How to become a nutritionist or dietitian: My career journey and honest advice
So you want to become a nutritionist or a dietitian? Awesome.
Being a nutritionist/dietitian is a wonderful career. I love it.
But I don’t think it’s quite what I expected it to be… Some things were harder and other things turned out to be even more delightful.
(Insider tip 1: Despite what your spellcheck tells you – in Australia, we spell it dietitian – not dietician!)
If you’re wanting to study or start a career as a nutritionist or dietitian, here is some of my honest advice for your career path.
MY CAREER AS A DIETITIAN AND NUTRITIONIST SO FAR…
Where I studied, my qualifications and what my career path looked like
What high school subjects do you need to study to become a nutritionist?
I didn’t study chemistry for year 12 but I did do PDHPE, which was a big help. My university allowed me to do a bridging course before I started my bachelor degree. If you want to study nutrition, you might need to do specific subjects.
Do some research on which university or school you want to go to and check the pre-requisites.
So, do you need to study science at school to study nutrition or become a dietitian? No, but it does help.
What are my (Lyndi Cohen’s) qualifications?
I studied at the University of Newcastle and received a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics (graduating in 2011).
This means I’m an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) and an Accredited Nutritionist (AN).
My first job out of University
Since graduating in 2011, I’ve gained experience in lots of different areas of nutrition.
My first job was a part-time role with a small start-up food company. I found out about the role through my uncle’s friend (so when it comes to getting a job, it’s good to ask around because many opportunities aren’t advertised)..
In my first job, I was employed part-time as a marketing/communications role (not as a dietitian or nutritionist) but as jobs were scarce, I wasn’t picky and took what I could get!
Getting a foot in the door…
In this role, I worked 2-3 days a week earning ~$30/hour. I dealt with customer complaints (not fun), sent the mail, photocopy things, create flyers, organise meetings, take notes, write copy for marketing, run the company’s social media…
I didn’t realise how much these ‘soft’ skills would be crucial to running my own business. While it wasn’t a nutrition role, I learned what happens behind the scenes in the food industry and in developing new product recipes. This turned out to be crucial.
Starting my own nutrition business – The Nude Nutritionist
By 2013 I had worked my way to being the company dietitian and did more straight nutrition work like reviewing nutrition information panels, reviewing nutrient and health claims etc.
When I wasn’t at this job, I’d spend the other 2-3 days, volunteering with Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, Cancer Council’s nutrition division and the Dietitians Association of Australia’s Mental Health/nutrition advocacy group. I got lots of experience from volunteer work.
In 2013, I also started building my business, The Nude Nutritionist.
(Insider tip 2: There is no such thing as a nutritionalist. It’s simply ‘nutritionist’).
Starting The Nude Nutritionist
I registered my business name (The Nude Nutritionist!), bought a URL, and taught myself how to build a website. It was a very average website but ‘done is better than perfect’!
I started sharing photos of my food and ideas on social media – even if my photographing was average and my spelling was terrible (Thank goodness for Grammarly, which I now rely on).
- I taught myself how to write a press release, blog posts and articles. I practiced photographing food, cooking and developing recipes… and slowly got better.
- I learned about SEO, hashtags and integration of lots of software that I use to run my business (even though I don’t consider myself particularly ‘tecchy’).
How I became a media nutritionist and dietitian on TV
I slowly began doing local media interviews using things like SourceBottle. Sometimes I pitch in ideas to blogs or local newspapers or websites.
As a media nutritionist, I started by doing guest posts on friends’ blogs and grew my confidence and skills moving to bigger and bigger publications.
No publication was too insignificant for me!
If a nutrition student asked for an interview or someone at a cocktail party asked me a nutrition question, I’d use it as an opportunity to practice my media skills.
Slowly, the opportunities got bigger and bigger… Until three years later, I got a call from TV land to come audition.
How did I become a TV nutritionist in Australia?
Growing up, I LOVED speech and drama classes. I spent many school holidays at musical theatre or drama camps. As an adult, I did a 2-day course on speaking in front of the camera / on TV.
Now, it’s all about practice. It’s a hard skill – talking on live TV – but it’s a ‘hard’ I’m willing to work at.
(Insider tip 3: Nutritionist media work is NOT something you do for money. It’s something you do for passion).
I didn’t get paid for media work for a long time – and now – it’s not even close to enough to pay my bills.
