My work in academia, entrepreneurship, mentoring students, and my own job prospecting has given me numerous insights on the long and winding road that is a health & wellness career. As an undergraduate student I thought that a career in health & wellness was pretty straightforward
Go to College => Get Good Grades => Graduate => Get a Job
Whoa, was I wrong. It turns out that getting a job in health & wellness is anything but that. There are numerous difficulties, challenges, and obstacles that one must face to not only get a good job but to be successful and fulfilled in that role. Going to college, getting good grades, and graduating is only the first part of your journey and there’s a lot more work to be done but no one really tells you what the steps are or how to do it.
I wrote the following ten chapters to help summarize my thoughts on the health & wellness industry and to provide a resource to people thinking about getting into dietetics as well as newcomers to the field. If you feel like something is missing or needs to be added/modified please let me know. The following ten chapters are based on my own experiences and conversations with other professionals in the field.
Chapter 1: Ten Reasons to Think Twice Before Becoming a Dietitian
If you’re thinking about becoming a registered dietitian (RD), don’t. Well, that is, unless you are planning on becoming a clinical dietitian or have a very, and I mean very, specific career track in mind. I will tell you my reasons for giving you this advice, but first let me share with you the story of how I became a dietitian.
In 2003 I was going to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire as a Kinesiology major with an exercise management emphasis. I wanted to be a personal trainer. I was three years into my program when I began to realize how much nutrition played a role in sports performance and health. It was also around this time that I found out that to become a personal trainer you didn’t need a four-year degree but to become a dietitian you needed a four-year degree, a 1000+ hour accredited dietetic internship, and then you had to pass the examination to become a registered dietitian. If I was going to become a personal trainer and a nutritionist, maximizing my education in nutrition and learning personal training on the side seemed like the best option for me. So, I transferred schools to the University of Wisconsin-Stout and graduated two years later with my four-year degree in dietetics.
I then completed my dietetic internship, passed my RD exam, obtained a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology, a PhD in Bioenergetics & Exercise Science, and have worked in academia and nutrition ever since. Here’s a few things that I have learned along the way that makes me cautious in recommending dietetics as a career path.
Job security and earning potential. If you can make it through the rigors of an undergraduate dietetics program (biochemistry, organic chemistry, anatomy & physiology I & II, and medical nutrition therapy I & II) you might want to consider an equally rigorous program that contains more job security and a higher salary such as nursing, nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, physical therapist, physician assistant or another high-level position in the medical field.
Only 50% of undergraduate dietetics students will be matched with an accredited dietetic internship program upon graduation. This is the program required for you to be able to take the RD exam. The remainder of students will have completed their undergraduate degree in dietetics but will be unable to continue their journey to become a RD and be forced to choose another career path.
The dietetic internship program is antiquated. The 1000+ hour dietetic internship core competencies/rotations are in a) food service, b) clinical nutrition, and c) community nutrition. For students with no interest in food service or clinical nutrition (such as myself) it doesn’t matter, you still have to go through these rotations to complete your requirements to take the RD exam.
The dietetic internship programs are costly, unpaid, and often require you to move. I paid the University of Houston $5,000 for the privilege of working 40 hours/week for free. I moved to Houston from Wisconsin, split an apartment with another intern that I had never met (but became friends with, hi Alan) and slept on an air mattress for 6 months. Between paying rent, working full time unpaid, and paying tuition, I left Houston in pretty bad financial shape, which lingered with me into my masters and PhD programs.
Jobs in private practice or sports nutrition are difficult to find/get. So many people pursuing a career in dietetics want to be in private practice, a sports nutritionist, or both. Sorry to break it to you but there’s not all that many jobs or money in private practice or sports nutrition. The dietitians that I know in private practice generally have more than one job to help supplement their incomes. Outside of traditional clinical settings, dietetics doesn’t pay all that well.
Nutrition education is controlled by food marketers and people with business degrees, not dietitians. Dietitians know a lot about nutrition, food marketers and those with MBAs generally do not. But guess who gets to develop products and write nutrition education materials? You guessed it, food marketers and MBAs. Money talks, nutrition does not. Being a RD will not necessarily afford you the opportunity to build and deliver nutrition education as you may envision, at least not in the food industry as we know it today.
How useful is nutrition education, anyways? If you do get the rare opportunity to provide nutrition education, I believe that nutrition education, in and of itself, is pretty worthless. So many young people that I speak with want to educate, educate, educate. Education does not equal behavior change. Is nutrition education important? Of course it is! But that can’t be your primary purpose/driver. These days, problem solving and execution matter more than nutrition education per se.
If you are a RD, people love to tell you how to do your job or that they know more about nutrition than you do. This happens all the time. Nutrition is a topic that everyone seems to be an expert in, when in reality none of them know what they are talking about. This phenomenon is somewhat unique to nutrition. For example, would you tell an engineer how to build a bridge? I don’t think so.
Nutrition is a highly fragmented field with a great deal of infighting and varying philosophies. I never thought that finding RDs with the same nutrition philosophies as me (based in science) would be so similar to finding members to play in a band (can you play music together). Everyone seems to have a different philosophy and that’s fine, but when these philosophies are not grounded in science, it’s difficult to discuss and find common ground.
Be prepared to sacrifice your moral compass. Industry jobs are about selling a specific product or service. If that product or service conflicts with what you learned in school, too bad. School isn’t paying your bills, the company you work for is. Companies are stuck in the “our product or service is the best” mode when in reality it often isn’t but you can’t afford to say that, because again, who is helping you pay your bills.
I originally got into dietetics because I thought I was going to learn everything there was about nutrition and with that knowledge I was going to help people eat the perfect diet. The more I learned, the more obvious it became to me that there isn’t a perfect diet and focusing on the minutia of nutrition education as it exists today wasn’t really helping anyone.
I followed my passion for nutrition into this field without considering what some of the barriers to my success might be. I thought, well, it will all work itself out. And to some degree it has. If you were to ask me if I’d do things over again differently, no I don’t think I would have. I am the person that I am today because of all of these experiences. Now, with that being said, it hasn’t been easy and I wished that I had someone to tell me some of these things. That’s why I’m telling you this now. If you really want to be a dietitian. Go for it. Be a dietitian. But know what you’re getting yourself into and consider your options before committing yourself to a really tough journey.
