How to become a dietitian: Real NHS dietitians explain all
Start your career in dietetics today with our online nutrition courses and practical advice from two NHS dietitians, Charlotte Yarnton and Luise Marino. This article was written in collaboration with the We Are The NHS campaign.
Have you always been interested in the relationship between food and health? Would you like to help people make dietary changes that will improve their physical and mental wellbeing? Whether you’re deciding on a career path, contemplating a job switch, or simply want to learn more about being a dietitian, we have all the information you need.
As part of our collaboration with the We Are The NHS campaign, we talked to two NHS dietitians, Charlotte Yarnton and Luise Marino, to find out what being a dietitian is really like. They gave us their top tips on how to get started in the field. We’ve also handpicked our best nutrition and food courses to inspire you to learn more about dietetics and the nutrition industry. Read on to discover more!
What is dietetics?
You might first be wondering, what exactly is dietetics? According to the British Dietetic Association (BDA), dietetics is the science of how nutrition affects our health. While there are a lot of resources on nutrition all over the internet and in plenty of books, dietitians are the only qualified health professionals that are fully reputable.
They use scientific research and their in-depth training to assess, diagnose, and treat dietary and nutritional problems. Issues can range from small things, such as vitamin deficiencies, to long-term health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Dietitian vs nutritionist
Most of us are aware of nutritionists and know a little about what they do. However, did you know that a dietitian and a nutritionist are not the same? This is quite an important distinction to make, so we’ll clarify this further below.
The role of a dietitian
Dietitians interpret and apply the science of nutrition to help treat patients and clients. This may include helping patients trial diets, supplements or dietary interventions, and usually involves offering practical and personalised advice based on science.
Everything that a dietitian does is heavily backed up by various recognised methodologies, scientific evidence, and current public health research. They cannot offer advice to gain personal financial benefit in the same way that a nutritionist can.
Curious about the things you’re most likely to be doing as a dietitian? We asked two NHS dietitians the most common reasons that someone might come to see them.
Charlotte Yarnton, a dietitian in London told us, “People see dietitians for a range of reasons. In adults, this can range from gastrointestinal issues such as IBS or IBD, support with their diabetes, nutritional support for patients undergoing treatment that negatively impacts their weight or appetite, as well as weight management, eating disorders and much more. In paediatrics, this can be anything from growth concerns with children who are over or underweight, fussy feeding, weaning advice, allergies, nutrient deficiencies, and constipation.”
We also spoke to Dr Luise Marino, who talked a little more about paediatric dietetics. She told us, “I work with children who have complex medical needs, as a result of being born too early (preterm), being born with something wrong with their heart (congenital heart disease) or being critically ill. Many of the babies and children I see are not able to eat or drink using their mouths.”
“As part of our role, we calculate how much energy, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals children need each day. We often insert a small feeding tube into the stomach to provide artificial nutrition support until such time they can eat or drink on their own. Sometimes it is not possible to use the gastrointestinal tract, at which point we work with the doctors and pharmacists to provide parenteral nutrition, which is given via a vein.”
The role of a nutritionist
Now we’ve clarified the role of a dietitian, it’s time to discuss nutritionists. A nutritionist is an expert in the field of human nutrition, and they help people to make informed choices about the food they eat to improve health and wellbeing.
If you want to become a nutritionist, you normally will need to complete a Bachelor’s degree in nutrition or a related field, but this isn’t always the case. Some of the main responsibilities of a nutritionist are talking about nutrition to individuals and groups and helping shape policies so that they include nutritional advice and guidelines.
What’s the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?
You’ve probably gathered the main differences between dietitians and nutritionists by now, but with the help of our open step by Monash University, we’ll break it down further.
While both nutritionists and dietitians share common areas of expertise such as working with governments, the food industry, and communities to support healthier eating, they’re still distinguishable. Dietitians have specific training in clinical nutrition that allows them to give specialised dietary advice. For example, if you have a clinical disease like coeliac or Crohn’s, you’ll want to see a dietitian rather than a nutritionist.
Due to the amount of confusion about the difference between nutritionists and dietitians, it’s always worth looking into the credentials and qualifications of the person you’re going to receive treatment from.
What are the benefits and challenges of being a dietitian?
Now you know a lot more about what being a dietitian entails, let’s discuss the main benefits and challenges in the field. We spoke to both Charlotte and Luise to get their thoughts on some positive and negative aspects of being a dietitian.
Benefits of working in dietetics
Why should you think about becoming a dietitian? Below, we explore the main positives of the role to get you feeling informed and inspired.
Working in a multidisciplinary team
If you like working and collaborating with lots of different people, this could be the role for you. Charlotte told us, “One part of the role that I enjoy is working as a member of a multidisciplinary team with doctors, nurses, psychologists, play specialists and administrators. Everyone in my team is very passionate about delivering the best care possible for patients and their families”.
There’s no doubt about the fact that you can have a huge impact on patients’ lives as a dietitian. Luise primarily works in neonatal and paediatric critical care, meaning she specialises in areas such as neonates, trauma, respiratory, cardiac and paediatric intensive care. This means that her work is literally saving lives, and you can’t get much more rewarding than that.
Good salary and financial benefits
We’ll go into more detail about salaries further down in the article, but you can expect to earn a good amount of money as a dietitian and also receive other benefits that can improve your general quality of life.
Every day is different
When we spoke to Luise about her experience working as a dietitian, she said, “I love everything about my role. Twenty years on I am still so excited to go to work as each day brings something different.” From working with babies, children and adults, to treating patients with all kinds of different health conditions and working on quality improvement and research, the opportunities are truly endless.