So if you want to work as a media nutritionist, you need to have a strong business that supports your passion for media work.
What’s the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian?
A dietitian and nutritionist are not the same thing.
Dietitians have gone through additional study and are qualified to provide medical nutrition therapy to help people. That means dietitians can work in hospitals and might help people with cancer or diabetes or CVD to feel better with nutrition.
In Australia, dietitians are recognised by Medicare. This means patients can be referred by their doctors for a care plan. Patients can go see a dietitian for medical nutrition therapy and then get a rebate from Medicare for some or all of the fees (depending on what the dietitian charges)!
Someone who sees a nutritionist can still see clients one on one but can’t get government rebates.
Be careful because anyone can call themselves a nutritionist as it’s not regulated… That’s why you get dodgy people dishing out dodgy advice.
Should you become a dietitian?
For me, I wanted to have that higher level of education but it’s a personal choice based on your career goals. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do so I thought becoming a dietitian would give me more choices. And it does.
Whether the additional study is worth it for you is your own choice to make.
Do you need to be an APD to be a dietitian?
As a dietitian, I’m a member of the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) and have been since I graduated. To keep up my status as an APD, I have to continue to develop my skillset and adhere to a strict set of ethical guidelines. As an APD, I always need to stay committed to scientific evidence and best practice.
You have to be an APD to be recognised by Medicare, so your patients can get rebates. Technically, if you don’t see Medicare patients, you might not need APD status though I do recommend having it.
My first ever, proper media coverage. It was in the local newspaper in 2013! Image: Lyndi Cohen
How did I start my nutrition private practice?
In 2013, I also started seeing private clients in my ‘clinic’.
By ‘clinic’ I mean that I drove to clients’ homes, carrying all my notes and the nutrition resources I had created. I tried hiring a room in an office but it was too expensive for my new business to manage so I ended it after 3 months.
Eventually (by 2015), clients would come to meet me in my home office as I kept expenses low. Thankfully, I was building business sense.
How I built up my nutrition private practice and got new clients
I started small by helping family friends and friends of friends. When they had a good experience, they told their friends and it grew and grew by word of mouth. I encouraged word of mouth support.
I also started writing for the local paper about issues I knew my clients came to me wanting help with.
My website helped me get more clients and I refined my skills, found my speciality and grew confidence. I worked on SEO and building connections with doctors for referrals.
My website started to bring in clients, and so did my social media. By 2015, I was full time in private practice seeing clients 6 days a week.
How I built my nutrition business
At some point, I got too busy to keep up and wanted to reach more people, around the world – not just those who could make appointments!
That’s why I do what I do now. I run Keep It Real Program which has been so successful and allows me to help thousands of people around the world. I guess I started small… and learned a lot, worked very, very hard and grew my business.
What does my day job look like now?
No day is the same for me.
I might be doing a segment on TV for Channel 9’s TODAY show in the morning, coming back home to write a blog post, filming a recipe at lunch, doing consulting work for a client or helping Keep It Real participants by afternoon and creating another recipe at dinner time.
I also wrote my lovely book, The Nude Nutritionist which launched in January 2019 and is now a bestseller, and sold around the world.
I’m not going to lie. I work a lot.
My trouble is switching off!
Should you study nutrition at a college or university? Should you become a dietitian or nutritionist?
This is really up to you. Obviously, I chose to study at a University but a lot has changed since I graduated.
If you do study at a college, make sure it’s a serious nutrition degree that you’ll learn a lot from.
Do your research. Who are the lecturers? What are the subjects? Does it make sense logistically? Based on the curriculum, will you feel confident once you graduate? Can you afford it? Decide if you want to be a dietitian or nutritionist and then work from there.
Should you become a nutritionist or a dietitian?
It was really important for me to become a dietitian so that’s why I did the dietitian degree. Dietitians have the opportunity to work in hospitals and help give people complex dietary advice. They get Medicare rebates, which is really important when you work in private practice is less affluent areas. Dietitians also tend to be ferociously evidence-based so they won’t tell people to cut out gluten for no reason or avoid lactose for fun. I think that’s a really good thing.
That said, there are some great dietitians, and then there are some that are stuck in the dark ages, giving outdated advice. And there are some brilliant, balanced nutritionists and then there are those who ignore science completely and are just trying to make money.