Chapter 2: If You’re Already Committed to becoming a Dietitian, Here’s What to Do
In Chapter 1, I recommended you think twice before deciding to become a dietitian. Many of you reading this might be saying, “But what if I’ve already committed?” If that’s the case this is my advice to you.
You must do a dietetic internship and sit for your RD exam. An RD will open up a number of possibilities that an undergraduate degree in dietetics cannot get you. The dietetic internship is the proverbial “fork in the road”. In many careers if you gain enough experience, you’re able to make lateral moves into other roles and positions. Dietetics doesn’t work like that. Let me give you a few examples from my own life.
In my first post I detailed how I changed majors and transferred schools from Kinesiology to Dietetics. Near the end of my dietetics degree, I consulted with my old Kinesiology advisor. At the time, I felt like I tested out dietetics, it wasn’t what I thought it would be and I was ready to get back into Exercise Physiology. My old advisor gave me some sage advice, “Finish what you started, complete your dietetic internship, and then go back for your master’s in Exercise Physiology”. So that’s what I did. For years people told me this was a good move and I would politely say, yeah I guess so. Internally I was grumbling about the financial ruin the internship gave me with no apparent payback. The fact that I had an RD didn’t seem to play a role into getting me to where I wanted to be.
However, now when I look back, being an RD was a huge part of who I was. Most everyone at Iowa State knew that I was an RD and so did most people at East Carolina. When people introduced me, they’d say, this is Todd, blah, blah, blah, he is an RD. It never dawned on me until recently that perhaps having an RD helped me get into my masters and PhD programs.
But that’s almost a side note. Where I am going with this story is that I would not have gotten my teaching jobs without my RD, it was a requirement of the job. It didn’t matter that I had a PhD in metabolism and could run circles around my former self in terms of knowledge, the RD was a requirement of getting those jobs.
That’s my experience but I am absolutely positive that many others have similar stories about the doors that were closed and the opportunities that have been lost because they do not have an RD.
Do everything in your power to bolster your resume to get an accredited internship. Hopefully I have convinced you of the importance of the RD. Now you must do everything you can to create a competitive application to get into an accredited program. There are only so many accredited programs and only so many slots within those programs; only 50% of undergraduate dietetics students get matched with an accredited program. The other 50% need to exit stage left and choose another (sometimes related) career.
Get good grades, do volunteer work, be active in your school’s clubs, gain practical experience, and start on these things early. Getting into a dietetic internship is too important. You’re going to have to sacrifice a lot of other things in your life but you’ve gotta do what you gotta do to ensure you are a competitive applicant.
Utilize your school’s career services to help you write a great resume and cover letter. You wouldn’t believe how absolutely terrible some cover letters are. Writing is a lost art. Resumes are no different, people use too many words, highlight skills that aren’t pertinent to the position, don’t describe their non-dietetic work-related skills well, and do a poor job of differentiating themselves from the pack.
One of the best decisions that I’ve ever made was utilizing my school’s career services. My resume and cover letter were SO much better after working with them. And besides, it’s really hard to write about ourselves and usually we’re our own worst critics. Sometimes we need an outside perspective to help us weave the narrative of how we got to where we are and why we would be a great addition to their program.
Consider graduate school in a related field. If you know in your heart of hearts that you don’t want to become an RD but it is too late to switch majors (you’re a senior and close to graduating), consider going to graduate school in a related field (exercise physiology, nursing, public health). You’ve already completed many of the core science requirements, why not diversify your skill set and transfer into a related career where you can still draw upon all the nutrition knowledge that you captured during your undergraduate degree.
It has been very beneficial for me to know both exercise and nutrition. For what I do, I’d feel very unprepared if I didn’t know a little about both diet and exercise.
Find a mentor, stay close to him/her and help out/collaborate when you can. In education, people go nuts about “experiential” learning, that is hands-on learning and preferably hands-on learning outside of the classroom. Mentors outside the classroom not only afford you a hands-on learning experience but a resume booster as well. Your peers take the exact same classes as you do. It is very difficult to differentiate yourself from your peers based on coursework/transcripts alone. Yes, you can get straight “A’s” but if you don’t have any outside experience, people will still question whether you’re “just a book worm” or if you have outside skills and a personality. They can’t tell those things from just a piece of paper. If your grades are stellar, that might be enough to get you in, but I wouldn’t rely on it.
Commit to relevant long-term nutrition work. Anyone can volunteer for a one-off event here and there. That really doesn’t impress me. Even if you were to volunteer for multiple one-off events, that shows me that you’re busy but not committed. The commitment to long-term work can be done through a job but oftentimes people need their jobs specifically to pay the bills (i.e. bartender/server). You may need a second job or regular volunteer activity to fulfill your nutrition passion and bolster the resume. This is why I recommend finding a mentor (someone in the field) that you can learn from and develop a relationship with. When it comes time to writing you a letter of recommendation, they actually know you and have something to write about your dedication to the field rather than sending out a generic letter.
Talk with as many people in the field as you can that are outside of the university. You might have an assignment here or there or even a 1-credit class asking you to network with a professional outside of the university. Although a great exercise, this simply is not enough. You might have a vague idea of what you want to do when you’re finished with school but you really have no idea of what opportunities are out there or what the day-to-day responsibilities of that job looks like. There are so many different careers and positions within those careers. As a student you don’t have a clue and that’s okay, as long as you are intentional about learning as much as you can about potential career opportunities. In school, usually the only people you interact with on a day-to-day basis are your peers and the academic faculty. And truth be told, faculty generally don’t have a very good appreciation for what life is like in the industry (outside of academia). They’re concerned with making sure that you know the didactic material necessary and the longer they are out of the industry (if they were ever in it in the first place) the less they know about it. I know, as a faculty member myself, that we pay lip service to how important it is to get out there and interview professionals in the industry, but I cannot stress enough how important this truly is to make the most out of your education and prepare yourself properly for the future.
