Efforts to get healthy fuel demand for Iowa State program

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Emily Nulton teaches students the importance of a balanced diet as part of her internship experience. Photo courtesy of Dietetics Internship

AMES, Iowa – Anyone struggling to shed a few pounds knows they need to watch what they eat, but it’s not always easy to change those habits without help from a registered dietitian nutritionist. The demand for help has led to growth in the dietetics field, said Jean Anderson, director of the dietetics internship program for the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University.

The job outlook for registered dietitian nutritionists through 2020 is expected to grow by 20 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s faster than the average rate for all occupations and likely a reflection of the rising obesity rates in the U.S. The combination of all these factors is fueling interest in ISU’s dietetics program.

Along with demand, a lot has changed in the field of dietetics, including the way services are delivered, Anderson said. Instead of only serving clients in a traditional health care setting, registered dietitians are now working in schools and grocery stores to help people develop healthier lifestyles.

“It makes sense to reach people at the point where they’re making decisions about what food to eat or buy,” Anderson said. “Registered dietitians can answer questions about nutrition labels or meal planning and provide information that’s accurate and appropriate for each individual’s nutrition goals.” 

Training requires teamwork

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics sets the standards for dietitians to ensure they have experience and knowledge to provide clients with appropriate health information. The academy requires registered dietitian nutritionists complete a supervised practice program or internship approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics.

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Student interns give a presentation on MyPlate to parents in Sioux City. Photo courtesy of Dietetics Internship

After earning their bachelor’s degree, students accepted to Iowa State’s accredited Dietetics Internship program must complete a minimum of 1,200 hours supervised practice. Successfully meeting that requirement wouldn’t be possible without partner dietitians at medical centers as well as food service and community nutrition programs across Iowa who serve as preceptors for the students.

“Our preceptors give students guidance and the chance to gain real experience and training they need to enter the workforce, but the preceptors also gain a lot from the experience,” Anderson said. “We’re always looking to create new partnerships with businesses and organizations that are interested in working with students.”

In central Iowa, preceptors have helped train more than 325 Iowa State dietetic interns. Sandy Huisman, food and nutrition management director for Des Moines Public Schools, helps interns understand that school nutrition is about more than just what students eat in the lunchroom.

“It is great to have the opportunity to share with future dietitians the role that a dietitian can play in supporting a healthful school environment,” Huisman said. “Each intern spends time in Des Moines classrooms assisting with nutrition education. They have also presented in-services to school nutrition staff, assisted with recipe development and implementation of other programs.”

Hy-Vee also provides interns with similar hands-on experience. Student interns help coordinate in-store events to educate customers about nutrition topics as well as plan activities, such as a 5k run, to promote an active lifestyle.

Experience builds upon skills learned in the classroom

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Student intern Mallory Rosen gains real experience by working with Special Olympic athletes. Photo courtesy of Dietetics Internship

Immersion in a nutrition program gives students the chance to gain experience working with clients and better understand the different opportunities for dietitians. Interns spend 40 to 50 hours a week working on site and on specific projects, such as researching questions or doing studies for clients and staff.

Willow Dye, a graduate of the program and nutrition director for the West Des Moines School District, credits the experience with helping her find her passion.   

“I had fabulous preceptors who allowed me the creativity as well as guidance in each of the rotations,” Dye said. “During my rotations I was able to spend time with the previous West Des Moines Schools Nutrition Director and learn a great deal about child nutrition and the challenges being faced.”

That is exactly what the internship is designed to do – to help students build upon their skills and work through complex nutrition issues, Anderson said. The practical experience tests an intern’s ability to analyze situations so they can help future clients improve their diet to manage disease or other health problems.