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Every job has its challenges. Being a nutritionist is no exception. Understanding the challenges that a nutritionist faces can help keep your expectations in check. It also gives you a better idea of what to expect should you pursue this career path.
Here we provide several of the obstacles you may have in a nutritionist role. We also share ways to increase your confidence when providing nutrition services. And if you still feel that becoming a nutritionist is right for you, we even talk about the steps you can take to get started.
What’s hard for one nutritionist may be easy for another. That said, many challenges exist when it comes to helping people improve their nutrition. Here are several to consider.
It’s easy to teach a client about healthy eating. What isn’t quite so easy is getting them to change their eating habits. Harder yet is getting them to change them long-term.
When your clients first meet with you, they’re likely to be motivated. They’ll do what you tell them, making a lot of changes to what and how they eat. But motivation wanes over time. When this happens, they start to revert to their old, unhealthy food habits.
This can be challenging for a nutritionist. You see the client make good progress, then start to slide back. As much as you want them to change, you can’t do it for them. What you can do, though, is help keep them motivated.
One helpful strategy is reinforcing their ‘why.’ Continue to remind them why they came to a nutritionist in the first place. Talk about how they felt then and why it was so important to feel different (better) in the future.
Explain that developing long-term healthy eating habits is like building muscle. You can’t work with a personal trainer once and expect to be in great shape. Instead, you must commit to regular physical activity. The same is true with nutrition. Getting where they want to be takes time, but it’s possible as long as they remain committed.
Most people have busy schedules. Between work, school, family, and all their other obligations, they barely have time to stop and think. So, getting them to take the time to meal prep can feel like an uphill battle.
The wide availability of grab-and-go food options doesn’t help. Most cities and towns have a variety of fast-food options. That’s in addition to foods that can be easily purchased at convenience stores. The problem is that a lot of these items tend to be low in nutrition. (Not to mention, depending on the establishment, food safety may be an issue as well.)
Help clients devise a way to fit food preparation into their schedule. Maybe they typically have downtime on Sunday afternoons. This would be a good time to prep their menu for the upcoming week. Have them set aside one to two hours to get everything ready. Once they get into this habit, it will become second nature.
Another challenge you may face as a nutritionist is clients with unreasonable goals. Weight loss is a prime example. Most people want to drop five or 10 pounds per week. However, a more reasonable goal is to lose one to two pounds each week. Even if they recognize this, letting go of the loftier goal isn’t always easy.
As a nutritionist, it’s your job to help clients realize what is and is not reasonable when it comes to nutrition. To help them accept and set more reasonable goals, it can be helpful to explain why their goal (or their means to achieve it) can be unhealthy, unwise, or even unsafe.
One example is if they decide that, moving forward, they will never eat ice cream, chips, or another favorite food ever again. While these foods aren’t the most nutritious, this doesn’t mean that they should forever be avoided. In fact, cutting them out of their diet completely could do more harm than good. It could cause them to binge, then give up on healthy eating completely.
When possible, use research to back up your statements. Explain how their way of looking at food could backfire. Show them studies that support what you say. Then talk to them about how to change their expectations and help them set more reasonable goals—goals that they can actually achieve.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than half of all U.S. adults have at least one chronic health condition (1). Some of the most common include heart disease, arthritis, cancer, asthma, hypertension, and stroke.
Several factors can affect disease development and progression. Among them are the foods that people eat. People with certain chronic conditions may benefit from eating more of a specific nutrient. Likewise, they may also benefit from avoiding or limiting others.
Generally speaking, a nutritionist cannot provide medical nutrition therapy. Nutrition therapy involves counseling patients with a health condition. This type of service can only be provided by a dietitian, registered dietitian, or dietitian nutritionist. (Individuals in these roles may have the title of clinical dietitian or clinical nutritionist.) But patients with health conditions can reach out to a nutritionist to seek basic advice.
Answering their questions without going outside your scope of practice requires first understanding what that scope is. This is determined by your state’s regulatory agency.
The next step is having basic knowledge as to what advice may and may not be appropriate for certain health conditions. This helps prevent you from giving them guidance that may worsen or aggravate their disease.
This type of information can be learned in a nutrition course. If you are certified as a nutritionist, you can also take a continuing education course covering this topic area. Another option is to take a health coach certification course. Information about health conditions is presented in this type of program as well.
If you want to go one step further, you may decide to pursue a bachelors degree or graduate degree in nutrition, dietetics, or a similar field. This can help provide the qualifications needed to work with patients who have major health issues. A dietetic internship or supervised practice may also be required.
What we know about food science and nutrition changes regularly. As a nutritionist, you’re required to stay updated on these changes. This involves constantly learning about the latest findings and research.
The reason this can present a challenge is that it takes time. If you’re trying to grow your nutrition business, you may feel like your time is best spent on marketing and building your client list. While these are important actions to take, it doesn’t negate your responsibility to remain current in the field of nutrition.
One way to stay updated is to set aside time regularly to read the latest in nutrition research. Check out the Journal of Nutrition, Advances in Nutrition, and other academic publications. You can find more publications to review on the American Society for Nutrition’s website.
Another option is to listen to podcasts. The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Editor’s Podcast covers a variety of nutrition topics. This may be preferred if you don’t like to read or don’t have time. Instead, you can listen to a podcast while driving, exercising, cleaning your house, and more.
If you are in private practice, you may also face challenges with your business. Some people become a nutritionist because they want to help others. However, this doesn’t always mean that they understand solid business practices.
When you are in business for yourself, your ability to run that business successfully may dictate how long you’re able to help others. This makes it important to learn basic business skills.
Taking a business course can help. It can teach you the best strategies for growing your business, as well as which ones to avoid. Another option is to look for a nutritionist certification course that provides foundational business advice. This can help you get started on the right path.
Sometimes one of the biggest challenges you may face as a nutritionist is a lack of confidence. This can be especially true if you are new to this role. Low self-confidence can also be a result of imposter syndrome, or feeling like your abilities or skills are somehow subpar despite not having evidence to back this up.
If you struggle with confidence as a nutritionist, here are a few ways to change this:
Gain more experience. If you are new to the nutritionist role, it’s normal to feel uncertain from time to time. The longer you provide nutrition advice, the more your confidence will grow. Look for opportunities to gain experience. Your local public health department may have some opportunities available. Also reach out to local non-profits. Offer to hold free training for their clients. Agree to teach them about proper nutrition or how to make healthy food choices, for example. The more you do this, the better you will feel.
Increase your nutrition education. Take a nutrition course to increase your level of knowledge. Examples could include taking a course that talks about sports nutrition or clinical nutrition. Or maybe you take a course about how human nutrition impacts mental health and wellness. The higher your level of food science knowledge, the more confident you will feel when providing advice.
Obtain your certification. Becoming certified can increase your knowledge and application of nutrition guidelines. It also reinforces your level of authority, which can boost your confidence levels. When you can market yourself as a certified nutritionist, it tells potential clients that you have knowledge and skills in this area. This increases their confidence in you as well.
Earning your certification as a nutritionist requires that you take and pass an exam. International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) offers this exam as part of its Nutritionist Certification program. This program can be completed online at your own pace. The exam is also open book, giving you the ability to double-check your answers when testing for your certification.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, September 17). Prevalence of multiple chronic conditions among US adults, 2018. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2020/20_0130.htm