So, you're interested in nutrition? // 5 tips for nutrition students
By popular demand, I've decided to finally sit down and write this blog post. As someone who has been studying for a total of what must be 6 1/2 years now and is due to finish up and qualify as a nutritionist in September, I hope that these tips can help guide those of you who are thinking about or are currently studying nutrition and/or dietetics. Just as a disclaimer before you go ahead and read this entire post, over the years I have realised a few things that I want to encourage you to take into consideration if you are interested in pursuing nutrition as a career:
You can be interested in nutrition, but this doesn't mean you need to be a nutrition professional. You are allowed to have an interest in nutrition whilst pursuing a career in something completely different. If this is the case, where you are interested in nutrition for personal reasons, do yourself a favour and read books, articles, and resources that are written and published by actual nutritional science experts (not celebrity doctors). There is a lot of misinformation and big promises out there from people claiming to have 'the solution' to health, weight loss, and the cure for all of your ailments.
If you do want to practice as a nutritionist/dietitian, don't take short-cuts. I know all too well how much time and money it takes to study towards becoming a qualified nutrition professional with the required knowledge and practical experience, and with a vast array of online nutrition courses available it is very easy to be tempted to spend money on those instead of a legit degree. As you'll read in this post, it's worth spending the time, money, and energy on something that will actually equip you to help others in a responsible way, and will allow you to legally practice as a nutrition professional.
When I finished up my 4-year BSc Food Science degree I thought that I knew a fair bit about nutrition because I had been taught the basics and had done my own 'research'. Looking back now I realise that I didn't know much at all, and am so grateful for the knowledge and experience that I have gained over the past (almost) 3 years. Anyway, I knew that nutrition was an area that I wanted to pursue after graduation and after considering all of my options in South Africa I decided to pursue a 4-year undergraduate dietetics degree at the University of Pretoria.
At the time, the University of Cape Town had a 2-year stream for BSc graduates, however, my undergraduate degree didn't cover human physiology and a few of the biochemistry modules that I needed to qualify for the course. I had really hoped that I could somehow get enough module exemptions to finish the dietetics course in 3 years, but unfortunately, there was one module not run by the dietetics department that just wouldn't let me advance a year. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the 1 1/2 years that I did spend at the University of Pretoria, and during this time I completed what must have been 27 modules (!!!), which included subjects like:
Human physiology (4 modules)
Biochemistry (4 modules in total, but I only had to complete 2 of these)
Medical microbiology (3 modules)
Foods (like culinary school with a bit of food science theory thrown in - 3 modules)
As most of you already know, I switched directions slightly about a year ago when my husband and I were given the opportunity to move to the UK. I started studying the MSc Human Nutrition course at the University of Surrey, which I will be completing in September. This nutrition course requires a background in medical or biological sciences (most of the modules I listed above are pre-requisites), and spans over the course of a year. I am currently busy with my research project and during the past 9 months I have completed the following 8 taught modules:
Fundamentals of human nutrition
Nutrition evaluation and assessment
International and public health nutrition
Nutrition research methodology
Sports and exercise nutrition
Clinical nutrition and nutrition support
Let's get started...
1. Choose your course wisely - don't take short-cuts
Are you interested in nutrition for personal reasons, but don't want to give advice to others or consult with clients? Then go ahead and do a more affordable short-course in nutrition. If you want to consult with clients and give nutritional advice to others, which has the potential to influence their overall health and well-being, then I would recommend that you pursue an accredited dietetics and/or nutrition degree that will equip you with the right knowledge and experience. There are lots of courses out there that claim to train you to be a nutritionist in 3-12 months, but upon closer inspection pretty much all of them are complete rubbish (i.e. they cost you a lot of money, teach the basics of nutrition with some pseudoscience thrown in for good measure, and won't equip you or qualify you to register as a nutrition professional when you finish them). In an effort to clear up some of this confusion I've summarised some information about the most common nutrition professionals out there.