Knowledge is NOT a skill, find something that can make you valuable. Whether you decide to be an RD or not, nutrition knowledge, in and of itself is not enough. It will not get you a job (I know, I have plenty of knowledge and have been passed over for many jobs). As much as I don’t like to be pigeon-holed into a certain role, (oh yeah, Todd is the “such and such guy”) everyone needs something unique they can offer besides nutrition knowledge. Something that makes them valuable, something to fall back on. For you, this might be recipe creation, recipe modification, nutrient analysis, blogging, whatever. But you have to create a history/body of work demonstrating you can perform that particular skill. If it’s not on paper, it doesn’t exist.
There you have it, if you’ve already committed to becoming a dietitian, those are my recommendations. The most important thing you can do is to set yourself up to get into an accredited dietetic internship. There are a lot of sacrifices that you’ll have to make along the way but if you don’t make these sacrifices, you’re setting yourself up for failure. I’m not trying to say that people who don’t complete a dietetic internship are failures, not in the least. But if your goal is to become an RD and you don’t, that is by definition, a failure.
Remember, the advice that I’ve given you in this post is based on my own experiences and in speaking with others in the field. It’s now your turn to speak with as many people in the field as you can to gain their perspective. In doing so, hopefully you can more fully appreciate some of the struggles you’re in for and how to effectively deal with them.
Chapter 3: Passion Doesn’t Pay the Bills, Calculate how much Money You can Make
You’ve decided that you wanted to become a registered dietitian (RD), you completed your four-year degree, dietetic internship, and sat for the RD exam. Now what? You need to find a job.
This is the typical sequence of events and approach of many people, myself included, but I think that it can be done more strategically. As a young person entering college, you’re told to “follow your passion” and that the rest will take care of itself. In following your passion, you’re not too concerned about student debt or finding a job after graduation. Sure, you’re thinking about these things every now and again, but your primary focus is on your studies.
I realize that you have more than enough to do in college but during (or before) this time you might want to also consider a) what type of job you are going to get, b) the organization you see yourself working for, and c) how much money you can make at that job to pay down your student debt and begin living your life.
The idea of providing nutrition counseling to people in a health & wellness setting or as part of a private practice sounds romantic and is the goal of many aspiring RDs I talk with. But can you really make enough money doing this to support yourself? As a student I never really took the time to crunch the numbers to see what that might look like. Heck, I didn’t know how much a dietitian could even charge for his/her services or how many clients you could see each week without exhausting yourself.
In one of my brief stints as a personal trainer, the company that I was working for had me complete a very valuable exercise. They asked:
How much do you think you’re worth (i.e. how much money do you think you should make in a year)?
How much can you charge for your services?
Calculate how many clients you need to see to make that number a reality.
It’s really a simple equation but surprisingly I’d never taken the time to figure it out.
Hourly Rate x Number of Clients per Week x 50 Weeks = Yearly Gross Income
Performing this exercise makes it quickly obvious that you are going to have to sell more sessions (# of clients) per week than you may have originally thought. This also illustrates why it’s not a bad idea to try to get a clinical position as your first job out of your internship because then you will be paid a salary and don’t have to worry about this. However, if you’re like me you have absolutely no interest in clinical dietetics and know for sure you will not be pursuing a clinical job. So, now we have to face reality. Performing this exercise can help you accurately assess your situation.
As part of my career advice to dietitians or those who are thinking about being a dietitian in a health & wellness setting, I’ve created an Excel document called “The Nutrition Counseling Income Calculator.” This calculator helps you understand how many clients you would need to see on a weekly basis and how much you would have to charge to be able to make the type of income that you’re aiming for. As part of this calculator, I’ve included an estimate of your 2019 taxes based upon your income level as a single payer to calculate your net income. Keep in mind, I have not included rental fees, transportation, equipment, client management software, insurance billing, marketing or any other fee associated with running a business. But, at the very least, this gets you thinking about how much revenue you could generate through one-on-one nutrition counseling services. Play with it, hopefully it will help you form a realistic view of being a dietitian in a one-on-one setting.
Chapter 4: Search for Jobs on Indeed and LinkedIn to Get a Feel for What’s Out There
I think that the advice to “create your own job” is stupid. In theory it sounds amazing. Who wouldn’t want to create a job that allows them to do what they want and get paid for it? I’d design a job in which I get to do all the things that bring me the most joy while minimizing or eliminating the parts of a job that I don’t like.
I’ve been told to “create my own job” hundreds of times over the years and guess what, it doesn’t work. At least not early in your career. The best thing you can do is to develop some tangible skills, become really good at least one or two things, and in doing so become “that guy/gal”. Then, maybe and I mean, maybe, you might be able to create your own job. But only after you’ve become so valuable to your organization or within your field that a job description can be molded specifically to your desires.
But that’s another part of the equation. You have to be working for an organization to “create your own job”. Anyone can put up a website and create their own brand, but are you getting paid for it? Do you have customers? Are people interested in your product or services? Is there a market for what you’re trying to promote? These days, social media influencers are around every corner and they make it look like you can easily create your own job doing just about anything.
Starting your own business (creating your own job) is harder than one might think. I’ve made very little money from Energy Balance Nutrition Consulting (EBNC) even after 75 blogs, 10 videos, and a whole lot of promotion. That said, EBNC has given me a creative outlet, a place for me to write and learn, an online presence, credibility, the ability to work with interns, and the insight required to create my next two businesses, The Science of Dieting and The Nutrition Advocate.
In the health & wellness world, you may have to split your time between a passion project and a cash job. Teaching at the university is rewarding for me on many levels (personally and professionally), but it also allows me to pay the bills and pursue my other deep down burning interests. Without this revenue source (and the love and support of my wife) I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing.
Ok, so hopefully I’ve convinced you that “creating your own job” isn’t necessarily a good idea or a feasible option for someone fresh out of their dietetic internship. My advice to you is to search the Indeed and LinkedIn job boards to see what types of positions are actually out there. For many of you, this will be an eye opening exercise as you’ll find out that your dream job probably a) doesn’t exist or b) is way out of your reach.