Whether you do become a nutritionist or a dietitian, become a professional with integrity. Become a great practitioner and don’t just follow everyone else. That’s how misinformation spreads.
Check the nutrition evidence. Keep up to date with the science as it changes. Stay true to your philosophy and never work with a brand that doesn’t 100% align with you.
Studying a nutrition and dietetics degree is REALLY hard…
I won’t sugarcoat it. Nutrition and Dietetics is an incredibly hard, and science-based degree.
You have to work hard to get through it as you can’t fake it. If you’re not good at science or maths, be prepared to get a tutor to help you and work hard.
Nutrition has a really high drop out rate because it’s so hard. Many people transfer halfway. In my cohort, 120 started the nutrition course and only 45 of us graduated together. I think you need grit to study nutrition. And you need even more grit once you graduate.
Typically, it takes about 2-3 years to become a nutritionist. And it takes about 4-5 years to become a dietitian. Expect to be at university every day of the week. The final year/semester tends to included practicals in clinic and it’s pretty intense (and physically and emotionally exhausting).
How to find a job as a nutritionist or dietitian
‘What’ you know really does matter when you’re a nutrition professional. But WHO you know is crucial when it comes to getting a job as a nutritionist. Ask your friends and family if they know anyone who works in the food/health industry. Try to get an introduction. That first nutritionist job I got wasn’t even advertised. Most jobs aren’t. Network like crazy.
There are NOT MANY JOBS in nutrition! But, there is a lot of work. Do not go into nutrition if you want to be employed. That is a recipe for unemployment. Hundreds of new nutritionists and dietitians graduate and there are only around ten ’employee’ roles that everyone competes for.
If you want to start a career as a nutritionist or dietitian, be prepared to be your own boss and run a business. This means you have to be really self-motivated, passionate AND you need to learn how to run a business. About 75% of my working hours is spent running a business. The rest I get to do nutrition.
How to get work as a nutritionist or dietitian? OR How to get work experience with a dietitian or nutritionist?
Introduce yourself: If I want to work with someone, reach out to them directly and let them know I think they’re great. Send them an email and tell them why you love them! Even if they aren’t ready to have you work with them yet, when they are, you may come to mind.
Send an email or call: Don’t send people messages on social media. Take the time to find their email and send them a well thought out message. It’s much more professional. Follow up if they don’t respond. Be polite, be lovely but be assertive.
Get a foot in the door. You don’t need to get your dream dietitian job. You need to get a foot in the door. So if that means you are photocopying and running to get coffees, then become really good at it and work your way up.
Do what is expected of you, and then do a little more. In such a competitive industry, you really have to take every opportunity and then steer yourself toward your goal.
How to get work experience with a dietitian or nutritionist
First up, it’s really hard to get work experience. Especially in private practice. In 10 years, I have never really heard of people being successful. When I had my clients, I never felt comfortable having someone sit in.
You can hire a dietitian or nutritionist to mentor you and give you practice in doing consultations if you don’t have the confidence. Ideally, your education institute will set you up without needing this.
You’ll see that I did a lot of volunteering once I’d graduated. It’s much easier to get experience at charities (they’d love to have you). Also, the food industry, nutrition consulting groups, industry bodies and nutrition businesses are doable too.
Insider tip 4: Send your own emails. Don’t get your parents to email for you. Show you are responsible and self-motivated. I know it can be scary but it’s just an email. Be brave.
How to pitch yourself to get work experience with a nutritionist or dietitian
I get an email or message every day from someone asking for work experience with a nutritionist or dietitian.
So I’ve seen a lot of ‘pitch’ emails.
This is what you need to include when you send a pitch email looking for work experience or work with a dietitian or nutritionist:
- Spell their name correctly! This is essential. It shows that you pay attention to detail and are a good communicator.
- Start by acknowledging that they’re busy. Keep the email short and concise as a sign of respect for their time. In other words, “think long, write short”.
- Briefly explain who you are.
- Don’t tell them what they can do for you e.g. “I’m looking for experience and I’d love to specialise in your field therefore, I would like to learn from you”. This can easily make someone feel threatened and it doesn’t actually ‘sell you’.
- Do explain what YOU can do for them. Consider what keeps them up at night and work with that. Are they busy? Time-poor? Struggling to keep up with admin? Then explain how you can help them solve their concerns. See the example below.
