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Watching you eat

With urban populations in India becoming health and weight conscious, the reliance on diet practitioners is also witnessing a corresponding upswing, says Vimal Chander Joshi.

education Updated: Sep 22, 2011 11:41 IST
Vimal Chander Joshi

Having worked for four years as a dietician in various organisations, Dr Parul Patni was discouraged by everyone in her social circle when she set out to establish her practice. She heard things like, “There can be only one Anjali Mukherjee (a popular dietician based in Mumbai). Every dietician can’t run her own practice.”

But Patni was not the one to be held back. Her faith wasn’t shaken even when she didn’t see a single client for the first six months at her clinic in Faridabad.

To woo clients, she paid publicity-focused visits to doctors’ clinics in her locality, where she often waited for two hours before meeting the doctor. She even went to schools, which drew some response, though lukewarm. Gradually, clients (not patients as she clarifies) started trickling in.

“We can’t have a doctor-patient kind of relationship. Dieticians have to be very informal with clients. It’s a continuous and long-term relationship which I forge with them,” says Patni, who holds a PG diploma in dietetics from the Institute of Hotel Management, Pusa, Delhi.

Normally, a first-time client’s visit lasts for 40-45 minutes. In such a meeting, the dietician usually investigates the clients’ daily lifestyle and food habits (90% to 95% of whom are female). Patni usually asks questions about the amount of water consumed in a day, number of hours of sleep, food and drink consumption in a day, changes in eating patterns during the weekends, and so on.

“Initially, some may maintain that they stick to a two-chapati-a-day regime. But when they gradually open up, we discover that they don’tount the packets of biscuits they had,” she says with a hearty laugh.

When suggesting a diet plan, Patni weighs its practicability, too. “If someone regularly holds official meetings at hotels, I can’t ask her to stop eating out. Similarly, I find it futile to ask a sociable client not to drink on weekends. We try to customise a diet keeping in mind individual needs,” she explains.

Most of Patni’s clients have been with her for years. They make payments on monthly, quarterly or half-yearly basis. They stay in touch either over the phone or over the internet. While speaking about online communication, she reminisces of a London-based ‘self-motivated’ client who came to meet her while on a holiday in India and sought advice. “Later, he emailed me several times and managed to lose 17 kg in a few months’ time,” she says. Patni attributes this success to her regular interface (online and offline) with clients, which means giving a personal touch to the relationship.

However, there are times when even such close relationships don’t have the desired effect. “At times, we have to ask people to see a counsellor instead of a dietician. This makes them think that I am an inefficient dietician who couldn’t resolve their case,” says Patni.

What she enjoys most about her job are the timings. A dietician never gets an emergency case and there are no long hours, she says. “Barring a few occasions when I get a phone call at odd hours from a demanding client, I work six hours a day,” she says.

Those not interested in running their own practice can work at health clinics, corporates, gyms and hospitals. Research is another emerging area.

Dr Shweta Khandelwal, who works at the Public Health Foundation of India, plunged into research to drive home the point that nutrition is a serious subject.

“There are several career options in dietetics, including teaching, practice, and research. I chose research because my friends, who were studying for their MBBS degrees, used to believe that nutrition graduates are not competent for cutting-edge research, even though the fact is that nutrition is the basis of everyone’s life,” Khandelwal explains.

What's it about?
A dietician studies diet — food is his/her business… from the time of harvest till it is consumed. He/she has to do a qualitative analysis of the food being consumed, not only till the time of consumption, but even after it is eaten. A dietician should have complete knowledge of not only food and but also about the workings of the human body. He/she should have knowledge of human physiology, varieties of food, nutritional aspects, calories, etc

Clock Work
8 am: Wake up, plan meals for the family, start work
9 am: Leave for office
10 am: Meet patients. Check the records and make modifications patients’ diet plans
Noon: Check medical reports. Make next day’s diet plans. Compile the reports and give it to the supervisor
4 pm: Day ends. Attend to some patients’ calls

The Payoff
Entry level: A fresher with a diploma can get anywhere around Rs8,000 to Rs10,000 a month
Those with a master’s degree can expect Rs11,000 to Rs15,000
With experience, there is no limit to the money one can earn

Skills
. Your need soft skills to become a good dietician
. Have empathy towards the patient, patience, politeness
. Great motivational skills to keep a client going
. A strong sense of ethics as the the patient depends on you; he/she will do whatever you will suggest

How do i get there?
Take up a home science programme after Class 12 or equivalent. This is offered as BSc (home science) or BA (home science). The next step is to go for a master’s degree in home science with specialisation in food science and nutrition. Some agricultural universities, too, offer BHSc and MHSc programmes. Preference is given to candidates with science in Class 12. You should pursue a postgraduate diploma/ master’s degree in dietetics

Institutes & urls
. BSc/ MSc home science (food and nutrition), Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi
www.ihe-du.co.in
. BTech/MTech (food & biochemical engineering), Jadavpur University, Kolkata
www.jadavpur.edu
. Postgraduate diploma in nutrition & dietetics University of Madras, Chennai
www.unom.ac.in/ice.html
. PG diploma in dietetics and applied nutrition, University of Mumbai
www.mu.ac.in

Pros & cons


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If you are attached to a hospital, you have to work in shifts


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Dietetics and nutrition is a noble profession rated equivalent to that of a doctor’s


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You get decent working hours and a very decent working environment

Dietetics is now preventive

An academician speaks about career avenues in the field of dietetics

How has the role of dieticians changed?
Earlier, a dietician used to play only a curative role but now it is preventive. People come to pre-empt lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes or hypertension.

When it comes to prevention, diet is also very important, along with medication.

How is the industry catering to the growing percentage of health-conscious people?
Now, product manufacturing/ marketing companies need the services of nutritionists because they are mandated to label the nutrient composition on the product wrapper.

How popular is dietetics at the college level?
In our college, we offer five specialisations — food and nutrition, human development, fabric and apparel designing, resource management, communication and extension. Among these, food and nutrition is the most sought-after discipline.

The field of dietetics and nutrition has become popular. But when you studied it in the 1960s, it was in a nascent stage. Why did you choose it?
My father was a doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences where I met a young female dietician who had completed her higher studies in the United States. She inspired me to become a dietician. Later, I went on to do my PhD from the US.

Career opportunities existing in this area?
Dieticians are required not only in fitness clinics, but also in food processing companies, hospitals, gyms and even non-government organisations working in the area of food and nutrition. Initially, they work for a modest salary but as a chief dietician, one can earn as high as R1 lakh per month.

Dr Kumud Khanna, director, Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi interviewed by Vimal Chander Joshi