What this will do, however, is provide a starting point so you know what it will take to get your dream job or the ability to create your own job sometime down the road. You’re not going to have many of the skills these companies are looking for yet, so go get them through volunteering, internships, online classes, or a collaboration with someone more experienced in the field. Once you have these skills, you’ll become a much more competitive applicant. Just remember, there’s likely 50 – 100 other people applying to any position you’re interested in, you have to figure out how to differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack. I would use some of the same strategies I recommended in Chapter 2: If You’ve Already Committed to Becoming a Dietitian: Here’s What To Do to help you get started on the journey you’ll need to take to (eventually) get that dream job.
Chapter 5: Deciding Whether to Become a Private Practitioner or Work for Someone Else
At this point, you’ve decided you wanted to become a registered dietitian (RD), completed a four-year degree and dietetic internship, passed your RD exam, and have begun looking for a job in the health & wellness sector. As part of your job search and planning process you’ve utilized “The Nutrition Counseling Income Calculator” that I provided to you in Chapter 3.
The question now is “Should I try to go into private practice or should I start off my career by working for someone else?” This is a very difficult question without an easy answer. There are a number of things to consider when making this decision. For the purposes of our discussion I am comparing a private solo practice with a big box gym or nutrition services provider.
Financial. Your earning potential is so much greater working for yourself than it is working for someone else. Instead of splitting the revenue you produce with your employer, say a 50/50 split or a 40/60 split in their favor, you get to keep everything. However, you also assume all of the other responsibilities including rental fees, equipment, client management software, marketing, billing, and a whole host of other administrative fees that add up quickly. You’re not only a dietitian but you’re a property manager, accountant, marketer, salesman, and content generator. Some people want to focus just on what they’re good at without the distraction of all of those other responsibilities.
One also has to weigh earnings potential against how much income you need to make ends meet. In the long term, you might be able to earn far more money working for yourself but this takes a significant time investment, typically years, before you’re making a solid, steady income. In many cases it might be advisable to take less money but more security (i.e., work for someone else) to make ends meet right away.
Can you Sell? Regardless of whether you’re in private practice or working for a big box gym, you have to be able to sell your services. It may seem obvious to you that a certain potential client needs your services and you know exactly how to help them, but you still need to sell the client on that. Not all roles in health & wellness are like this but the majority are commission based. Working for someone else may afford you more opportunities for referrals to give you time to figure out how to sell. If you can’t sell your services as a private practitioner, you don’t get paid.
Marketing. People oftentimes ask me, “what’s your marketing strategy?” Ah, organic and word of mouth I guess. That’s not a strategy. It’s something I slid into because I didn’t have a marketing budget or team to help me build a strategy. When I first put up my website, a friend of mine asked me, “Oh that’s great, but how are you going to drive traffic to it?” I thought, well, I’m great, I have a PhD and an RD, what I have to say is interesting. I took the “if I build it they will come approach”. WRONG. Marketing is another advantage of working for an established brand. They’ll help bring the clients to you so you don’t have to. Furthermore, as a private practitioner you not only need to come up with a marketing strategy and but also put aside the time and money in your budget to execute that strategy.
Finally, an important part of a marketing strategy these days is social media. If you enjoy (or are at least OK with) documenting your life, posting several times per day and being in constant promotion mode (for fear of missing out on potential opportunities), then maybe a self-marketed private practice is for you.
Access to Potential Clients. Big box gyms can have over 3,000 people enter their building every day. Now, not all of them are potential customers, some are already training with someone, others aren’t interested in your services. But all in all, it is difficult to replicate that kind of exposure on your own. Even with a sound marketing strategy, it’s difficult to gain that type of local exposure.
Confidence. Not everyone that is fresh out of their dietetic internship has the confidence needed to be able to go it alone. Working in a big box setting may allow you to “fake it until you make it” or “fake it until you have the confidence you can make it”. Being in private practice does not allow time to “figure things out”. You must be able to hit the ground running.
Billing. Ask a gym owner or a dietitian in private practice, what’s the worst part of your job. Being a bill collector is a frequent answer. I don’t know if this is a deal breaker in determining whether you choose to go into private practice or work for someone else but it is another factor to consider.
Mentorship. Working as a solo practitioner can be a very lonely pursuit. You don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of, complain about irritating parts of your job or participate in the types of high- level discussions that only you and your colleagues can engage in. In a larger workplace setting you’ll have all of these along with access to people that can help mentor you in various aspects of your job to help with your professional development.
Lead Generation. Working in a larger setting facilitates a great amount of lead generation and warm hand-offs from member services or other personal trainers or nutritionists. You don’t have to do any work for these clients. They are referred to you. As a solo practitioner, you can develop a lead network of other health practitioners outside of your business but this takes time. When you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind for most other professionals that could be sending you warm leads.
Content Creation. Creating content is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, creating content can be stimulating, fun, and rewarding. On the other hand, creating content takes a lot of time, time that you could be making money. Larger corporations have content creators, don’t ask me how you get one of those jobs, but the content is produced for you. If you’re like me, you’d rather create your own content, because frankly, it is usually better (message wise, maybe not graphically). Which brings me to my final point.
Freedom. Working for a larger corporation can, in some cases, be stifling. This can be especially frustrating when you’re starting out. I can remember numerous instances where the programming of the gym that I worked for was not only not what I learned in school but it also wasn’t supported by science. It can be difficult to thrive in an environment that promotes and even requires you to promote programming that just doesn’t make sense in the context of all the facts. On the other hand, as a private practitioner, you have full control over your program design, development, and implementation.
Deciding on whether you want to become a solo practitioner or work for a larger, existing business is a difficult decision to make. My gut instinct and initial reaction to this question is, work for a larger, established business to get your feet wet and learn the ropes. However, with that being said, it depends on who you are and what you think is best for you.
Working on your own or working for a larger business are not your only two options. Obviously there are a million in-between possibilities but surprisingly I’ve found it difficult to find other small businesses and entrepreneurs to work with. Although working with other small businesses makes perfect sense to me, many people are reluctant to do so. My educated guess is that they are so focused on maintaining and growing their own business and there is only so much money to go around that they cannot envision adding another member and temporarily splitting the pot before new business comes in. I’m merely speculating, but I’m telling you that it is more difficult than I ever thought it would be to find a way to mesh your model and another’s to join forces and create something bigger. That’s why my advice in this topical area is binary, solo practitioner or big box gym, those seem to be the current options.