Has a 4-year undergraduate dietetics degree, or a 3-4 year BSc undergraduate degree and a postgraduate qualification in dietetics
Has undergone a period of practical training in hospital, foodservice and community settings
Is currently the only nutritional professional to be regulated by law and only individuals that can use the title registered dietitian (RD)
Needs to be registered with an independent regulatory organisation, the health professions council in their country of practice
Will also usually be registered with a professional organisation in their country of practice - ADSA in South Africa, BDA in the UK, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the USA, and DAA in Australia
Is governed by a code of ethics to ensure that they work to the highest standard
Is qualified to assess, diagnose, and treat dietary and nutritional problems in individuals and on a wider public health level
Can work with both healthy and sick populations, using therapeutic nutrition/medical nutritional therapy in their practice, and thus often works in a hospital or clinic setting
Is responsible for the promotion of nutrition health and well-being, and prevention of nutrition-related disorders of groups/populations throughout various stages of the life-cycle
Is not able to provide therapeutic nutritional advice for medical conditions, but can work with acutely ill or hospitalised patients if they receive permission from and are supervised by a regulated professional
Is registered with the health professions council in South Africa (HPCSA), but not in the UK (HCPC)
Does not, unfortunately, have a protected title (this means that anyone can technically call themselves a nutritionist, even if they haven't done more than read a nutrition textbook)
Can (and should) register with the UK Voluntary Register of Nutritionists (UKVRN) or other appropriate registration authority in their country of practice. The UKVRN register is independently regulated and governed by the Association for Nutrition (AfN), who distinguish nutrition practitioners who meet rigorously applied training, competence and professional practice criteria for the purpose of protecting the public and assuring the credibility of nutrition as a responsible profession
Will first become a registered associate nutritionist (ANutr), meaning that they have studied and graduated from a 3/4-year BSc (Hons) or MSc in nutrition science and can prove that they have the required scientific knowledge in evidence-based nutrition but requires experience in the practical application of this knowledge
Will qualify as a registered nutritionist (RNutr) after a period of time once they have demonstrated experience of evidence-based practice within a specialised area of nutrition competency
...that is registered with the AfN needs to adhere to a standard of ethics, conduct and performance
Often works in non-clinical settings including the Government, food industry, research, teaching, sports and exercise settings, private practice, public health and development work, media and communications, and even animal nutrition
What about nutritional therapists and 'diet experts'?
I must be honest, this isn't an area that I know much about. So most of the information that I share here is from this BDA resource and information that I've gathered from the AfN website. Nutritional therapists recommend diet and lifestyle changes based on complementary 'medicine' recommendations in order to alleviate or prevent ailments. Their title is not regulated by law and although some will have a foundation qualification in nutritional therapy, this qualification is not accredited/recognised by the AfN for registration as a nutritionist, and is not recognised by Universities as a sufficient foundation for candidates that wish to study a Dietetic degree.
Nutritional therapists can register with the self-regulated (rather than an independently regulated) Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) and British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT). Although this seems to mirror what I've described for dietitians and university-trained nutritionists, I would be wary of the fact that nutritional therapists often use treatments including detoxes, food elimination and avoidance, supplements, and high dose vitamins for which there is little to no scientific evidence. The requirements to get into some of these courses are also usually a bit sketchy, for example, one course that I found online shared the following information on their website: "Candidates should have completed studies equivalent to university entrance or final school year standard. However, all applicants will usually be accepted". Hmmmm...
There are some lovely nutritional therapists out there that do share advice responsibly (for example, Antonia Magor is one that I highly respect), but in all honesty, they tend to be few and far between. If I haven't made much sense here, take it from Laura Thomas (PhD) and Pixie Turner (ANutr), who explain my thoughts really well in this article that they wrote for Huffington Post: "...we want to make it really clear here, not all nutritional therapists suck, and lots of RD/RNutrs totally suck. We just want you to get safe, credible, evidence-based advice from the most qualified people out there i.e. the experts), and your best bet is to look for an RD or RNutr/ANutr qualification. If someone tries to put you on a detox, cleanse, or very restrictive diet, tries to sell you supplements or endorses a whole bunch of products. AVOID. If you're not sure about the advice someone has given you, seek a second opinion - your health matters!".
And naturopathy? Again, this isn't something that I have spent much time researching because of the fact that there is a lot of 'woo' associated with the education and practices of naturopaths. But I will leave you with this resource to read through, written by Britt Marie Hermes who is an ex-naturopath who left the profession when she discovered that discovered that her boss, also a naturopath, had been importing and injecting a non-FDA approved medication to cancer patients.
