Dietitians assess, diagnose and treat diet-related and nutritional problems and raise awareness of the link between food and health at both an individual and wider public-health level

As a dietitian you'll translate the most up-to-date scientific and public health research about nutrition into practical advice to help people make health-conscious decisions about food and lifestyle.

You'll treat complex clinical conditions such as:

  • chronic fatigue
  • diabetes
  • eating disorders
  • food allergies and intolerance
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • kidney failure
  • malnutrition.

As well as working in the NHS and private clinics, you can also work in areas such as the community, learning disabilities, mental health, public health and acute settings. You will also advise on food and health policy at a national, local and individual level.

Dietitians are a key part of the healthcare team and are the only nutrition professionals that are statutorily regulated.

Responsibilities

When working in a hospital or community setting, you'll need to:

  • undertake nutritional assessments of patients with a range of complex medical conditions
  • educate and advise patients with diet-related disorders on the practical ways in which they can improve their health by supporting them to make appropriate lifestyle and food choices
  • devise, monitor, review and improve nutritional care plans
  • deliver group sessions to other healthcare professionals or patient groups
  • work with the patient and multidisciplinary team (including other healthcare professionals) to ensure patient-centred care is provided
  • liaise with hospital staff and external agencies to ensure the smooth transition of patients discharged from hospital back into the community so that they can continue to receive the dietary support needed
  • promote health and wellbeing by informing the public about the importance of diet and nutrition
  • educate other healthcare professionals about food and nutrition issues
  • advise hospital catering departments about any specific patient dietary requirements
  • support schools in the provision of healthy school meals
  • run clinics in hospital outpatients departments or GP surgeries
  • record all assessments and interventions, write reports and case notes and maintain accurate records
  • prepare information packs, flyers and other promotional materials.

With experience, you may be involved in training and mentoring pre-registration students, as well as supporting and supervising less experienced staff.

If you're working with athletes and sportspeople, you'll need to:

  • advise on how diet can optimise their performance and recovery from injury
  • educate them to understand the physiology and biochemistry of different types of exercise and the role nutrition has in these processes.

In other roles, you may be involved in developing new food products and evaluating their nutritional content, setting up and monitoring clinical trials, or advising the food and pharmaceutical industry.

Salary

  • Jobs in the NHS consist of nine pay bands and are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates. Starting salaries for qualified dietitians range from £24,907 to £30,615 (band 5).
  • Dietitians at specialist level (band 6) can earn between £31,365 and £37,890.
  • At advanced (highly specialist) and team leader level (band 7), you can earn between £38,890 and £44,503.

There are on-call and special-duty allowances for dietitians working in the NHS. In London and the South East, a cost of living allowance is available.

Salaries outside of the NHS vary depending on the size of the employer, the nature of the work and expertise of the dietitian.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

If you're working in the NHS you're likely to work a standard 37.5 hours a week. Elsewhere, you'll usually work 9am to 5pm, but may need to work some extra hours or weekends if required.

If you're self-employed, your hours will need to suit your clients' availability and may include evenings and weekends.

Job-sharing, part-time work and opportunities for career breaks are possible.

What to expect

  • Being a dietitian can be a very rewarding career as you're able to make a significant contribution to improving patients' health.
  • Patient caseloads can be challenging and require working closely with other healthcare professionals.
  • If you work in the NHS, you'll usually be based in a hospital, health centre or clinic and will have a private consultation room. Community dietitians may have to travel locally to meet clients. If you're involved in research, you may work in laboratories.
  • Jobs are available in most towns and cities throughout the UK.
  • Self-employment and freelance work are possible within a clinical setting, sport and private health sectors, as well as in the food industry, in public relations companies and the media.

Qualifications

To practise as a dietitian you must be registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). To achieve this, you must complete an HCPC-approved programme in dietetics, either an undergraduate degree or, if you have a degree in a relevant subject, an approved postgraduate course. Programmes are also accredited by the British Dietetic Association (BDA).

For a place on an undergraduate course, you'll usually need three A-levels (or equivalent), including chemistry and biology, as well as at least five GCSE passes at grade C/grade 4 (or equivalent), including English, maths and a science. Courses last three years (four in Scotland) and applications are made via the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

To be accepted on to a two-year postgraduate course (either a Postgraduate Diploma or a Masters in dietetics) you must have a life sciences degree, often a 2:1 or above, that contains an adequate level of human physiology and biochemistry. Relevant degree subjects may include:

  • biochemistry
  • biomedical science
  • health sciences
  • human nutrition
  • nutritional science
  • physiology.

