On Capitol Hill, the director of a multimillion-dollar school food program testifies before a Congressional committee on proposed changes in school lunch regulations. In a university laboratory, a researcher studies the possible relationship between a high-fat diet and colon cancer. In a hospital intensive care unit, a young woman plans an intravenous feeding program that will help save the life of a burn victim. And in a private clinic, a health-care worker instructs a diabetic patient in the dietary control of his disease.
All of these people have one thing in common -- they are professional dietitians with special training in nutritional health care. Increasingly, dietitians are being recognized as a vital link between the science of nutrition and its practical application, both in medicine and for the general population.
The profession of dietetics has grown considerably since it was founded in 1917 at a conference in Cleveland. The American Dietetic Association, the profession's official organization, now has 33,000 members working in a variety of settings. But the basic goals of the dietitian have remained the same over the past 60 years: to improve the nutrition of human beings and to advance the science of dietetics and nutrition by promoting education in these and allied areas. In fact, the ADA is sponsoring National Nutrition Week March 5-11.
Today's dietitian may be a university professor who teaches nutrition. Others act as consultants for restaurant or supermarket chains, and many work as researchers or in the American Dietetic Association. The aspiring dietitian must complete at least four years of study in the biological and behavioral sciences, management systems, foods and food sciences at an accredited college or university. In addition, some schools offer their undergraduate students an opportunity to work directly with patients, while others serve in post-graduate internships or special work-experience programs in dietetics.
A number of dietitians go on to earn doctorate degrees in nutrition or an allied science, and some go into medicine. But no matter what nutrition-related career is selected, the dietitian's training emphasizes a special understanding of the relationship of food to nutrition and health, and of the economic, social and cultural factors that influence individual eating habits.
Although dietitians today have a wide variety of career possibilities, most work in hospitals. In fact, dietetics is often a hospital's second largest department, led only by nursing. For example, a 900-bed hospital may require a dietetics department of 200 employees with a yearly budget of $4 million.
Most hospital dietitians are directly involved in some aspect of patient care. The therapeutic dietitian, for instance, has a background in the chemistry and pathology of nutrition and special dietary problems. These dietitians often work with patients with inherited metabolic diseases, such as lactose intolerance, or nutrition-related diseases, such as diabetes or hypertension. They help devise therapeutic diets during a patient's hospitalization, and also counsel patients in the long-term use of special diets. They also may instruct student nurses, dietetic interns and, in many hospitals, medical students in the nutritional aspects of patient care.
Other dietitians may work in out-patient clinics, where they guide patients in maintaining dietary regimens and also teach them how to plan menus, prepare foods and even stay within a food budget. Physicians often refer patients to these clinic dietitians for help in special nutritional problems, such as obesity, pregnancy diets, infant feeding and dietary problems caused by disability or advanced age.
As noted earlier, many dietitians are also educators in universities or in medical, dental, nursing or other health professional schools.Still others may be involved in teaching public health and social workers in community nutrition education, or acting as consultants to various community, government or even international feeding programs.
In a crisis situation, the dietitian is often called upon for special services. During the two world wars, for example, nearly three-fourths of all ADA members were involved in the armed forces or Red Cross war efforts. During the Depression of the 1930s, dietitians helped organize relief feeding programs and also taught low-income groups how to plan a nutritionally adequate diet on a minimal budget.
These are only a few of the many important roles of dietitians. Whenever young people -- and older ones as well --ask us about careers in nutrition, we recommend that they consider dietetics as one possibility. It is an expanding profession that offers men and women many challenging opportunities to serve their fellow citizens, both in this country and throughout the world.