Dietitians were once found mainly in hospitals and health care facilities treating patients with diabetes or kidney issues.
While those needs still exist, healthy eating, overcoming the obesity epidemic, quality school lunches and bio-engineered foods are among trends helping to propel the field.
Chris Hartney, an advanced level dietitian at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says she has seen the focus shift in the clinical dietitian setting from disease treatment to prevention since joining the field 12 years ago.
Angela Douge, director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at Dominican University, says dietetics and nutrition are evolving.
"I tell students nutrition is a living science. It is ever changing," Douge says.
Robert Cullen, director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at Illinois State University, says scientific discoveries about adequate nutrition's role in health and disease is expanding the field.
"Combined with the increased incidence of chronic diseases at younger and younger ages and the obesity epidemic, nutrition is at the forefront of the intervention needed to improve the health of the public," he says.
While there continues to be a need for diet and nutrition experts in hospitals and food service, Douge says students are forging new pathways.
"To the credit of the students they are pushing and saying let's think outside the box," she says.
Graduates are now finding or creating jobs.
Outside the box
Tom Henne is pursuing his MBA with a coordinated program in dietetics through Dominican University. After completing his undergraduate degree in human nutrition and foods Henne knew he wanted to focus on dietetics as it relates to business.
With help from Douge, Henne discovered an internship with a food-marketing firm in the Chicago area.
Henne suggests prospective students interested in a career related to nutrition and dietetics but do not see their specific career goals reflected in the curriculum, should find a degree program that is willing to work with them.
"There is still a lot of old school dietary thought. This is a different generational idea of what dietetics might be," Henne says. "The nutrition world is evolving and changing. You can go your own way if you want to make it work."
Jameson Tade, who received his undergraduate degree in dietetics from Dominican, is now pursuing his Master of Science in nutrition at Baylor University through aU.S. Army program.
While enlisted, Tade expects to be assigned to a clinical position, but eventually may combine skills in athletic performance and nutrition to help other soldiers.
"I'd like to try to improve the overall health of the military," Tade says.
He says there's also potential for humanitarian missions, emergency management and fighting hunger.
"A lot of people don't know there are opportunities outside of hospitals," he says. "There are opportunities out there."
According to Douge, Dominican graduates have jobs on state and national dairy councils, are in charge of food marketing, and employed at major food corporations. In addition, more graduates are becoming entrepreneurs as consultants or creating wellness centers.
"We're really seeing (the career opportunities) blossom," she says.
Changes like apple slices or fruit side options for children's meals, oatmeal added to breakfast menus and fresh fruit drinks are often the signs of dietitians working behind the scenes.
"We're really pioneering through unique specialty fields," Douge says.
Mary Gregoire, director of Food and Nutrition Services at Rush University Medical Center and chair of Clinical Nutrition at Rush University, says while data shows more than half of dietitians work in the health care environment, graduates from Rush are also finding a wide variety of employment. Some are on staff with major grocery store chains, others combine with athletic and fitness credentials to coach athletes in both the physical and nutrition sides of health and others go into higher education and research.
Dietitians, Gregoire says, are finding more opportunities to guide people toward proper information. In addition, the science around nutrition counseling has evolved in the last five years, Gregoire says.
The science of nutrition
In addition to undergraduate degrees in nutrition and dietetics there are also master's degrees.
Some, like Rush, offer an MS-DI program allowing students to simultaneously complete the 1,200 hour internship required to sit for the Registered Dietitian exam while earning an advanced degree. Dominican offers the dietetics program combined with an MBA. Dietitians also require licensing in Illinois and continued education hours to keep the credentials.
The curriculum goes far beyond food. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly the American Dietetic Association, describes dietetics as a science and an art, applying principals of food and nutrition to health.
"People think it's about fruits and vegetables, but it's also about organic chemistry and bio chemistry. It's a very science-based profession," says Douge.
Students need to understand physiology, metabolism, disease states as well as skills like how to limit fat and potassium, Gregoire says.
In addition, those in the master's program at Rush take management courses, courses in leadership and public policy especially since food and nutrition and ingredient regulation issues continue to be debated.
Dominican University officials believe its program combining an MBA with the RD is the only one in the country, Douge says, adding Dominican wants to help change the face of dietetics.
Gregoire says the need for a master's degree in dietetics and nutrition may depend on the person's career goals. She says at Rush University Medical Center they require their dietetic staff to have a master's degree.
Hartney says even on the more traditional clinical side there is growing opportunity. Her job entails educating patients and families as well as interns and nurses, determining a course of action for a patient and even writing up orders for protocols such as feeding tubes.
"At Rush we are extremely lucky to practice at an advanced level," she says. "Physicians look to us. It's very unique and in a sense exciting. You're not just telling a physician, but putting it into play."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times