How To Become A Vegan Dietitian
March 31, 2022
Are you looking to study nutrition and dietetics and want to know how to get into the field as a vegan or vegetarian? This article will help provide you with an understanding of how to become a vegan (or plant-based) dietitian.
Disclaimer: this article is specific to becoming a vegan dietitian in Australia but some of the information and tips provided may still be applicable wherever you are based.
What is the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?
Before we discuss how to become a dietitian, let’s address the differences between dietitians and nutritionists, as the distinction is often blurred.
Essentially, all dietitians are also qualified nutritionists, but a nutritionist is not necessarily also a dietitian. To become a nutritionist, you don’t require the same level of qualifications required to work as a dietitian.
In fact, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, even if they have no qualifications in the field of nutrition. This is because the term ‘nutritionist’ is not protected by any governing body. Dietitians, on the other hand, are required to follow a strict pathway that includes a bachelor’s and/or master’s degree.
See the visual below which shows the differences:
Most dietitians will be credentialed as an Accredited Practicing Dietitian (APD) which is governed by Dietitians Australia. We will outline this in more detail in the next section.
How to become a dietitian in Australia
In Australia, credentialed dietitians are called Accredited Practicing Dietitians (APDs). To become an APD, the first step is completing a university-level dietetics degree. This may be at either a Bachelor’s or Master’s level. However, it is important to note that not all nutrition and dietetic courses satisfy the entry requirements of our governing body, Dietitian’s Australia (DA), to become an APD.
A list of appropriate programs accredited by the DA can be found here.
Once you have graduated from an accredited course, you can then apply to become an APD through the DA. Learn more here.
Some dietitians may choose not to pursue the APD credential, however, this comes with limitations. For example, clients will not be able to access the Medicare Benefits Scheme (MBS) through their GP to claim rebates towards the cost of consultations. The APD credential also acts as a public guarantee of your dietetic expertise.
As explained on the DA website, there are certain criteria that dietitians must satisfy to maintain their APD status.
All APDs must commit to (1) undertake continuing professional development (CPD), (2) follow our professional standards, (3) maintain recency of practice hours, (4) be subject to our audit and complaints process.
Dietitians Australia, 2022
Navigating your university courses and placements as a vegan
Every university course will look slightly different. In general, nutrition and dietetics degrees will include a substantial amount of core foundation science courses such as biology, chemistry, physiology and anatomy before moving onto more specific subjects such as food science, community nutrition, medical nutrition therapy, and counselling. All degrees will also contain practical placements to help solidify your theoretical knowledge.
Both theory courses and practical placements (pracs) can come with an array of challenges as a vegan or vegetarian. Our biggest tip would be to remember that you are just studying to become a dietitian, not a vegan dietitian specifically, so it is important to keep an open mind throughout the process and draw boundaries where you see fit.
Some of the challenges you may face include:
During your course work, you may come across some topics which can be triggering from an ethical standpoint. In particular, food science courses will often include lectures on meat production including the slaughter process. Unfortunately, these topics are unavoidable and often necessary background information that you may be tested on.
If you find yourself triggered by this content and unable to distance yourself mentally, then it is always important to reach out to others around you or a professional to share your struggles.
Dissections and food science labs
During the early stages of your degree, some biology and food sciences courses may involve animals and/or using animal products for dissections or food composition analysis. In these instances, it is up to you and where you place your ethical boundaries regarding what you choose to do.
Some universities may allow you to opt out of pracs such as dissections and complete an alternative assessment instead if you ask to do so based on ethical grounds. However, this will not be universal, so it is best to have this discussion with your course coordinators.
Many degrees will also include food science labs which will often involve handling animal products such as meat, eggs or dairy and others may even have cooking-related pracs. In these instances, again it is up to you where you draw the line. If you are not comfortable handling certain animal products, then having this conversation with your supervisors is a good idea. A majority of the time you may be allowed to just observe your lab partners perform steps handing the products and assist with other tasks instead.
Attending placement as a vegan can come with a few challenges depending on the specific tasks that are involved with your course. The main area where you may come across a few challenges is food service. The tasks you will be required to partake in will vary between placements, but some may involve hands-on food prep with animal products, or meal tasting and supplement tasting.
In these instances, you can disclose to your preceptor that you are vegan and don’t wish to try any of the food (most preceptors are more than happy to accommodate). During patient consultations in both hospitals and community settings, a majority of your clients are likely not be following a plant-based diet.
It is important to remain compassionate towards these clients and remember that it is never appropriate to push your own personal dietary/ethical beliefs on them. Your main role as a dietitian is to help them incorporate individualised dietary strategies that fit their own food preferences, not your own.
Top tips for specialising in vegan and plant-based diets
Whilst most degrees will touch on plant-based diets at some point, unfortunately, this is only a minor part of your course content. This will not provide you with enough knowledge to become skilled in helping clients with a plant-based diet.
