What does a dietitian do?
Dietitians are the only qualified health professionals that assess, diagnose and treat dietary and nutritional problems at an individual and wider public-health level. They work with both healthy and sick people. Uniquely, dietitians use the most up-to-date public health and scientific research on food, health and disease which they translate into practical guidance to enable people to make appropriate lifestyle and food choices.
Dietitians are the only nutrition professionals to be regulated by law, and are governed by an ethical code to ensure that they always work to the highest standard. They work in the NHS, private practice, industry, education, research, sport, media, public relations, publishing, government and Non-Government Organisations (NGOs). Dietitians advise and influence food and health policy across the spectrum from government, to local communities and individuals.
Read our information: Dietitian, Nutritionist, Nutritional Therapist or Diet Expert? A comprehensive guide to roles and functions.
Reasons to see a dietitian
Finding and accessing the services of a dietitian can be achieved in several ways, but why choose one in the first place? There are many reasons why people choose to visit a dietitian. You may request, or indeed your GP may make a referral to a dietitian to address a specific medical/health need or condition. Alternatively, you may choose to seek out the services of a freelancer. Here are just a few examples where dietitians, working on a one-to-one basis or part of a wider health team, can help improve your health and lifestyle if:
- you suffer with digestive problems
- you have been diagnosed with a medical condition, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, coeliac, HIV etc
- you have oral, enteral or parenteral nutrition requirements
- your child, or looked after child, has specialised nutritional requirements
- you are wanting or needing to lose weight in a safe and sensible way
- you need to put weight on following a spell of ill-health or as the result of a medical condition
- you are considering surgery to lose weight
- you want to improve your athletic performance or general fitness levels
- you want advice about breastfeeding and weaning
- you want to maximise your chances to become pregnant
- you think you have an allergy or intolerance to a certain food
- you would like advice about eating disorders
- you are a carer and want credible and practical advice to ensure the person/s you are caring for is/are getting the appropriate nutrition in their diet/s.
While dietitians work with individuals, as the above examples explain, in the NHS and on a freelance basis, they also work across the board wherever food and nutrition is present.
Is the title ‘dietitian’ protected by law?
YES. Only those registered with the statutory regulator, the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC) can use the title.
What qualifications do dietitians have?
The minimum requirement is a BSc Hons in Dietetics, or a related science degree with a postgraduate diploma or higher degree in Dietetics.
Dietetic courses are structured to include biochemistry, physiology, applied sciences and research methods which underpin nutrition and dietetics. These are complemented by social and behavioural sciences and the theories of communication to support the development of skills required for professional dietetic practice.
All courses require a period of supervised practice including NHS settings, where an individual must demonstrate clinical and professional competence before being eligible to apply for registration.
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) is the professional body and Trade Union for dietitians and is also responsible for designing the curriculum for the profession.
Courses must be approved by the HCPC and demonstrate that graduates meet the Standards of Proficiency for Dietetics.
Who are dietitians regulated and quality assured by?
The HCPC’s role is to protect the public. It is an independent, UK-wide health regulator. It currently sets standards of professional training, performance and conduct for 14 professions. The HCPC keeps a current register of health professionals who meet its standards and takes action if registered health professionals fall below those standards. Registered professionals must keep up-to-date through compulsory Continuing Professional Development (CPD).
If an individual is not happy with treatment they are given, or if they are worried about the behaviour or health of a dietitian, they can approach the HCPC who will investigate and take action.
Where do dietitians work?
Dietitians work in the NHS and in private clinics. They work with healthy and sick people in a variety of settings. They can work in the food industry, workplace, catering, education, sport and the media. Other care pathways they work in include mental health, learning disabilities, community, acute settings and public health.
They often work as integral members of multi-disciplinary teams to treat complex clinical conditions such as diabetes, food allergy and intolerance, IBS syndrome, eating disorders, chronic fatigue, malnutrition, kidney failure and bowel disorders. They provide advice to caterers to ensure the nutritional care of all clients in NHS and other care settings such as nursing homes, they also plan and implement public health programmes to promote health and prevent nutrition related diseases. A key role of a dietitian is to train and educate other health and social care workers.
They also advise on diet to avoid the side effects and interactions between medications.
What type of treatments do dietitians offer?
Dietitians interpret the science of nutrition to improve health and treat diseases and conditions by educating and giving practical advice to clients, patients, carers and colleagues. They advise and help to maintain nutritional status when individuals want to trial dietary interventions such as exclusion diets, nutritional supplementation or dietary interventions in areas such as autism for which evidence is still emerging. They use recognised methodologies to critically appraise the evidence base which includes all forms of evidence and research to inform their advice.
They cannot offer advice where there would be personal financial benefit.
Dietitians are legally able to supply and administer some prescription-only medicines e.g. insulin, phosphate binders and pancreatic enzymes, through trusts/health boards. They can also adjust this medication. Much of their work is spent advising/counselling other medical staff as to the best course of action in regard to an individual’s nutritional status.