What Is the Role of a Nutritionist?

Man and woman in office
Nutritionists counsel clients on food choices. (Image: Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images)

Proper nutrition is essential to healthy living and overall well-being. A nutritionist can play an important role in your health by evaluating your diet and offering you personalized advice. Based on your health goals or medical needs, the nutritionist can make recommendations and put together meal plans. Nutritionists work in many settings, including hospitals, schools, health departments and private practices.

Nutritionist Functions

It is difficult to stay knowledgeable on the latest diet trends. If you are trying to lose weight or develop healthy eating habits, a nutritionist can provide guidance on how to safely and effectively reach your goals. Nutritionists develop meals plans, educate on portion control and are qualified to prescribe special diets for the treatment or prevention of diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Clinical Nutritionists

Clinical nutritionists work in medical settings, such as hospitals, doctors offices and clinics. These nutritionists are in charge of providing medical nutrition therapy, a therapeutic method used to treat diseases by specifically tailoring the diet. Clinical nutritionists work with doctors and other health care professionals to develop meal plans that provide the appropriate amount of nutrients to patients, based on their medical conditions. Duties may include formulating meals for a feeding tube or providing nutrition education classes for people living with medical conditions.

Food Service Nutritionists

Food service nutritionists work in school cafeterias, restaurants and other large-scale food establishments. Following government or state policies is usually a critical component to this position. Specific guidelines must be followed regarding portion sizes, food group options and menu disclaimers. Routine audits and inspections are done to ensure kitchen staff and managers are in compliance with regulatory standards. Food service nutritionists also give advice for handling special dietary concerns and food allergies.

Sports Nutritionists

A sports nutritionist works with athletes and coaches to ensure top athletic performance. Individual plans are developed based on each athlete's nutrient needs. A sports nutritionist also collaborates with athletic trainers to prevent injuries and help recovering athletes. Nutrient timing and proper supplementation are important for workouts, practice sessions and games. Sports nutritionists work for high schools, universities or professional organizations. Individual athletes may also hire sports nutritionists during the off season.

Choosing a Qualified Nutritionist

The term "nutritionist" does not guarantee you are working with an accredited and licensed professional. A person can claim to be a nutritionist even if she has no academic or clinical background in the field. To ensure you are working with a qualified professional, seek out a registered dietitian. These professionals have completed at least a bachelor's degree approved by the Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition; finished a supervised practice program; and passed the national registration exam. Registered dietitians may use the term nutritionist, but a nutritionist without these qualifications may not use the title of a registered dietitian, designated as R.D. after the person's name.

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