Finally, deciding to work on your own isn’t a decision to take lightly. The top reasons for working on your own are the ability to earn more money, the ability to produce your own content, and the freedom to run your business how you see fit (creative control). On the other hand, there are a number of reasons to work for an existing business that help you establish security, recruit customers and focus on your job. Think carefully about what aspects of your job are most important to you now and use those to guide your decision making. They may change in the future, and that’s OK.
Chapter 6: Be Prepared to Sacrifice Your Moral Compass
My first job after my dietetic internship was as a nutrition coach at a big box gym. As their nutrition coach, they wanted me to advise my clients to eat 5-6 small meals/day to boost their metabolism to lose weight. They also wanted me to sell their branded multivitamin. I was fresh out of my internship and didn’t think the advice to eat 5-6 small meals/day made any sense but I no longer had access to my school’s library so I wasn’t able to find evidence for or against this recommendation (I have now, it is a farce). I asked my department head why our vitamins were superior to other brands and she told me to contact ‘so and so’. I contacted ‘so and so’, they lead me further up the chain, and eventually I was just ignored.
In 2018 I interviewed with a low-carb company and a plant-based diet company to be their respective nutrition research specialist. Working for a low-carb company would have been a compromise for what I thought was right but I was able to rationalize that I’d be able to tell people that we were one of the many solutions that you can use to lose weight. About a month after the low-carb interview, I interviewed with the plant-based diet program. During the plant-based interview I told them that I thought they would be easy to defend, scientifically speaking. The medical director got angry and told me to try to stop selling him their brand and to tell him what I really thought. I told him that the evidence overwhelming shows that for health benefits, a plant-based diet is superior to any other diet type. I was amazed at how much he was fixated on protecting their “brand”. Surprisingly, at the end of the day, the low-carb company was much more open minded than the plant-based diet company.
Unless you work for yourself, chances are you’ll have to sacrifice your moral compass. Inpatient or clinical dietitians don’t get to spend the amount of time they’d like to with patients, your gym is promoting an unscientific training/weight loss method, or you don’t agree with the features of the product that your marketing team has deemed important.
As I’ve talked about on The Science of Dieting, everyone seems to have “the best product” despite that being logistically impossible. This type of advertising is ridiculous. For example, according to The Science of Dieting there are at least 72 different diet types (i.e., Atkins, Alternate Day Fasting, Low-Carb, Low-Fat, Paleo, Ketogenic, etc.) each claiming to be “the best” diet type.
In nutrition, there is no best, yet companies typically don’t promote their products as “one of the best” or “a really good option”. In our culture it’s not good enough to be merely a really good option, you have to be the best.
Being “the best” is symptomatic of a host of other small compromises you’ll likely have to make. The vast majority of companies sell/promote a very niche product or brand. The problem is, in the nutrition world, no singular product is truly irreplaceable. Lactose intolerant, fine, eat spinach to get your calcium. Can’t tolerate citrus, again eat spinach or bell peppers to get our vitamin C. Post-workout recovery shakes? How about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Atkins diet, nah, I’ll go low fat. Kind bars, how about a Snickers.
The competition to win the “brand wars” isn’t at all about nutrition, it’s about moving product. Which brings me to my final point.
Food marketers and MBAs are in charge of nutrition education, not dietitians. Is this right? Of course not, but it’s reality and if you’re going to work in the food and beverage industry, you need to get used to it.
Chapter 7: Universities are a Business and You are Their Customer
I went to 12 years of post-secondary education and have taught at the college level for seven years at seven different institutions, so I believe I am qualified to state that universities are a business and you are their customer.
I believe in education, I work in education, but universities, at least in the exercise and dietetics fields, are completely out of touch with the job market. You can tell me that I’m naïve and that I don’t know what I’m talking about. And in reality, I don’t because no one ever gives me graduation and job placement statistics. Are they even tracked, I have to imagine so? Are they locked away in a vault, I don’t know. My job is to teach classes. I care about student career achievement, I’m just not currently actively involved in it aside from helping the interns I have through my personal businesses.
What I can tell you both from my own experience and from reading about it, is there are far more graduates than there are jobs. In my particular case, we are minting 30% more PhDs every year than there are faculty positions available. But guess what, this doesn’t stop universities from churning out more PhDs with little to no expansion into new career services helping graduates find ‘alternative’ careers outside of academia. This also helps explain why I have worked for 5 different institutions since graduating with my PhD. Hello gig economy.
In terms of both dietitians and exercise science majors we are producing far too many graduates and not enough jobs. I worked at Dick’s Sporting Goods after having my RD and I worked as a seasonal package handler on a UPS truck after getting my PhD!! I needed the money. And clearly, I am not an idiot, the job market is just so soft for health & wellness professionals. I know other people with advanced degrees who have been forced out of the health & wellness industry and into another profession. And it’s not like dietitians and exercise science majors don’t have hard skills. Schools are selling nutrition and kinesiology programs by telling students that there are 20 different careers out there that you can do with these respective degrees. What I want to know is how many of their graduates end up in these careers?
To me, I wouldn’t be half as skeptical of the university’s intentions if they didn’t try so hard to sell their health & wellness careers. Degrees that don’t have clear paths to post-graduate positions such as the soft sciences and liberal arts (sociology, psychology, political science, philosophy, anthropology) are one thing but it seems to me that universities are trying to make a direct connection between dietetics degrees or kinesiology degrees and the substantial job potential after graduation when this relationship seems less than linear.
The university’s admissions department has to keep student enrollment numbers high to keep the machine running smoothly. A drop in enrollment means a drop in revenue and compromises the health of the university. Education is a highly competitive field and we’ve seen a number of colleges (especially for profit) crumble to the ground. Maybe I’m connecting dots that aren’t meant to be connected but it seems to me that the university benefits more from student enrollment than it does student placement. Where’s the incentive to track and provide numbers of student placement.
