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What Are Clinical Dietitians?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated Feb 21, 2024
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Clinical dietitians are health industry specialists who regularly advise patients and medical professionals on the nutritional foods needed for good health. These recommendations are normally based on their analysis of vitamin or mineral deficiencies, disease- or illness-related needs or weight management goals. The dietitians regularly work in nursing care facilities, correctional institutions, clinics and hospitals.

After making their recommendations, clinical dietitians generally monitor and analyze the results. Patients with illnesses such as diabetes or kidney disease are often the specialty of some dietitians because their conditions are so acutely affected by their diets. Diets designed to correct critical deficiencies in a specific vitamin or mineral are normally of particular interest to clinical dietitians and are often closely observed. For example, if an individual is suffering from kidney disease, there are certified specialists in renal nutrition who can help guide a patient through a renal dialysis diet by observing and analyzing the patient’s progress.

Planning diets and overseeing meal preparation in various types of facilities are common duties of clinical dietitians. Following directives from physicians and other health-care professionals, the dietitians develop and implement menus based on dietary restrictions, such as low salt or low fat requirements, or to increase or decrease a patient’s body weight. Sensitivities or allergies to particular substances are important considerations of clinical dietitians when creating menus as well.

The dietitians’ resourcefulness is often challenged, as they normally have to work with the foods at hand at the facility to develop restricted menus and recipes that are palatable and visually attractive. Other considerations in menu development are the age of the patient and the level of required appetite stimulation required. Cultural food preferences and dietary restrictions related to religious dogma are also common concerns.

As patients prepare to be discharged, clinical dietitians traditionally consult with them and their families on following a prescribed dietary regimen at home. Dietitians regularly prepare lists of preferred foods, guidelines for optimal preparation methods and sample menus for reference and guidance. They generally make themselves available to answer questions after the patients are released.

In addition to regularly communicating with patients, families and medical personnel, clinical dietitians commonly supervise food service workers and staff in food service and preparation. They may also conduct research on food and nutrients. Some clinical dietitians contribute to formal educational programs for hospital personnel and medical students.

Depending on the seniority of the clinical dietitians, they may be regularly required to submit monthly performance evaluations of staff members. Assisting in scheduling dietetic interns and clinical dietitians may be a regular part of their job. They may also be expected to help the director of the department in reviewing and revamping policies and procedures.

A bachelor’s degree in dietetics, human nutrition, nutritional sciences, food and nutrition, or a related field is required for a position as a clinical dietician. Licensing requirements vary by region and institution. The years of required job experience depend vary by employer.

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