A dark cloud has been hovering over the labor market since the financial collapse, but there has been one consistent bright spot for job seekers: health care. Add to that rising obesity rates and soaring health-care costs, and the industry shows no signs of slowing. Over the next eight years, employment of dieticians and nutritionists is expected to grow 20% faster than the average for all other occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Experts say that such rapid growth in the field will lead to more demand and higher salaries for workers in the nutrition space.
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“The perfect storm has been brewing for a while,” says Ann Kulze, nutrition expert, family physician, and author of Dr. Ann’s Eat Right for Life. “There has been this flood of dazzling science telling us that diet and great health and diet and disease are inextricably linked.”
In addition to increased interest on the clinical level, there’s also more demand from consumers interested in improving their health, she says. “Record numbers of people now have diet-related diseases, and we know that one of the most powerful triggers to change eating behavior is getting a diagnosis. If your doctor tells you that you had a heart attack or have diabetes as a result of your diet, it’s a very powerful motivator.”
But motivation is one thing, execution is another, and many consumers are unsure of how to maintain a healthy diet. It doesn’t help that the foods and products that are heavily marketed tend to be heavily processed and not the healthiest option, making it difficult for consumers to separate food commercialism from healthy eating.
According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2012 Food & Health Survey, 52% of Americans say that doing their own income taxes would be easier than knowing how to eat healthy. Of those surveyed, 76% report changing nutritional guidelines have made it harder to know how to eat right.
“Ten years ago, we were told to eat margarine. Today, we are told it’s horrible for us,” says Kulze. “The food pyramid used to tell us we needed 11 servings of grains a day. Are you kidding me? We’re looking at a situation where most people want to eat better, but they simply don’t know how to do it.”
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The increase in jobs in the nutrition and dietetics space is a direct result of more schools, corporations and health insurance companies hiring health professionals to educate students, employees and clients, says Chad Oakley, president and chief operating officer at human resources consultancy Charles Aris.
“The demand for nutrition talent is growing dramatically on a global scale,” he says. “Nutrition has not been an oversubscribed career path so you have a low supply base of professionals for something that is suddenly experiencing a high demand.”
Today, nutritionists are becoming a “very regular part” of most health care companies’ portfolios, according to Oakley. They are hired to design menus for people with dietary restrictions and help manage diets for people who have certain chronic conditions.
“Some health care companies have a huge team of nutritionists that do nothing besides think of menus for people and breakdown the ingredients in every product you can think of,” Oakley says.
Corporations are hiring nutritionist to educate overweight employees and those suffering from chronic conditions as a result of poor eating habits. Companies have realized that they can lower health care costs by offering nutrition assistance to employees, says Oakley.
Corporations with food and beverage products are also using nutrition professionals to assist with the selection of their products’ ingredients and to manage fat and calorie content, he says.
“Corporations have realized that they have to create products that will become the choice of mainstream America. The ‘Mayor Bloombergs’ of the world are only going to support products that support the health of Americans.”
Today, school systems all over the U.S. are hiring nutritionists to step in as part of a school’s physical education program, Oakley adds. In the next few years, adolescent education nationwide will begin incorporating nutritionists who will teach students healthy eating habits.
“There really is a need for many more nutritionists in schools,” says Stacey Snelling, a registered dietician and member of the American Dietetic Association. “Many schools now have policies dictating healthier food in cafeterias and health education in tandem with physical education.”
Because of the increased interest in nutritionists working in schools, Snelling says that there is a shift in how nutritionists are perceived.
“A nutritionist’s patient isn’t necessarily a cancer patient who needs advice on how to manage a diet on chemotherapy,” she says. “That is certainly one part of the job, but today we’re seeing an increased need for nutritionist educators who communicate what terms like, ‘enriched with iron’ and ‘whole grain,’ really mean.”
Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the nutrition field will experience high growth for the next eight years, Oakley says that it’s likely to be much longer than that.
"I cannot imagine seeing a glut of nutritionists for a really long time. It’s not easy to achieve a degree as a registered dietician,” he says. “I advise all young people against getting into an industry with an oversupply, but I would say they are totally in the clear to go and pursue this, and they will have plenty of demand for their services when they graduate.”