What about becoming a health coach?
Once again, becoming a health coach does not equip you with the right foundational scientific knowledge and experience to qualify you to be a 'nutrition expert'. The Institute for Integrative Nutrition describes a Health Coach as "...a supportive mentor and wellness authority helping clients feel their best through food & lifestyle changes by tailoring individualized wellness programs to meet their clients' needs".
I have friends who have done this course and have found to be very valuable for their own needs and to allow them to play a supportive role alongside qualified healthcare professionals. I think that health coaches have a very valuable role to play in supporting patients/clients throughout their health journey. However doing this course, unfortunately, will not give you the knowledge, insight, and experience needed to be a nutrition expert - I have watched the videos, read through the curriculum, and I can't sugar-coat it and compare the content to the work that registered dietitians and nutritionists have to cover during their ≥4 years of studying and professional practice.
Association for Nutrition - this website has information relating to accredited nutrition degrees in the UK, the requirements for registration as a nutritional professional, and key competencies and requirements for registered nutritionists
2. Make connections - networking is key
It can feel a bit overwhelming when you start university as a first-year student and have no idea where your nutrition/dietetics course is going to take you, particularly when you don't receive much guidance outside of the classroom setting. I found that connecting with other students and professionals both online and offline was key to slowly but surely building up a network that has opened up opportunities to me, allowed me to learn from their experiences, and has allowed me to make some really good friends. Even if it's completely outside of your comfort zone, I promise you it's worthwhile spending time networking with others who have more practical experience than you in this field.
UK Nutrition Student Mentoring group run by Pixie Turner - A great platform to meet other nutrition students and gain insight from Pixie's experiences. She is also hosting get-togethers for those who live in and around London.
UK Non-Diet Professionals group run by Laura Thomas (PhD) - For those interested in the non-diet approach, HAES, and intuitive eating. I have attended quite a few of the monthly meet-ups that Laura hosts for nutrition and dietetics students, and am so grateful to have had the chance to learn from her experiences in academia and private practice and to have met some awesome students at the same time.
Killing it at HAES group run by myself, Maddie, Lauren, and McKenzie - Once again, this is a group aimed specifically at nutrition students and newly qualified RDs/nutritionists. However we have some amazing input from professionals that have been in the field longer, and it's a great place to meet and learn from others.
#INSPIRDtoSEEK group run by Haley Goodrich and Monica Mo - This is an amazing space to learn from nutritional professionals working many different spaces as registered dietitians and nutritionists. I have really appreciated the insight, wisdom, and encouragement that I have gained from the amazing individuals in this group.
Start an Instagram account and start following, liking, and interacting with nutrition professionals and other students!
Join a relevant professional organisation as a student member - I joined ADSA as a student member in my 1st year of dietetics and really enjoyed attending some of the events hosted by the Gauteng North and South branches. Although you can feel a bit out of place as a student, not really knowing anyone, it is a great place to learn more about what's actually happening in practice and as a place to meet people in the field. Here in the UK I have joined the Nutrition Society, and although I haven't attended any of their meetings yet I know that they also host great events.
Connect with a practicing nutritionist/dietitian - This one can be tricky, particularly when you actually have no idea where to start. Connect with nutrition professionals in your area via social media, or email them to ask if they have any job shadowing opportunities. Often people will say no, just due to the fact that a lot of the work that they do needs to have some degree of confidentiality, but there are dietitians and nutritionists that will be more than willing to help you (even if it means putting you in contact with other nutrition professionals).
Join your University nutrition society (if it has one) - This can be a great way to meet students that are a year or two ahead of you in their studies. They are often the best connections to have because of the fact that they have done what you will be doing, and can often help by sharing notes and past papers for tests, exams, and assignments.
3. Ask questions - stay curious
I think that it's really important to be engaged and ask questions in the classroom setting. When you don't fully understand what a lecturer is sharing in class, ask questions. When you don't agree with something that they're saying, ask questions. When you come across a piece of writing that doesn't make 100% sense to you, ask questions. Having a curious and skeptical mind is important, because without this it can be so easy just to fall into what we are taught without understanding the why behind what you will eventually be using in practice.
