Becoming a Nutritionist- An Interview

Kathleen Putnam has been a professional nutritionist for 20 years, and she has extensive experience in many facets of the nutrition field. She earned a Bachelor of Science in nutrition and dietetics from Oregon State University, and a Master of Science in nutrition from Bastyr University. She spent time working as a nutritionist at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Washington, and has even worked on a radio show.

For the past 10 years, she has been in private practice at NutritionWorks Seattle, where she counsels individuals and groups. When she is not meeting with her clients, she teaches nutrition courses at Shoreline Community College, and has also taught classes at Renton Technical College, Edmonds Community College and Bellevue Community College. In addition to teaching and providing nutrition counseling services, Kathleen writes a nutrition blog for Regence Blue Shield.

What is a nutritionist?

There are many different types of nutritionists. Nutritionists commonly work in public health, counseling pregnant women and new moms to help them and their children stay healthy through nutrition. Nutritionists also counsel people who are at risk for malnutrition, such as the elderly. Some nutritionists work in a clinical setting, like nursing homes. Many nutritionists are educators who give public presentations, work in universities and meet with clients. Some nutritionists are also researchers who work with people and animals in labs, or with pharmaceuticals, to discover new developments. Besides these common positions, nutritionists can also write nutrition books or work in public relations for food companies.

Why did you decide to become a nutritionist?

I was first attracted to this field because I have always been interested in my own personal nutrition. I was also drawn to the teaching aspect of nutrition, as well as the constant learning. This is a dynamic subject and the data is constantly changing and I knew I would enjoy learning and growing along with the field.

Are there common misconceptions about your profession?

Yes, people commonly think that nutritionists will be judgmental and condescending, and that we will dictate what they can and cannot eat. But we don’t force changes on people; we are here to help people understand why changing their habits is so difficult. Nutritionists are knowledgeable about human behavior and development, and we don’t want to set people up for failure. An eating plan is only successful if it works for the individual person. We help people to make healthy choices in our modern culture, while considering people’s budgets, lifestyle and personal preferences. Nutritionists are the facilitators.

What is a typical day like for you?

Most days, I meet with four or five clients at my practice, Seattle NutritionWorks. Some days I also conduct a one-hour group session. When I am not meeting with clients, I update charts, communicate with therapists and physicians about clients, blog and answer questions on my website. I make time each week to communicate and network with other professionals in the nutrition field. I also teach nutrition courses at local colleges. I currently teach two five-credit classes, although most quarters I only teach one class at a time.

What are your favorite aspects of your job?

My favorite part of my job is being able to interact with people. My clients are so inspirational, interesting and challenging and I love working with them. I enjoy networking with the other healthcare providers, as well as teaching and blogging. I also genuinely enjoy the constant learning of my work.

What are your least favorite aspects of your job?

My least favorite aspects of my job are the details. I don’t particularly enjoy the business tasks that are involved with operating a private practice. However, I am fortunate enough to have a great staff to oversee the business details for me. I think it is important to understand business and management, but I don’t get especially excited about it.

Is there anything you would have done differently while studying to become a nutritionist?

If I had it to do over, I might consider diversifying by earning my master’s degree in something a little bit different, but still complementary to nutrition. There are more programs available now, that I might have considered when I was earning my master’s degree. However, I am really happy with my educational path and career.

What classes did you take in college that are most relevant to your job?

The most useful classes I took in college were my nutrition counseling class, my medical nutrition therapy class and my class on nutrition research. There were a lot of other classes that were relevant to the field of nutrition, but not necessarily related to my interest areas.

Besides the courses I took, my internship was extremely applicable to my career. After earning my undergraduate degree, I completed a one-year internship at the University of New Mexico, where I performed the job of a registered dietitian. This was an especially practical and applicable experience because I gained first-hand exposure to the nutrition field.

What personality traits do you think would help someone to be successful as a nutritionist?

Someone who enjoys diversity and learning will probably be a good fit for a career as a nutritionist. This field is for all personality types because it is so diverse. If someone is detail-oriented, he or she will excel in a clinical or research setting. People who enjoy giving presentations and teaching would probably enjoy private practice, outpatient and community work.

In any area of the nutrition field, good communication skills are crucial because nutritionists must convey information accurately and effectively. It is helpful to have good people skills, but even those who don’t enjoy working with people can be successful as writers and researchers.

What personality traits do you think might hinder someone’s success as a nutritionist?

Someone who is uncomfortable with debate or uncertainty is not suited to a career as a nutritionist. There is a lot of controversy involved in the greater nutrition field because the data is constantly changing. We must be able to admit when we were wrong, or when we don’t have the answer.

What advice, or words of caution, would you give to a student who is considering studying to become a nutritionist?

If you are considering studying to become a nutritionist, you should first be aware of the time and education commitment. Often, students don’t realize that a bachelor’s degree in nutrition is not enough. Most nutritionist jobs will require you to be a registered dietitian. In order to become a registered dietitian, you will need to complete a yearlong internship after college, and then you will need to pass the national licensing exam. In all, it is a minimum commitment of five years, and you should understand the requirements ahead of time.

In addition to recognizing the level of commitment, I would also recommend that you research the profession and educate yourself about the salary range, as well as the salary range of related fields.

Above all else, don’t be discouraged by things that you hear or read; if it is your passion, you can have success. You will have plenty of opportunities, especially internationally, and your opportunities will probably increase as time goes on. If you love what you do and you have passion for nutrition, you can make money in the field. You might have to supplement your income through teaching or writing, and you might have to be creative to get your foot in the door and gain experience. But if you want to work as a nutritionist, you will find success. There is room for you!