It seems that anybody who’s managed to lose a significant amount of weight suddenly possesses the skills to prescribe nutrition advice. Celebrities are hounded for their diet secrets and ambiguously titled ‘health coaches’ conduct a roaring trade despite having no formal qualifications. I constantly see these advertised online – “No prior experience or education needed, all training provided!”
As recently as six months ago I was suckered in by an ad like this. Naively heading off to a job interview in the hope I might gain experience in one-on-one nutrition consults, I found myself amongst a group of unqualified sales reps, explaining that after conducting a ‘dietary assessment’, I would then prescribe different potions, powders, pills and supplements to clients. After some probing, I discovered that I would only get paid if the clients chose to purchase the products. What if clients were reluctant to buy, I asked? Well, they said, then I would have to decide what it was they could afford – essentially, squeeze out as much money as possible.
What was in these miracle products that the reps raved about, I couldn’t tell you: when I repeatedly asked to be enlightened, even they themselves couldn’t name even a single ingredient. Just look on the website, they said; it was all in the brochures.
Needless to say, I declined the job.
Personal rant aside, I think it’s important to seek advice from the right people. You wouldn’t take car advice seriously from a hairdresser, so why are people so trusting when it comes to taking dietary advice from just anyone?
Being a dietitian has been my goal and dream for as long as I can remember, and amazingly enough, this dream is finally becoming a reality: in just over a month’s time, I go back to study to begin my Master’s degree in Dietetics.
But I’m often asked what a dietitian actually does. And how’s it different from a nutritionist? Aren’t they the same thing? Who should you see?
A nutritionist can work in a number of settings, but essentially aim to provide information about health and food in order to aid individuals, communities and population groups to improve their health.
According to Nutrition Australia, nutritionists may work in roles such as public health nutrition, community health, research, health promotion, food technology, and nutrition consultation. They are not, however, qualified to provide medical nutrition advice, and thus do not work in a hospital setting.
A person seeking to become a nutritionist can take any of a number of avenues, from dubious online short courses to established tertiary undergraduate or postgraduate degrees. Usually these are centred on human nutrition; some, like my undergraduate degree, are combined with other related areas like food science.
The main issue with nutritionists is the confusion regarding who can actually label themselves as one. There’s no governance or legal protection over the name ‘nutritionist’, so many people incorrectly claim the title without having completed any proper qualifications. The Nutrition Society of Australia (NSA) does have a voluntary registration system, however, which seeks to protect the public by separating out the legitimate practitioners from the charlatans. Its website contains a list of all of those who are currently registered and whose qualifications meet with the Nutrition Society’s standards.
Clients of nutritionists are not eligible for Medicare health fund rebates.
Dietitians combine their knowledge of science and human nutrition, and translate this into a wide range of areas with the ultimate aim of optimising health and preventing or treating illness and disease. They are equipped to dispense advice for a wide range of conditions, including diabetes, food allergies, cancers, gastrointestinal diseases, overweight and obesity. Dietitians work in hospitals, private practice, government, research, teaching, public health and community nutrition, food service and management, the food and medical nutrition industries, and nutrition marketing and communications.
A dietitian must have completed accredited tertiary-level qualifications, including studies in biochemistry, physiology, nutrition, diet-related diseases, research and critical analysis of literature. This will usually involve a three-year science-based degree, followed by a two-year Master’s degree in Nutrition and Dietetics or a four-year undergraduate degree, both incorporating professional placements in a clinical, community or food service management setting.
Once graduated, a dietitian can apply for accreditation with the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA). On successfully meeting the DAA’s extensive criteria (including the completion of an accredited degree, and ongoing education), a dietitian can be identified as an Accredited Practicing Dietitian (APD). Again, this protects the public and ensures a commitment to continued education and professional development. A list of all APDs in Australia is available on the DAA website.
APDs are the only nutrition-related professionals whose services can be claimed for under the Medicare rebate and the Department of Veteran Affairs.
In short – all accredited dietitians can call themselves nutritionists, but not all nutritionists can call themselves a dietitian.
So who should you see?
For those seeking guidance on general health and dietary issues, nutritionists can offer valuable assistance. If you suffer from a specific condition or diet-related illness, on the other hand, you may want to seek out the more specialised advice of a dietitian. The most important thing is to ensure whomever you choose to consult is properly qualified and recognised by a professional body. And if you ever find yourself in a room with a ‘health coach’ who wants to sell you a miracle weight-loss supplement, run the other way!