I used to think a university was this cushy, fun, happy place of learning. And in some respects, it is. But prospective students shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a university is also a business (even if it is a non-profit), a business in selling you a product that may or may not help you in the end. Before signing up to go to a particular school be sure to have a clear goal of why you are there and how it will set you up to get what you need for a successful future, whatever that may look like for you.
Chapter 8: Sports Nutrition Jobs are Rare, Be Sure to have a Back-Up Plan
One of the most sought after jobs in dietetics is that of the sports nutritionist. Sports nutrition and athletic performance are what first drew me into the field of dietetics. In college I read Muscle & Fitness magazine (I do not recommend doing so now) and ate baked potatoes to spike my insulin and canned tuna to promote protein synthesis (that’s what Muscle & Fitness told me to do; insert picture of me shaking my head). I loved reading about how to increase muscle mass and also how to increase glycogen stores to allow me to go out on 3-4 hour road cycling rides.
When I was 26 I hurt my lower back road cycling (overuse injury; improper training) and it has never recovered. At East Carolina University (age 27 – 31) I began studying fat metabolism and obesity. That, coupled with my lower back injury reoriented my focus to public health and weight management.
Today I find sports nutrition aimed at performance to be incredibly boring and a somewhat trivial pursuit. If you are a recreational athlete and can shave a few seconds or even minutes off your personal record (PR) that’s great but does it really matter in the end? I mean, sure it is a sense of accomplishment and potentially gives you something to brag about, but from a health perspective being pretty fit is as good as being really fit.
Maybe this is blasphemy in the nutrition world but the recent rise of the Ketogenic diet has shown that for many athletes, there isn’t an incredible difference in performance when eating a high carbohydrate diet, a moderate carbohydrate diet or a low carbohydrate diet. It more depends on the athlete identifying what works best for them based on their food preferences and what their GI tract can handle to best support their training and competition. Now, when we’re talking about elite athletes, then yes, I would say that nutrition definitely matters, as the performance metrics are on a whole different level. But when it comes to the average, everyday Joe, or even most college athletes, consistent periodized training and genetical potential will trump nutrition.
I can’t remember what game it was this year but I can remember seeing Ezekiel Elliot of the Dallas Cowboys walking into the stadium with a bag of Chick-fil-A. If that doesn’t make a dietitian cringe, I don’t know what will. Chick-fil-A isn’t sports performance fuel in anyone’s mind, yet I bet that Ezekiel Elliot was equally hard to tackle that day (and most likely didn’t fatigue) any earlier than had he eaten a plate full of spaghetti.
Sports nutrition jobs are exceedingly rare. If you really want to be a sports nutritionist, you’re going to have to network, network, and network some more. There’s a good chance that you’re going to need to know someone who knows someone. I would also recommend learning about both nutrition and exercise physiology, whether that requires a double major or a master’s degree is up to you. A sports nutritionist better know a lot about nutrition AND exercise physiology otherwise you’re only masquerading. It’s possible to be a sports nutritionist without a master’s degree but in that case you’d better find a good mentor that can teach you about the aspect that you’re weak on.
My advice to you is this, take the nutrition and physiology that you’ve learned in sports nutrition and apply it to another aspect of nutrition. The same knowledge that I gained from reading about sports nutrition (nutrient metabolism, energy systems) can be applied to weight management and public health. I guess for me, I like nutrient metabolism and energy systems more than I like sports performance. Nutrient metabolism and energy system knowledge are transferable skills. Many of the skills that will require you to be a good sports nutritionist are also skills that you can transfer to another aspect of nutrition if you are having trouble finding opportunities in the sports nutrition world.
Chapter 9: Mentorship, Trusted Resources & Learning
I hear far too many people saying, “Oh, I’m going to take this great workshop to learn about xyz” and that after said workshop they will be prepared implement xyz into their practice. I don’t believe this type of thinking serves anyone well. I see most continuing education as it currently stands a money-grabbing joke and I wouldn’t rely on it to learn anything.
As a dietitian or a personal trainer you’re required to accumulate continuing education hours to maintain your credentials. I’ve attended conferences, watched online modules, completed workshops, and gained certifications. None of them has made me a better professional. They all cost too much money and are a box that you have to check for your credentialing agency.
Continuing education is a superficial means for credentialing bodies to pay lip service to keeping their members up to date. But you don’t learn anything from passively intaking information, watching an online module or attending a weekend workshop, taking notes and then immediately forgetting about it once your workweek kicks back into gear.
Learning comes from doing, learning comes from repetition, learning comes from deliberate, concentrated practice. Anything short of this is worthless. I’d propose a new system of continuing education. Treat it more like graduate school. You need to research a complex topic, synthesize all of the literature on that topic, and create education (whether that be in writing or a seminar), and have your peers critique it. Having to teach someone something new forces you to learn. Passively sitting back and absorbing the material does not.
So, if continuing education isn’t something you can rely on to develop new skills and keep you up to date, then what is?
What about mentorship? Mentorship is a great way to learn and isn’t taken advantage of enough. Sometimes people don’t know what they don’t know and therefore aren’t aware that they even have a problem let alone can identify who they should be seeking out to help them solve that problem. In short, anyone who doesn’t have complete mastery of a subject (anything short of a PhD, and even that is no guarantee) should have a mentor or at the very least a group of peer mentors that they can learn from.
I stay away from social media because it drives me completely insane. And I’m not talking about nutrition related comments from the public. The public doesn’t know any better. What I’m referring to is all of the factually incorrect or cliché surface level nonsense that “health professionals” are spewing out there. In terms of the factually incorrect, one could argue that I’m being too much of an academic purist and that I’m nitpicking details but to that I’d say that I’m fully aware that can happen and actively make that part of my assessment.
For example, when someone writes that protein has the highest thermic effect of food, that’s correct, it does. But when they go on to say that eating a high-protein diet will help you lose weight, there’s very little evidence to support that extrapolation. Now the public thinks they need to eat a high protein diet to lose weight and that other diet types are inferior. In fact, now they have a generalized fear of not getting enough protein, which by the way, is very rare in the United States for the vast majority of people in the socioeconomic standing that are thinking about dieting in the first place.
