy and have a flair for Science
• would be fulfilled by a caring, helping profession
• are lifelong learners who are attentive to the on-going developments in Science
• are able to translate scientific knowledge into practical advice
• are comfortable in the role of the expert and like sharing knowledge with others
• have strong inter- and intrapersonal skills
• have a positive attitude and the ability to motivate others
• have empathy, understanding and tact