Another fantastic benefit of being a dietitian is the amount of useful and transferable skills you learn. Charlotte told us, “You get to work in a variety of settings across a range of disciplines. The skills you learn as a dietitian are transferable meaning you can apply them to different roles in different fields. Dietitians at the start of their career often have rotational roles to get a broad range of experience so they can find an area that sparks interest.”
Challenges of working in dietetics
It’s important to be clued up before you venture into a new career, so below we talk about the main challenges that come with being a dietitian.
While it’s positive that dietitians are high in demand, this job can be a busy one. Charlotte told us that a very busy workplace can mean being a dietitian is a very demanding role at times. However, Luise says that these pressures are not too unlike those that exist in any job where time is precious.
Forgetting to care for yourself
It’s certainly a benefit that dietitians get to positively impact so many lives and help so many people. However, it’s important that dietitians take the time and energy to take care of themselves as well. In this role, you need to look after yourself and learn ways to be resilient on the job.
Training to become a dietitian
Hopefully, now, you have a better idea about whether you’re cut out to be a dietitian. But what training do you need to undertake to get to the next step, and how difficult is it to become a dietitian? In this section, we uncover the answers.
What qualifications do you need to be a dietitian?
On the NHS careers page for dietitians, they state that you must successfully complete an approved dietetics degree at undergraduate level. This will require you to have two or three A levels in chemistry, maths or biology, alongside five GCSEs at grades A-C, or equivalent BTEC, HND, NVQ or Scottish/Irish qualifications.
Can you become a dietitian without a degree?
You can’t become a dietitian without a degree. However, you may not need a dietetics degree initially. By taking a few pre-requisite classes or certifications during or after a life sciences bachelor’s degree, you can still become a dietitian eventually. However, you’ll still need to be a graduate in order to start your journey toward becoming a registered dietitian.
Examples of life sciences degrees that you can take before applying for a postgraduate course in dietetics include biochemistry, biomedical science, health sciences, nutritional science, and physiology. Before you apply for your postgraduate degree in dietetics, make sure you’ve fulfilled all the undergraduate requirements!
Should you train to become a dietitian?
As you can see, it requires quite a lot of training, hard work and dedication to become a dietitian. So how do you figure out whether it’s the right career path for you? We asked Charlotte, originally from New Zealand, what motivated her to become a dietitian in the NHS.
She told us, “From a young age, I was interested in nutrition, cooking, and the links between lifestyle and health outcomes. I went to a career advisor who did an assessment and agreed that it would be a good career for me. I was always interested in paediatric dietetics but didn’t get a chance to work in the area until I moved to the UK. I worked as a community paediatric dietitian in a London borough for a year which really cemented my passion for paediatric dietetics.”
So first of all, do you have an interest in food, health and nutrition? If the answer is yes, it might be time to see a career advisor or take a look at one of our online nutrition courses to see if this is an area that really excites you.
Top tips for becoming a dietitian
The best place to get practical, top-tier advice on becoming a dietitian is, of course, from people who have gone through the process themselves. That’s why we spoke to both Charlotte and Luise to get their top tips on how to become a dietitian.
Charlotte’s top tips
- Contact your local dietetics team (hospital and/or community) to see if you can shadow a dietitian or do work experience at a hospital.
- Speak with a dietitian to get an idea of the types of jobs that exist and what area interests you most.
- Read information about starting a career in Dietetics on the British Dietetic Association website.
Luise’s top tips
- If you are interested in becoming a dietitian, reach out to a dietitian you follow on social media to see if you can find out more about what they do, or email a university offering a course to see if you could make an appointment to find out more about the profession.
- Visit a department or first-contact practitioner in primary care to get a feel of what the day-to-day role could entail – make sure to try a couple of different places.
- Watch some videos on the NHS YouTube channel or visit FutureLearn to find out about the profession.
- Do some reading so you can have an opinion about some of the key public health challenges we face and think about what your role could be in tackling them.
- Be passionate – most dietitians love what they do, so they all want the next generation of colleagues to love the profession as much as they do.
What is the average dietitian’s salary?
According to Indeed, the average salary for a dietitian is £33,914 per year in the United Kingdom. This may not be entirely accurate nationwide, but the number is based on 16,000 salaries provided to Indeed, and so should give you a good idea of the average.
How much do NHS dietitians earn?
The amount you’ll be paid as an NHS dietitian will depend on the pay band you’re in. All NHS jobs have nine pay bands that are covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) pay rates. While starting salaries for qualified dietitians range from £24,907 to £30,615 (band 5), highly specialist dietitians can earn up to £44,503 (band 7).
There are other financial benefits of being an NHS dietitian, however. If you’re eligible, you’ll receive at least £5,000 a year towards your studies at university that you never need to pay back. In addition, you’ll have access to a generous pension scheme, health service discounts such as the Blue Light card, and 27 days of annual leave.
Learn more in our diet and nutrition courses
If any of this has piqued your interest, you’re in luck. There’s plenty more to learn on FutureLearn, so why not see what takes your fancy in our course selection below?
Hopefully, this guide has given you all the information you need about working as a dietitian. Whether you’re at a point where you definitely want to work in dietetics, or you’re just interested in learning more about nutrition and food, we hope this article has inspired you to learn more.
You can continue your journey by taking a FutureLearn nutrition course or even checking out the NHS Careers website for more job advice.