What you learn in the classroom should be evidence-based and up to date, but every now and then you will very likely come across a lecturer with slides that were put together a decade ago, or who has very strong opinions on a specific topic or in a certain area that just don't align with what new evidence is showing. Although lecturers and professors in a university setting are super knowledgable and will have more experience than you as a student, it doesn't mean that they are always right. I believe that it is important to ask questions, gain every ounce of knowledge you can from them, and reconcile those things with current evidence.
One amazing example of this is a story shared by my friend Lauren Newman in a podcase episode, which you can listen to here. She approached her MNT (medical nutrition therapy) lecturer, Monica Milonovich who is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, to ask if she could do a talk in one of her classes addressing the topics of Health At Every Size and Intuitive Eating. Asking questions and staying curious allowed her to influence someome who has the ability to facilitate change on a greater level. How amazing is that? You can listen to Monica's experience and version of this story here.
As a scientist and nutrition practitioner, I also believe that staying curious relates to the fact that you should never stop learning. In this field it doesn't matter how well you do at university if you don't continue to learn each and every day/week/month/year of your career. How can you do this?
Prioritise continuous professional development (CPD) webinars, speaking events, training sessions, and conferences.
Read new journal publications relating to your immediate area of interest and the wider field of nutrition. Join a journal club if possible (or start your own one with fellow like-minded students) so that you can dissect and better understand new research alongside your peers.
Listen to podcasts that feature interviews with nutrition professionals. I love listening to the Dietitian Connection podcast because it features interviews with a diverse array of dietitians working in all kinds of areas.
4. Embrace opportunities - get out of your comfort zone
This one is important during your time as a student, but becomes even more critical as you reach the end of your studies. From my experience I have learnt that it's really important to keep your ears open for work and volunteering opportunities, to apply for/pursue the ones that catch your eye, and to not be afraid of rejection in the process of doing so. Use Twitter, LinkedIn, and follow organisations where you think you'd like to work or volunteer - often job and volunteer opportunities will be advertised through these platforms.
Just as a personal example, I discovered a PhD scholarship opportunity at an amazing university here in the UK towards the end of last year and worked together with two amazing potential supervisors who I had approached via email to ask if there were any research opportunities in their department. They said 'yes' to helping me, and went out of their way to help me put together a great PhD proposal so that I could apply for the scholarship. Although I got accepted for the PhD but didn't get the scholarship, which means it is something I won't be pursuing at this point in time, I met someone through this experience who played a crucial role in helping me get my first 'real' (part-time) job. Rejection isn't always a bad thing, and more often than not it can lead us towards bigger and better opportunities.
Other examples of embracing opportunities and stepping out of your comfort zone could be:
Starting your own blog (I did this, and have learnt so much in the process!)
Write for your university newspaper, community newsletter, or other online publications
Volunteer at a soup kitchen, old-age home, or hospital (the role doesn't even have to be nutrition-related, but these are great ways to work with people from all works of life)
5. Don't be too hard on yourself - have some fun
Going to university to study a 3-4 year degree in nutrition and/or dietetics isn't easy, and if you're not careful before you know it you can become a bit worn out and lose the joy of learning. I know that I often tend to set very high expectations for myself, and moving straight from school to university was a bit of a shock to my system. The first time I received that was verging on 50%, I was devastated. I know how that when you're in that moment it can feel pretty devastating to fail your first test or assignment, but in hindsight, all I can say is that one test, essay, or project is not going to make or break your entire degree. It's ok to want to achieve great marks, and do the best that you can in your degree, but if you're studying all day every day just to get 100% I think that you may end up losing out on the fun that university has to offer.
Work smart, don't just study until all hours of the morning because it seems like the right thing to do. Learn how to manage your time wisely, and try to get assignments and studying done with time to spare. Make time for social events, adventures, and making memories whilst you're completing your degree. It's super cheesy to say this, but many of the friends you make at university will end up being the friends that stick around later in life.
This blog post turned out to be a lot more detailed and comprehensive than I had originally intended, but I do hope that it will help you in your journey. If you have any thoughts, questions, or comments please feel free to share them in the comments section below, on my social media pages, or contact me via email. I would love to hear more about your experience as a nutrition student, or more about your thoughts as you decide what you want to pursue.