Secondly, cliché surface level nonsense is tired messaging. If you repeatedly tell me the same thing, again and again and again, I am going to ignore you. Your message is old and tired. A good mentor can help you dig deeper into your topic of interest to explore and understand the topic more thoroughly and prevent you from giving factually incorrect or repeated cliché advice.
Finding trusted online resources. You don’t always have to find a local mentor, you can also find trusted resources online to learn from. Use your education to make an informed decision on whether a particular resource is a truly reliable, scientifically backed source. If you still aren’t sure, ask others you respect in your field for their assessment of the credibility of a certain source.
Soon I will be providing a list of nearly 100 people that I have personally screened and found to be credible online resources. When I do, I will link it here. Until then, I have a personal list of these influencers that I am willing to share, you can contact me if you’d like the list now, before I am able to post it.
At the end of the day, you’re responsible for your own learning and professionalism. Continuing education lacks depth and is typically in the format of “one off” events. While I understand that we don’t want to overburden our professionals, I don’t believe that if continuing education went away all together that we’d lose anything. True learning requires you to repeatedly take the time to practice, concentrate, and deliberately stretch your capabilities. Finding a mentor and/or trusted resources to learn from on an ongoing basis, is, in my opinion, much more beneficial to your learning and professional development than attending one off events.
Chapter 10: If You want to Help People Eat Better, Stop Focusing on Education and Start Focusing on Strategy and Execution
Have you ever said this before, “I want to help educate people on how to eat a healthier diet”. This is basically the mission statement of every entry level dietetics professional. But why don’t you try this instead,
“I want to help people develop a strategy for eating better and help them execute this plan”
In the process of doing so, you’ll be able to provide your clients with education but you remove the focus on education and instead put it on strategy and execution. Maybe this is semantics and you have already included strategy and execution, but I often observe this is not the case.
Do we need to educate the public on what’s “good” and “bad” for them. To a certain degree, yes we do. There’s a great deal of misinformation out there and between food marketers, nutrition gurus, and celebrities there’s a lot of damage being done. But if you spend all of your time trying to “undo” that damage, you’re never going to get anywhere, believe me, I’ve tried. By the time you debunk a myth, the food marketers, gurus, and celebrities have created 100 more myths. As a professional, it drives us nuts that this goes on and I’m as guilty as anyone in trying to debunk these myths. However, in our day-to-day lives I think it is more important to focus on strategy and execution than trying to increase nutrition knowledge.
In general, the public’s nutrition knowledge isn’t great; however, if you were to ask the public to go into a grocery store and pick out the healthy items, they generally know the basics (fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean meats). People don’t need to know how something works or why it works, they just need a system of eating that works for them.
Fad diets almost always work in the short-term. Gurus and celebrities convince the public to try fad diets through clever marketing but the success of the diet doesn’t depend on the public’s knowledge of why the diet works. The explanations of why the diet works are mind-blowingly stupid and factually incorrect. The reasons the gurus give for the diet working and WHY the diet actually works are usually light years apart. But that doesn’t matter because the fad diet has given people a plan and at least in the short-term, people are able to execute that plan.
We need to be able to utilize this same plan of action: help people develop a strategy for healthy eating and then help them execute that strategy. My medical nutrition therapy is rusty to non-existent; however, my recollection is this: most medical ailments in which there is a nutritional therapy component require very similar diets, i.e., a ‘healthy’ diet is a ‘healthy’ diet is a ‘healthy’ diet. There doesn’t seem to be all that much difference between the dietary prescription for many various ailments.
Our very system of dietary education is flawed and needs to be revamped. Our current system is this: the dietitian has his/her client perform a food frequency questionnaire, diet recall or some other type of assessment, sees where they are deficient, and then prescribes the foods they are deficient in. This exercise is a waste of time. Less than 10% of Americans meet the dietary guidelines on a consistent basis. Yes, utilizing this method you’re telling someone what they are specifically missing but really their diet needs to collectively improve. If one’s diet was 90% up to snuff, then I’d say, ok, tell them exactly where they can improve but when one’s diet is so terrible and not even close to perfect, I don’t see the point.
As a dietetics student, I loved learning about the different types of nutrients, the foods they could be found in, and their actions in the body. I also thought that I’d be able to memorize all of that information. After collecting someone’s diet information, my brain would be like a computer and I’d be able to help them design a perfect diet. After completing my masters and PhD, I’ve learned that the perfect diet doesn’t exist and it never will, despite all the 23 and Me, DNA based nutritional promises. The body is an ever changing and adaptable organism and besides, as I stated before, a ‘healthy’ diet is a ‘healthy’ diet is a ‘healthy’ diet in the vast majority of cases.
If you think that a dietitian’s primary role is that of nutrition education, be prepared to become obsolete. Algorithms and machine learning are going to put you out of business. The dietitian’s job is only partly education. Your job is to be a strategist and a problem solver. Machines aren’t yet capable of solving complex human behavioral, sociological, psychological, and environmental problems. Your value is in helping people navigate the complex environments and lives we live in. Anything short of that and as Arnold would say, “You’re terminated!”
Chapter 11: your time is precious, allocate it strategically
After graduating with my PhD I thought I had all the time in the world. I was finally free from the ultimate grind of grinds. During my PhD, I worked greater than 50 days in a row on two separate occasions. But now that was over and I was free to live my new life. I’d get to start doing more of those “fun things” in life that I put off and sacrificed, especially in the later stages of my degree. Little did I know, was that I was about to fall into the same trap that I just got out of.
When I graduated in July of 2013, I thought I was going to get the first job I applied for. I didn’t and then I didn’t get the next one or the next one or the next one. I couldn’t understand why this was happening. I had an RD, a masters in exercise physiology, and a PhD in metabolism among other numerous qualifications. Other than being overqualified, the only thing that I could think of that was holding me back was my perceived lack of experience and my lack of connections.
My PhD dissertation,
“The Effect of Contractile Activity and Substrate Incubations on Metabolic Flexibility in Human Primary Myotubes”
didn’t exactly lend itself to explaining my skill set. I was also new to the city of Denver and other than my friend Andy, didn’t really know anyone that could connect me with a job.