- As it relates to their work, mention skills that you’re good at. Do you write well or are you good at photography? Are you good with graphics? Do you love recipe development, can you code, use photoshop or understand SEO? Include what’s relevant to their work so they can imagine how you’d add value.
- Explain why you especially want to work for them.
- Do a thorough spell-check before sending it. I couldn’t live without Grammarly.
- If they ask you to follow up at a later date, ALWAYS follow up. It shows grit.
- Even if they say no, respond politely and with real gratitude. You never know when you’ll meet them again. The industry is small. Make a good impression.
- Do your research before emailing them. Read their blog, check out their social media channels, google them… Learn as much about them as possible. They’ll be impressed when they feel you’re already a self-starter and engaged.
- Don’t let your parents email for you. You’re ready to step up!
Here is an example I made up:
“Hi Angela, I love your blog and website especially the fact that…. I’d love to help you create even more great content for your website as I know that can be time-consuming. From what I can see from your social media, you seem really busy. I love writing, have a great talent for …. which I think could be useful for your business. I can edit videos using iMovie. I’d love to help you with any tasks you need doing. No job is too small. It helps that I studied nutrition and dietetics at etc …. and had work experience here and here. I’m super self-motivated and organised so I can help you with admin tasks that you don’t have time for. In a nutshell, I’ll help you get more done! I learn quickly and as I really want to work with you, I’m happy to fit in where you need me. Here is an example of some of my work (attached). This is my best contact number. I’d love to help you. All the best, Cassie”.
How much do nutritionists get paid in Australia? What is a typical dietitian or nutritionist salary in Australia?
How much dietitians or nutritionists earn differs depending on your level of experience and your skillset and where you work (e.g rural or urban).
Here are some ball-park figures for how much Australian dietitians and nutritionists earn.
Hospital work: If you’re a dietitian working in a hospital, you’ll earn around $60,000-$110,000 (before tax) depending on what ‘level’ you are at. As you progress year by year, you can earn a little more.
Note: The average income in Australia is about $75,000.
Private practice: When I ran a private practice, I charged per client. You can google nutritionists near you to get an idea of the current price per session. Consultations generally range from $100-200 for an initial consultation (45 min -1 hour) and $50-100 for a follow-up (about 20-30 mins).
Consulting: When you’re a consultant nutritionist, you typically charge per hour (but I also do packages depending on the job). When you start out, you might start with a free around $30-50/hour and work up from there. Many top nutritionists charge $250+/hour. When quoting, keep in mind that you’ll have to pay GST, tax and your own super.
Media: It seems glam but you rarely get paid to do media work so it’s really got to be something you’re passionate about. That’s why you need a strong business model if you want to be a media nutritionist. You will need to stay up-to-date with all the latest research papers and be very good with deadlines.
Nutrition writing: Publications typically commission work and pay per word around 0.70c/word (I think?). Some places will only pay $100-200 for a short article. Some pay twice that amount.
Many publications run on tight budgets so don’t have money but it’s always a good idea to ask ‘what is the budget?’ before offering your writing for free. Practice writing daily. Read books and magazines.
Business: Like all businesses, there is no ‘normal’ salary for working as a nutritionist or dietitian in business. Unlike hospital work, the sky is the limit…!
When you’re a nutritionist, be prepared to take many awkward photos of you laughing and smiling with random food. It’s weird, I know but I haven’t quite worked out how to get around that…! :D Any ideas are welcome in the comments section. Image: Lyndi Cohen
Take home message: How to become a dietitian or nutritionist
If you’re considering becoming a nutritionist or dietitian, I can confirm that it’s a great degree and career.
If you’re self-employed like me, it’s really flexible so great for mums and people who travel loads. There are so many different areas to go in so find a specialty that speaks to you (and makes you unique).
If you are thinking of studying nutrition or starting a nutrition career, be prepared to run a business. I do business stuff 75% of the time and nutrition work 25% of the time.
Regardless whether you become a nutritionist or a dietitian, always refer to the science and don’t follow the crowd. Just because someone else does it doesn’t mean it’s right. There are so many people out there who need help to eat healthily and be inspired toward balance. So if you’re innovative, independent, empathetic, a good communicator, a hard worker and got stack loads of grit, you’ll make a great nutritionist or dietitian.
You might also love this blog post: 10 Things I’ve Learned as a Dietitian and Nutritionist.