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Nutrition and dietetics is crossing new frontiers, says UC academic

Suzanne Lazaroo

13 December 2021: A report from the Council of Deans of Nutrition and Dietetics, Australia and New Zealand heralds the unprecedented growth and diversification of the profession – and the resulting emergent roles will provide huge opportunities, says Dr Jane Kellett, the new Discipline Lead in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Canberra’s Faculty of Health.

“I think that when people want to work in health, it’s because of an underlying desire to help others,” Dr Kellett said. “The new categories outlined in the report provide chances to do that in increasingly diverse ways, and across various platforms and areas.”

Released in late 2021, the Reimagining the Future of Nutrition and Dietetics in Australia and New Zealand: Towards 2030 reportfocuses on a future in which diet is key to lifelong health and wellbeing, in the context of climate change, food access equity and an ageing population.

“As in many developed countries, the population demographics of Australia and New Zealand are changing – moving forward, we need to take that into consideration in both education and practice, to ensure better quality of life,” Dr Kellett said.

While nutritionists provide healthy eating advice, dietitians provide medical nutrition therapy in a hospital or private practice setting.

Attaining a Bachelor of Human Nutrition at the University enables students to practise as nutritionists upon graduation.

Graduates of the Master of Nutrition and Dietetics program are Accredited Practising Dietitians (APDs). The capstone unit at the end of the course sees students embark on a four-week internship in which they can work in an area of their choice, where they provide an autonomous contribution to the profession.

“At UC, our nutrition and dietetics courses are closely aligned with industry partners. They evolve apace with the profession, and Work Integrated Learning [WIL] equips all students with extensive field experience, so that they are ready for the realities of the profession, and can enter any of these emerging areas,” Dr Kellett said.

The six emergent roles identified are food afficionados; diet optimisers; knowledge translators; equity champions; systems navigators and food system activists; and change makers, activists and disruptors.

Food afficionados would apply their expertise in human relationships with food to leverage the health of individuals, communities, and populations,” Dr Kellett said.

“This would involve knowledge about our social connectedness – which can really impact health and wellbeing – and connection to food.”

School food and nutrition coordinators would be examples of such roles.

“Their work could include building edible gardens in schools, educating children on healthy food options and eating, and working with public policy to make sure it optimises healthy food choices,” she said.

“It could also include working with the health industry to develop functional foods with increased nutritional value.”

Diet optimisers would work to boost health and wellbeing, as well as to manage conditions with overlapping environmental, social, biological, transgenerational and comorbid drivers.

“This emerging role is a particularly proactive one, heavily focused on promoting quality of life via health and wellbeing,” Dr Kellett said.

According to the report, one option would be to work as a mental health and addiction specialist.

“Diet plays a very important role for people suffering from mental health conditions – but traditionally, there hasn’t been a focus on lifestyle interventions in mental health management,” Dr Kellett said.

“An ageing health coach would be another option for someone in this role, taking into account the different nutritional requirements at various stages of life.”

Knowledge translators would be the ones to provide a critical scientific voice to counter non-science-based food and nutrition misinformation, which could destabilise human health.

“Think of becoming social media influencers with scientific qualifications, or research communicators,” she said. “This is particularly significant because of the increased use of technology, and the importance of communicating evidence-based information and engaging audiences via digital platforms.”

Meanwhile, those interested in advocacy would do well to look towards becoming equity champions, Dr Kellett said.

“This is about addressing the systemic drivers behind access to healthy food, using a lens informed by equity, intergenerational and intercultural understanding,” she said. “I think that working with and learning from Indigenous communities is very important also, across the board.”

Individual roles under this category would include disaster food relief coordinators and mobilisers, food policy advisors and person-centred diet coaches.

“It’s crucial that issues of food access are considered in terms of what is acceptable to individuals, communities and whole populations, in order to build food sovereignty and security – which is why in our Master of Nutrition and Dietetics program, students have had the opportunity to work with food relief agencies,” she said.

“Food access is an area that has been particularly highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused more people around the world to become reliant on food relief programs.”

Systems navigators and food system activists would drive the creation of food and agricultural systems which enable food consumption patterns for human health – and restore a safe climate for planetary health.

“This is so topical at the moment – as we become increasingly aware of the need for sustainability, we need to look at the environmental impact of food production and food systems,” Dr Kellett said.

This area has a strong focus on ecological and environmental knowledge, and could include roles such as nutrition consultants to agri-business, urban farms and gastro-tourism.

In a category with close parallels, change makers, activists and disruptors will be the ones to negotiate the complex interactions and balance between protecting human health via food, creating financially viable solutions, and ensuring equitable food access.

“They would work to ensure the equitable global distribution of food that maximises human health and reduces the risk to planetary health,” Dr Kellett said. “At the same time, equitable endeavours do need to be financially viable, if they are to be sustainable.”

“The future of the nutrition and dietetics profession is very bright – and the industry’s potential for impacting the global big picture is correspondingly immense. As educators, the Council is very invested in making sure that the professional workforce of the future is skilled enough to meet these needs and maximise opportunities.”

To view the full report, go to Reimagining the Future of Nutrition and Dietetics in Australia and New Zealand: Towards 2030. The University of Canberra’s Professor Shawn Somerset, former Discipline Lead in Nutrition and Dietetics, was a member of the Council at the time the report was prepared.