The path to becoming a practising dietitian in Australia requires first and foremost, a tertiary qualification.
Throughout Australia, there is a variety of undergraduate and masters level programmes, which satisfy the entry-level requirements for the profession. To maintain the educational standard of dietitians in Australia, each program must satisfy the requirements of the Dietitians Australia (DA). DA is the governing body, overseeing the dietetics profession in Australia.
A list of universities and their accredited dietetic programs in each state can be found here: Accredited Dietetics Education Programs.
Accredited Practising Dietitian
After obtaining a tertiary qualification in dietetics, you typically also need to maintain a registration with the national governing body (DA). The majority of employers in Australia require proof of your education (graduate certificate) alongside professional registration. Up-to-date skills are also inferred through resistration as maintaining DA registration requires a yearly quota of professional development to be met.
DA membership allows the professional title of Accredited Practising Dietitian or “APD“, to be claimed by dietitians wishing to work in Australia. To maintain APD status, members must adhere to the ongoing performance standards and continuing education requirements as set by the DA.
Current APD status is also required for a Medicare or Department of Veterans Affairs provider number and for provider status which is needed by private health insurers to enable their members to claim consults with their dietitian.
What’s the Difference Between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist?
This is a very common question. The most significant difference between these two professions is the level of education. A loose analogy could be to imagine the difference between a doctor who is a general practitioner vs a doctor who is a specialist such as an endocrinologist. This is an advanced qualification on top of being a general practitioner.
In a similar manner, all dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians. There are formal educational requirements for dietetics on top of those that a nutritionist receives.
The education of all dietitians has a strong scientific underpinning and must include a tertiary level study of physiology, anatomy, chemistry, biochemistry, organic chemistry, statistics, psychology, food science, and public health.
The Term ‘Nutritionist‘
The term ‘nutritionist’ is very broad. Professional bodies such as The Nutrition Society of Australia (NSA) do exist. They aim to regulate the term through the maintenance of a trusted register of nutritionists. To be on the register, nutritionists must have a Bachelor degree or higher, with a major in nutrition. Nutritionists having obtained qualifications through lesser forms of education may not be eligable for registration.
Unfortunately, there is no requirement for someone calling themself a ‘nutritionist’ to register with the NSA. Someone who calls themselves a qualified nutritionist could either have done three to four years of university study. Or studied an online course that takes 5 hours and 11 minutes – such as this one where you will “Learn Advanced Diet And Nutrition Strategies And Create The Perfect Meal Plan For Yourself Or Your Clients“.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t some highly educated and highly skilled nutritionists, because there certainly are. It is, however, a different level of qualification and education.
Image credit @woodenknife_nutrition
Additional Education of a Dietitian
Additionally, a dietitian’s education incorporates:
- medical nutrition therapy to work with those suffering from illness
- counselling and psychology skills
- systems analysis such as food production, supply, distribution, and environmental impact
- scientific research skills including writing and interpreting research papers
- food safety and the formation of population-level food guidelines
Prior to even working in the field dietitians are also required to undertake:
- minimum requirements of clinical experience hours with both inpatient and outpatients in hospitals and private clinic settings
- additional practical experience in one or more other areas such as aged care, community care, mental health, and sports
- for example, the Master’s programme at the University of Queensland requires 850 hours of supervised clinical practice in hospitals, community centres, aged care facilities, the food industry and other organisations
The most significant difference between dietitians and nutritionists is that dietitians may work with both healthy and sick people. Nutritionists are limited to working with healthy individuals only.
Undergraduate and Postgraduate
There are different tertiary pathways to becoming a dietitian. Some examples are:
- a 4 years fulltime bachelor program with honours such as at Griffith University
- a 3-year science degree plus a 1.5 to 2 year Masters programme (depending on previous studies) at Monash University
- a 3-year science degree plus a 1.5 year Masters programme at University of Queensland
My personal pathway was through a Bachelor of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at the University of QLD. This course allowed me to study all of the relevant prerequisites to a Masters of Dietetics studies but also allowed additional electives in which I study other areas of interest relating to my professional goals.
Biomechanics, exercise programming, and more in-depth anatomy and physiology have been valuable in working with athletes and sporting populations. Not all courses offer such options.
After completion of the 3-year Bachelors degree, I proceeded to the additional 1.5 year Masters of Dietetic studies at UQ. During this program students complete clinical, hospital, food service, community health, and mental health placements, as well as a range of theory-based subjects mentioned earlier.
All accredited dietetics programs are considered “entry-level” to the profession. Dietitians are then required to satisfy a number of professional development hours and continully upskill their practice.
After finishing tertiary study, practising new graduate dietitians are required to find and work with an existing APD for a 12-month mentoring partnership. This helps support, build and expand the skills of professionals new to the discipline.
APD’s also have to complete a minimum of 30 hours of continuing professional development of “CPD” each year. CPD plays an important role in the continued education and upskilling of dietitians. It also ensures that you are staying up to date on new research and working towards your own personal learning goals and objectives.
A further qualification of accredited sports dietitian may be granted in Australia though the completion of Sports Dietitians Australia’s sports nutrition course. This would be an example of CPD specific to expanding a dietitian’s skills when working with athletes and sporting populations.
Although dietitians are qualified to work with sporting populations, in the same way, that not all nutritions are dietitians, not all dietitians are sports dietitians.
CPD is logged through the DA each year and is required to maintain APD status.
Working in the Field
Although rapidly expanding, dietetics is still a relatively new field. Espeically when compared with other allied health services such as psychology or physiotherapy. This makes is a competitive industry when looking for work after university.
During the course of your studies, expanding your education through practical experience, volunteer roles, unpaid (or better yet- paid) internships, etc all provide additional skills and experience when seeking out a job. I would recommend seeking out as many of these opportunities as you possibly can.
As with most careers, the exact path you take is probably not going to be a direct line from point A to point B. Speaking from experience – the journey to becoming a dietitian has been satisfying, fulfilling, and mind-expanding. I look forward to many more years of further developing my skills in the profession and helping people with their health and nutrition.