For years, very few Kenyans sought the services of nutritionists and dietitians. But as more people seek to live healthier lives and the number of Kenyans with lifestyle diseases increases, the professions have come of age.
The latest Economic Survey shows the number of nutritionists and dietitians graduates has increased from 2,106 to 4,235 in five years from 2017 to 2021.
Similarly, nutritionists and dietetic technicians increased to 1,046 in 2021 from 619 in 2017. Nutritionists and dietician technologists increased to 6,340 in 2021 from 3,122 in 2017.
So, why is there a sudden increase in the uptake of the profession and what role do they play?
Jasper Oloo, a dietitian and nutritionist department manager at Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi says that a lot has changed over time in terms of what people eat and drink as well as other socio-economic factors.
“An increase in the prevalence of diseases, co-morbidities, and related conditions has increased the demand for clinical nutrition and dietetics services across the country. Also, the general public is getting more informed about their health and healthy living,” says Dr Oloo.
There is also a generation that is paying attention to different kinds of diets, body types, and lifestyles to lower risks of being obese, getting diabetes, high blood pressure, and even cancer, which in some cases runs in families.
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There has been an explosion of interest in having a dietitian as part of hospital teams, some have full-staffed departments that offer educational programmes on health subjects like diabetes and heart disease. Others have opened their own practices.
Jessica Wanjiru, a certified nutrition consultant at Malkia Nutrition in Nairobi says her interest in the profession was fuelled after she successfully helped her aunt to keep her weight in check.
“After completing my internship with Kenya Nutritionists and Dieticians Institute (KNDI) and getting a licence, I decided to work with my family members to impart the knowledge I had gained from school. My first consultation was a nutrition coaching session with my aunt to modify her dietary habits. After a well-drafted meal plan and strict exercise routine, she lost the extra weight and was on her way to achieving her health goals,” says Ms Wanjiru.
Four years in the field, Ms Wanjiru has acknowledged that her consultancy work has indeed elevated her to higher levels career-wise as well as in impacting the lives of the community at large.
“I have been invited to many schools, churches, and homesteads to talk to groups of people who were interested in nutrition, from their response, the interaction has positively impacted their lives as far as healthy living is concerned,” she says.
Kenyans have increasingly ditched quacks or Do-it-Yourself (DIYs), as more professions join the field.
In a day, Ms Wanjiru attends to about five people, with the cumulative number of people attended to by the company going up to 20 in a day, a clear indication of high demand for nutritional services.
“People are more interested in nutrition now, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic which saw a massive transformation in how people take care of their health. The public is more informed about the food they eat and how the food is grown and processed. With this notion, more people are coming in for nutrition consultation services. Students are also more interested in pursuing nutrition at diploma and degree level,” she adds.
So what is the difference between the professions?
According to Dr Oloo, both dietitians and nutritionists counsel clients on nutrition issues and healthy eating habits. They are experts in the use of food and nutrition to promote health and manage disease.
They plan and conduct food service or nutritional programmes to help people lead healthy lives.
“A registered dietitian can do more than just guide a client because they have the knowledge and credentials to develop diet and nutrition programmes tailored to an individual’s physical and medical needs. They also work with physicians, policymakers, schools, and researchers to improve public health and food systems.”
“A nutritionist cannot create detailed meal plans, prescribe supplements, or diagnose disease whether nutritional or physical since they lack the formal education of a dietitian or the certification of a nutrition coach. They are therefore limited in what they can provide,” he adds.
Nutritionists focus is more on general health and well-being, similar to a personal trainer, the reason why these fields pair well together.
Nutritionists often help clients uncover why they eat the way they do and how to use food as fuel in support of their fitness goals.
“Dietitian is a person who has college training in the science of nutrition and management and is proficient in the art of feeding individuals and groups. A nutritionist in a public agency is a “qualified, professionally trained person who directs or carries on a program of activities dealing with the application of scientific knowledge of nutrition to the prevention of disease and the promotion of positive health,” says Dr Oloo.
“All registered dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians.”
On the other hand, dietetic technicians and dietitian technologists are mainly differentiated by their levels of training, but with a slight change in their scope of work.
“Dietetic technologist means a person who has undergone professional training at diploma level with a bias in dietetics while a dietetic technician means a person who has undergone professional training at certificate level with a bias in dietetics.”
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Until recently, most dietitians were thought of as just “food service people.” They never used to spend as much time seeing and diagnosing patients as they did working with the kitchen staff to provide the right meal at the right time.
However, with the increasing awareness of the importance of healthy living among Kenyans, the demand for nutritionists and dietitians will continue to be on the rise.
Statistics by the Bureau of Labour project that the employment growth rate for dietitians and nutritionists between 2021 and 2031 will be at 6.8 percent with an estimated 5,100 job openings.
“Food may be the most obvious battleground, but nutrition is just one of many expressions of a revolutionary cultural shift. Some companies are now seeing a growing demand for conservation among their target audiences. Skincare companies, for instance, are getting calls to provide more natural and ethically sourced ingredients,” says Dr Oloo.