Luckily, there is a wealth of knowledge in the plant-based nutrition space outside of your university degree that you can use to help develop your skills as a vegan dietitian.
Here are our 5 top strategies to upskill both during your degree and once you have graduated:
1: Work experience and volunteering
Work experience and volunteering is one of the best things you can do as a student dietitian or new grad to help further develop and apply your clinical knowledge. It is the best way to get a realistic insight into what the world of dietetics is like outside of university.
This may include helping develop patient resources on plant-based nutrition, writing blog posts, creating social media content, helping out with admin tasks or participating in professional development opportunities.
Once you do land a volunteer opportunity with a vegan dietitian, make the most of this relationship by asking as many questions as you can. It is also always worthwhile to ask if they would be happy for you to shadow a few of their consultations. This is the best way to get tips you can apply to your own practice.
Although often unpaid, doing volunteer work for other dietitians provides invaluable skills and knowledge and can potentially land you paid work in the field later on.
Our top tips for finding work experience include:
- Take the initiative – hit up every dietitian you can find who works in the plant-based space via email or their social media accounts. It is beneficial if you are already familiar with their content or have connected with them previously. Try to make it personal and don’t be spammy!
- Don’t just limit yourself to dietitians in your area – there are many opportunities to be found virtually
- Explain how you can provide benefit to them and make their life easier e.g. helping out with admin tasks, developing resources and/or creating social media/blog content
2: Look for a vegan dietitian as your mentor
After you graduate, all dietitians in Australia that intend on completing the APD accreditation must complete 12 months of mentoring with an experienced dietitian. Reaching out to a plant-based dietitian to be your mentor can be very beneficial. They can help guide you along the way – from landing a job as a vegan dietitian, to developing your clinical knowledge in plant-based diets and answering questions that may come up with your own patients.
Although you will have one official mentor through the DA, you can have multiple unofficial mentors and these relationships don’t have to end after your first year out of uni.
3: Look out for relevant professional development courses and keep up to date with emerging research
As university courses don’t provide much information on plant-based nutrition, it is up to you to do your own research to upskill in the area. Fortunately, there is a wealth of information available to you if you know where to find it.
This includes reading through scientific journal articles as well as attending/watching professional development courses. Some great platforms to find professional development courses include the DA’s Centre for Advanced Learning, Dietitian Connection and Education in Nutrition. Many dietitians will also release their own courses and webinars aimed at patients or practitioners which are great to look out for.
Research in the nutrition space is constantly evolving which means that it’s important to stay up to date with the latest evidence. Subscribing to scientific journals is a great way to keep up to date with the most recent papers released. There are also many evidence-based health professionals in the plant-based space including dietitians, researchers and doctors who release up-to-date information on their social media platforms.
4: Familiarise yourself with key figures, documentaries and diets promoted in the plant-based space
Evidence-based or not, nowadays, most people get a majority of their diet and nutrition knowledge from the media. Staying up to date with the latest trends promoted in the plant-based space by documentaries, podcasts, social media influencers, and other medical/health/wellness professionals is important. This can help you understand what messages your clients are being exposed to and debunking common myths when necessary.
5: Stay up to date with the array of vegan or plant-based products available in the supermarkets
The range of vegan and vegetarian products available in supermarkets is constantly expanding. It is important for you to stay up to date with these and their relevant nutrition-related benefits/disadvantages.
Our Ultimate Vegan Shopping List is a 50-page guide containing all the popular vegan items found in Australian grocery stores.
Starting your career as a vegan dietitian
After graduating from university, there are a number of different fields you may choose to go into including hospital dietetics, private practice, aged care, food service, research, and the food industry. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on working as a plant-based dietitian in private practice field because this is the area we have lived experience in.
Unfortunately, with the limited number of jobs available it is highly unlikely that you will be able to land a job as a plant-based dietitian immediately after graduating. There is always the option to start your own practice, however this comes with a myriad of other challenges and is not generally recommended. It can be very difficult to manage the demands of starting and maintaining your own business, marketing, and improving your clinical skills at the same time.
As mentioned previously, volunteering and networking with other plant-based dietitians is a great way to find opportunities in the field.
Even though you may not be able to find a job working in a primarily plant-based practice, you can always market yourself as having a niche or special interest in that area to attract more plant-based clients. This will also help set you apart from other dietitians when applying for jobs.
Regardless of whether you work for a plant-based company or not, it is likely you will work with both vegan and non-vegan clients. As mentioned, when working with non-vegan clients, it is important to keep your personal beliefs separate and give them individualised advice that aligns with their values and goals. However, you can always promote including more plant-based foods in their diet in line with current evidence-based guidelines.
This article was written by PNW Clinic dietitian Georgia D’Andrea.