Entry requirements vary between courses, so check with individual providers for exact details.

Both routes are full time and include a mix of theory and practical training in a hospital or community setting. Subjects covered may include biochemistry, human nutrition, human physiology, diet therapy and nutritional medicine, as well as skills such as communication and research. For a list of qualifying courses, see BDA - Where to Study Dietetics.

All pre-registration undergraduate and postgraduate dietetics students can receive non-repayable funding support of between £5,000 and £8,000 per years towards their studies. For more information, see Health Careers.

Entry into the profession without an approved degree or postgraduate qualification is only possible at the level of dietetic assistant practitioner. From here your employer may support you in studying for an approved degree to then become a dietitian.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • an interest in the scientific aspects of food
  • an interest in working in a care-based setting
  • strong verbal and written communication skills
  • the ability to explain complex ideas simply
  • excellent interpersonal skills to develop relationships with patients/carers
  • teamworking skills to work effectively as part of a multidisciplinary healthcare team
  • the ability to prioritise your work and manage a caseload
  • time management skills and the ability to work under pressure
  • IT skills to record and access patient records
  • a positive attitude and the ability to motivate others
  • understanding and tact to deal with sensitive issues
  • negotiation skills to help patients overcome barriers and create positive change
  • caring and compassionate approach to other peoples' feelings
  • willingness to keep up to date with current nutrition information and research.

You may also need a driving licence to travel to patients' homes.

Work experience

Arrange a visit to a dietetic unit at your local hospital before applying for a course so you can get an idea of what the work is like and whether it would suit you.

Try to get some voluntary or paid work experience within a dietetic department to show your interest and understanding of the area. Contact the dietetic manager at your local hospital to ask about opportunities.

Working as a dietetic assistant practitioner or as a dietetic support worker provides a valuable insight into the role and shows your commitment. Experience in care work, with a nutrition-related charity or as a healthcare assistant is also useful.

Employers

The NHS is the major employer of dietitians. Many work in hospitals or in the community. There are also an increasing number of vacancies in the private healthcare sector. You may also work for:

  • local authorities
  • catering companies
  • the food industry and food and drink manufacturers
  • supermarket chains
  • trade associations and promotional groups
  • education and research establishments
  • pharmaceutical companies
  • the media
  • public relations companies
  • publishing companies
  • government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs)
  • professional sports clubs and Olympic camps.

Other opportunities exist in the workplace and in the voluntary sector and with international relief agencies.

You may need additional qualifications for working abroad, as British dietetic qualifications are not necessarily globally recognised.

With experience, you may choose to undertake freelance work.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies such as Maxxima also advertise vacancies.

Professional development

Continuing professional development (CPD) is an important part of being a dietitian and is an essential requirement of continued registration with the HCPC.

As a registered dietitian you can become a full member of the BDA, which runs regular post-registration training. Sessions are usually organised by special interest groups within the association and focus on areas of expertise.

Courses in professionalism skills and leadership and management are also available. Food manufacturers also offer courses for dietitians about new products, and these are sometimes run via BDA branches. See the BDA Centre for Education for more details.

You may wish to undertake postgraduate study in your area of specialism. Masters modules are available in areas of dietetic practice, which can be taken either as stand-alone or Masters programmes. Search for postgraduate courses in dietetics.

It's also possible to get involved in mentoring and teaching.

Career prospects

There is a clearly-defined route for career progression in the NHS, starting with a basic grade dietitian (band 5), moving on to a dietitian specialist role (band 6) and then the more advanced roles (band 7). Once you've built up experience, you may progress to management level with responsibility for a team, department and budget.

The path you choose will depend on your career interests, for example working in a community-based role in patients' homes or at a GP clinic. You may decide to specialise in an area such as gastroenterology, diabetes or cancer, or with a specific group of clients, such as children or elderly people.

Dietitians in the food and drink industry can move into product development and marketing roles. You may choose to do further training and move into teaching and research, and there are also opportunities in sport, health education, public relations, scientific research and journalism.

Self-employment is also an option, providing the flexibility to choose how your career develops according to your interests. This might involve combining freelance work for organisations such as the NHS with other activities such as writing for health publications.

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