A career as a nutritional therapist would suit you if you have an interest in complementary medicine, excellent communication skills and a good head for business

Nutritional therapists work with individuals to alleviate and prevent illness and disease, as well as to promote good health, by making dietary recommendations. Their focus is on the belief that there are nutritional and biochemical imbalances in the body that lead to ill health.

As a nutritional therapist, you'll take a holistic approach to your clients, devising for them a personalised nutrition and lifestyle plan to help maintain their well-being. This includes recommendations to restore nutritional balance, which may include guidance on avoiding certain toxins and allergens, detoxification and the use of supplementary nutrients such as high-dose vitamins.

Nutritional therapy is classed as an unconventional, 'complementary' medicine and is intended for people with chronic health conditions or those who want to improve their general health and lifestyle.

Responsibilities

As a nutritional therapist, you'll need to:

  • carry out initial consultations on a one-to-one basis with patients to conduct an assessment of their health and get a detailed case history from them
  • recommend and analyse laboratory tests, which give indications of nutritional imbalances, the functioning of the liver and the digestive system
  • explain the physiological impact of complex biochemical imbalances and nutritional deficiencies to help your client and answer any questions they may have
  • agree on a personalised nutrition and lifestyle plan, which will include dietary recommendations, and may also include a nutritional-supplement plan
  • conduct shorter follow-up review meetings to monitor and evaluate patient progress
  • refer clients to other health practitioners, as appropriate
  • keep comprehensive notes and records for each client
  • provide advice and promote nutritional therapy to community groups and charities.

As most nutritional therapists are self-employed, you'll also need to carry out administrative tasks related to running a business.

Salary

  • Most nutritional therapists are self-employed so your income will depend on factors such as the price you charge per hour, the number of hours you work, the number of patients you attract and your running costs and overheads.
  • You're likely to charge between £40 and £120 for first consultations and then £30 to £100 per follow-up consultation.
  • Your income on starting out may be very low due to the initial costs of setting up a business and the limited number of patients readily available. Not all therapists manage to make a living solely from client consultations. It may take several years to build up a client base and you may experience peaks and troughs in demand.

Fees charged will vary depending on a range of factors, including your location. If you're based in London, your earnings will be higher than nutritional therapists elsewhere.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Self-employment is common and offers a choice of working hours, although you may have to be flexible to suit a client's needs. For example, you may choose to work some evenings or weekends.

Initial consultations will usually take 60 to 90 minutes in order to properly assess the client's current health problems, medical and family history, diet and lifestyle. Follow-up consultations last around 45 minutes to one hour. Appointments are typically four to six weeks apart, depending on the case.

What to expect

  • You may need an additional job in the early stages of setting up a practice until your client base becomes large enough to sustain a regular income. The time taken to build up a practice varies as you’ll need to assess the local market and raise awareness of your services.
  • You'll work primarily with clients in a private practice. You could either work within a team of health practitioners in a practice or on your own, renting a room.
  • Opportunities are available in most areas of the UK. It's possible to set up a practice virtually anywhere.
  • You're not likely to spend much time travelling or staying away overnight, although you may travel locally, for example if you’re working from several locations. You may set up a practice to complement another service such as a health food outlet, or alongside other holistic therapists in a healing centre.

Qualifications

There are no specific entry requirements to become a nutritional therapist and entry without a degree is common. However, the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) recommends that you take a nutritional therapy course accredited by the Nutritional Therapy Education Commission (NTEC). NTEC-accredited courses allow you direct entry on to the accredited voluntary register held by the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) and will enable you to become a member of BANT.

Being a registered nutritional therapist shows you have completed a recognised course and can help with your reputation when setting up a practice. Qualifications are available at various levels including degree, diploma and Masters. Course content varies, with some placing a different emphasis on dietary, naturopathic or biochemical aspects.

When choosing a course, do your research and check exactly what training providers are offering and what experience and qualifications they hold. Details of accredited courses are available at BANT: Training in Nutritional Therapy.

