CLARKSBURG — Members of the West Virginia Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are wrapping up National Nutrition Month, a time of year they spend raising awareness of the growing career of dietetics in the state.
Representatives of the academy say the opportunities for registered dietitians are vast and varied, but prospective students need a strong math and science background to compete.
Dietitians are especially needed in rural areas, according to Amy Gannon, a licensed and registered dietitian.
Gannon is spokeswoman for the West Virginia Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
She said a “health-care crisis” has fueled the need for those who can provide nutrition education.
“With obesity and diabetes and all of the other health-care issues that we have in West Virginia, there are definitely plenty of jobs for registered dietitians,” she said.
Dietitians work in three main areas of health care, according to Gannon: community nutrition, clinical care and food service.
Dietitians who work in a clinical setting help patients with chronic disease come up with an eating plan.
“Every disease has a nutrition diagnosis,” Gannon said.
Community dietitians educate the public on nutrition, including certain groups like pregnant women or the elderly.
Gannon listed the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, as an example of a community nutrition program.
She works in community nutrition in Charleston.
Through the WVU Extension Office, Gannon runs a nutrition education program for low-income families eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Dietitians in the area working in food service help ensure meals for large groups are nutritionally balanced, according to Gannon.
“Every hospital, every college, every major institution that serves food has a food service director and food service managers to plan the menu,” she said.
With the right training and experience, dietitians can carve out their own career path.
Christy Hanney, who owns G’s Fitness in Morgantown, runs her own nutrition business, Nutrition Made EZ.
She works in both the clinical and community fields of dietetics by running her health club and partnering with doctors’ offices in Fairmont and Bridgeport.
A former bodybuilder, Hanney encourages clients to consider natural options for treating physical ailments.
“Complementary medicine isn’t as popular as conventional medicine, but I always think complementary medicine should be part of conventional medicine,” she said.
Complementary medicine includes nutrition, physical activity, yoga, herbs, vitamins, minerals and “anything that complements regular medicine,” Hanney said.
Undergraduate degrees in nutrition are available at two universities in the state, West Virginia University and Marshall University.
After obtaining a degree, students need to compete for a practicum assignment and obtain licensure as a health care professional, Gannon said.
“The undergraduate degree is a well-rounded degree,” she said.
In addition to dietetics classes, students take biology, chemistry, advanced math courses and anatomy and physiology.
“It’s a science degree,” Gannon said. “You have to excel at science to do good in the programs.”
Students are often surprised by the difficulty of the degree, according to nutrition professor Brooke Nissim-Sabat.
She is an assistant professor of foods and nutrition at Pierpont Community & Technical College.
“People think we’re going to talk about meal plans the whole time,” she said. “It’s a very science-based course.”
The field also involves an understanding of psychology and sociology, according to Nissim-Sabat.
“Every semester students leave my class saying, ‘I have changed my eating habits as a result of this class,’” Nissim-Sabat said. “We eat for a lot of reasons that don’t have to do with hunger.”
Along with other representatives from the West Virginia Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Nissim-Sabat visited the Capitol this month in support of strong nutrition policies in the state.
“Right now we’re promoting the role of the registered dietitian in helping to make a healthier community and healthier United States,” she said.
Nissim-Sabat got into the field because she is passionate about the healing qualities of good nutrition.
“I just love the power of food,” she said. “I think that helping other people to develop an appreciation for healthy eating and the benefits that it can give is such a powerful tool and I really believe that food can be medicine.
“If we could bottle and sell the benefits of healthy eating and physical activity, it would be worth more than any pharmaceutical ever,” she added.
Staff writer Erin Beck can be reached at (304)626-1439 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.