If you have an interest in food, health and science and want to use this knowledge to help people improve their quality of life, a career as a dietitian may be for you

As a dietitian you'll translate scientific information about nutrition into practical advice to help people make health-conscious decisions about food. You'll assess, diagnose and treat diet-related problems and aim to raise awareness of the link between food and health to prevent future problems.

A key part of the healthcare team, dietitians are the only nutrition professionals that are statutorily regulated.

Types of dietitian

Although many dietitians work for the National Health Service (NHS) in a hospital or community setting, you can also work in:

  • education and research;
  • the food industry;
  • the media;
  • the pharmaceutical industry;
  • public health;
  • sports nutrition.

Working in a hospital, you'll educate people who need special diets as part of their treatment. You may focus on specialist areas, such as children's health, diabetes, kidney disease, food allergies or eating disorders. In the community you may be involved in a range of health promotion activities.

Community dietitians and those working in public health may see a much wider range of patients in a variety of settings.

Responsibilities

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

  • educate and advise patients with diet-related disorders on the practical ways in which they can improve their health by adopting healthier eating habits;
  • evaluate and improve treatments;
  • deliver group sessions to a range of audiences, including children and patient groups;
  • work as part of a multidisciplinary team to gain patients' cooperation in following recommended dietary treatments;
  • educate other healthcare professionals about food and nutrition issues;
  • advise hospital catering departments about the specific dietary requirements of patients;
  • support schools in the provision of healthy school meals;
  • run clinics in hospital outpatients departments or GP surgeries;
  • write reports and case notes and maintain accurate records;
  • prepare information packs, flyers and other promotional materials.

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

  • advise them 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 (band 5) range from £21,909 to £28,462.
  • Dietitians at specialist level (band 6) can earn between £26,302 and £35,225.
  • At advanced level (band 7), you can earn between £31,383 and £41,373.

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 the NHS may vary.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

If you're working in the NHS you're likely to work 37.5 hours a week. You may need to work some weekends, to attend a clinic for example. On-call work may be 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

  • The work can be rewarding as you're able to make a significant contribution to improving patients' health. However, busy patient case loads can be demanding.
  • 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 areas with opportunities in towns and cities throughout the UK.
  • Self-employment and freelance work are possible within the NHS and the 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 successfully 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 need a minimum of two science A-levels (or equivalent), including chemistry or biology, as well as at least five GCSE passes at grade C or above, including English and maths. Courses last either three or four years 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 relevant life sciences degree that contains an adequate level of human physiology and biochemistry.

Both routes are full time and include a mix of theory and practical training in a hospital or community setting. Subjects covered include biochemistry, human nutrition, human physiology and diet therapy. See the BDA website for a list of qualifying courses. Check with individual course providers for exact entry requirements.

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

Skills

When applying for jobs, you'll need to have:

  • an interest in and knowledge of the scientific aspects of food;
  • strong verbal and written communication skills;
  • excellent interpersonal skills to help promote healthy food choices;
  • the ability to explain complex ideas simply;
  • an interest in working in a care-based setting;
  • a positive attitude and the ability to motivate others;
  • understanding and tact to deal with sensitive issues;
  • a willingness to keep up to date with current nutrition information and research.

Work experience

Try to visit 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. It's also useful to get some voluntary or paid work experience in a related hospital setting to show your interest and understanding of the area. Contact the dietetic manager at your local hospital to ask about opportunities. This experience may help when applying for courses and, later on, for jobs.

Working as a dietetic assistant in the NHS, supporting the work of a dietitian, also provides a valuable insight into the role and shows your commitment.

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;
  • 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;
  • government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs);
  • professional sports clubs and Olympic camps.

Other opportunities exist 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 agencies such as Labmed recruit for dietitian posts.

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.

You may also 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 choose to 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.