A degree or HND in one of the following subjects may be helpful to the work of a nutritional therapist:

  • dietetics
  • food science or technology
  • health studies
  • human biology
  • nutrition
  • pharmacy
  • sports science.

Skills

To become a successful nutritional therapist, you will need:

  • the ability to communicate with a range of clients and build rapport
  • listening skills and the ability to empathise without becoming emotionally involved
  • a confident and professional approach to work
  • time management skills
  • problem-solving and analytical skills
  • a logical approach to work
  • report-writing skills
  • self-motivation and the ability to work on your own and develop new skills
  • business skills such as administration, marketing and finance.

Many therapists enter nutritional therapy as a second or third career. Life experience and interpersonal skills can be helpful as the ability to empathise and gain a client's confidence is crucial to a therapist's success.

Work experience

It's a good idea to attend course open days and talk to current students to help inform your decision about starting a career in nutritional therapy. You could also arrange a visit to a practising nutritional therapist to talk to them about the role. It might be possible (with both the therapist's and client's permission) to sit in with a therapist during a patient consultation.

Experience of working with people, possibly in a related field such as nutrition, dietetics, food science or technology and pharmacy, can be helpful.

It’s useful to purchase student membership at BANT while you're training. This can provide opportunities for networking and development as well as a supportive environment to discuss relevant topics.

Employers

Most nutritional therapists are self-employed. In order to be successful you'll need to develop and maintain a strong client base and reputation.

With experience, and depending on your area of interest, you may be able to establish links with local healthcare providers and receive referrals from doctors.

Occasional opportunities may arise with the NHS, mental health organisations and the prison service.

There are also opportunities in:

  • health promotion, healthcare support and healthcare sales
  • sport and leisure
  • recipe development - as advisers with manufacturers of food or suppliers of supplements and herbal remedies
  • teaching, training or lecturing
  • the media
  • advising healthcare charities or commercial organisations (often on a project or consultancy basis).

As most nutritional therapists are self-employed, jobs aren't generally advertised. It's down to you to publicise your services and to attract new clients through talks and presentations, your website, social media and by word of mouth.

If you've completed an accredited nutritional therapy course, you can register with the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) and appear in their searchable database of complementary therapists.

Details of advertised jobs are provided by professional bodies, such as BANT, to their members. They allow members to list practice details on their website.

Professional development

You'll need to keep your training and knowledge up to date throughout your career in order to enhance your professional status and the profession as a whole.

You can find out about relevant events and conferences via the professional associations, including BANT. BANT offers a structure for professional development which includes lectures, seminars and other events. They also offer support with Continuing Professional Development (CPD) certification, including an online tool to help record CPD activities. Networking also plays an important part in developing your practice, and membership of BANT can be useful for making contacts and exchanging ideas.

Some of the accredited training providers offer postgraduate courses in nutritional therapy. There may also be opportunities to get involved in research.

Registering with the CNHC is important for career development and demonstrates to the general public and other healthcare providers that you meet the national standards of practice in nutritional therapy and that you're willing to be held to account against those standards.

Career prospects

Opportunities for progression vary depending on your own interests, expertise and willingness to undertake different activities.

In the first five years after qualification, you're likely to concentrate on building up a solid client base and will develop your experience of dealing with different people. Geographical mobility can be important for career development, especially in more rural areas.

As you gain expertise you may develop a specialist area, such as:

  • arthritis
  • asthma
  • autism
  • cancer
  • eating disorders
  • gynaecological disorders
  • hyperactivity
  • pre-conception care
  • thyroid rebalancing.

You may also network with GP practices and midwifery services to take referrals for complementary therapy.

With experience, you may want to consider lecturing in training colleges and universities and possibly on the international conference circuit.

In areas where local authorities actively support innovative approaches to public health, opportunities may exist in partnership with sports development workers or health promotion officers.

There may be the chance to work on a consultancy basis for healthcare charities or commercial organisations. Media-related activities may be available, such as specialist journalism (food writing or radio/television appearances), public relations or marketing.

A few successful therapists will become directors of thriving enterprises, employing other qualified therapists and administration staff.