I’d like to say that I had a lot of time on my hands but searching for a job is a full time job in and of itself. Constantly searching job boards, reworking my resume, writing new cover letters, and filling in the absolutely tedious online applications take up a lot of time. With that being said I wanted to fill the remainder of my time to prevent my resume from having a huge employment gap.
Here is a list of all the things I took up to attempt to put myself in a better position to get a job.
Volunteered. I volunteered multiple times (and continue to do so) with the Arthritis Foundation for their walk in May and run in December, I served as a nutrition educator for low income families as part of Cooking Matters, and performed nutrition workshops for elementary school kids and was a science fair judge as part of Community Resources Inc (CRI)’s offerings. While working with the Arthritis Foundation, I met my friend and occupational therapist, Rebecca Gillett. Rebecca and I went on to do two, 6-week sessions of a health promotion program for people living with chronic conditions called “Healthier Living Colorado”.
Started a Business. In February of 2014 I launched Energy Balance Nutrition Consulting (EBNC). My goals for EBNC were twofold. 1) I wanted to showcase to potential employers that I was more than a molecular biologist and had skills transferable to the wellness industry and 2) I figured I’d pick up a few clients along the way to make some money and gain more experience in nutrition counseling.
Became Active on Social Media. You’ve gotta get on social media, you’ve gotta get on social media. I heard this advice again and again and again, so, that’s what I did. Previous to the creation of EBNC, I had a Facebook account but I never used it. That was the extent of my social media usage. I went on to create a LinkedIn page, Facebook business page, Twitter account, and YouTube Channel to promote myself and my new business.
Networked. During this same time I spent a lot of time networking at events such as Prime Health, The Society for Physician Entrepreneurs (SOPE), Creative Mornings, and Fit Mornings. I also dropped by numerous gyms to introduce myself to see if we could create some type of collaboration. Networking is exhausting but especially for a self-identified, introvert. Networking is another thing that I had never done in my life. I still don’t enjoy it, per se, but like anything, the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Adjunct Teaching. I cobbled together a salary out of five different adjunct teaching positions. With each position, my hope was that I’d put in my work and that eventually when a full time position opened up, I’d be there to take it. Up to this point, that hasn’t happened.
Contractor Positions. I took on some contract work doing biometric screenings (height, weight, blood pressure, waist circumference) and worked at numerous health fairs. This work was never meant to turn into a full time position but I thought, hey, maybe this is the way that I can get into the corporate wellness world.
Took Business Classes. I took a number of business classes with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in Denver. In the health sciences, they don’t teach you how to form a business, write a business plan or market your business so I took it upon myself to attend as many of these classes as I could afford.
Pursued Entrepreneurial Ideas. EBNC wasn’t my only pursuit. During my time working with the SBDC, I pursued the idea of a gym-grocery store with the basic premise being, I don’t like going to the grocery store, and many days I don’t like going to the gym, but you need diet and exercise to be healthy and in our current model of care, gyms are gyms and grocery stores are grocery stores, totally separate entities, when in reality, you need them both to be healthy, why not combine the two services into one for a one-stop shop? I wrote grocery store CEOs and connected with as many C-suite executives in the industry as I could on LinkedIn. I could write an entire blog about this experience but in the end, I spoke with one CEO and the health & wellness leader of another chain but nothing ever took hold.
I briefly also tried selling Fitbit wearables by canvasing our neighborhood with fliers and separately pursued establishing a Physician to Fitness referral program. Let’s just say they were all “learning” experiences.
Worked with a Career Coach. During the first year of my unemployment, a career services company contacted me and after a few meetings convinced me to sign up with their services. I was completely stuck and didn’t know what else to do. Their primary method of gaining employment was writing snail mail letters to companies and doing follow up calls. They wanted you to do 10 calls/day. Honestly, I probably made 10 calls total in my year+ time of working with them. For what I paid them, you should probably just pay me, and I’ll help out.
Posted Jobs. I’m an academic. We like to collaborate. It’s part of our training and nature. I was having a tough time finding like-minded people to work with and I was sick and tired of going it alone, so I decided to write a job description and post it on Indeed to find a business partner. I wrote the job description as the job that I thought would be perfect for me, Director of Health & Wellness. I received 60 high quality applicants in three weeks. In short, this process made me both extremely happy and extremely sad. I was so happy that people wanted to work with me, that they believed in what I believed in but at the same time I was so sad because my business, EBNC, wasn’t really making any money but the health & wellness field is so shitty, that the potential of my business was enough to get people to be excited to apply. I ended up interviewing 6 people, all of whom I really liked and ended up finding my business partner (Andrea Groth) for the corporate wellness company I am involved with now, Kadalyst.
Mentored Interns. As of this writing I have mentored 5 dietetic interns and 1 journalism intern. Mentoring interns was never meant as a means of getting a job but they have provided me with a number of pieces of great content, and a boatload of enthusiasm. Agreeing to mentor young dietetic professionals is probably one of the better parts of doing what I do.
Continuing Education. As much as I loathe continuing education, I thought, hey, this is probably something I should get into as I was told I was really good at it. I’ve created numerous presentations that I’ve given at Orange Theory Fitness and LifeTime Fitness. For one of the presentations (The Importance of Fat Oxidation to Weight Loss) I went through the steps of certifying it through several personal training credentialing bodies (ACE, NASM, NSCA). I had given the presentation to LifeTime Fitness, so I thought why not try to sell this to other gyms. After visiting more than 30 gyms in Denver, it was apparent that no one wanted this offering. I also called the corporate headquarters of the top 15 gyms by size in the United States and also found limited traction.
Applied for Jobs. Up until about a year ago I was still applying for jobs. I’d have to check my excel spreadsheet but I think I made it up to about 150 applications without full time work. As I stated earlier, applying for jobs is very time consuming and when you’re wasting your time applying for jobs, you’re not producing anything of value.
While each of these experiences helped me learn something different and fostered my professional development, none of them seemed to “get me over the hump” in terms of getting a job. My story is a microcosm of the health & wellness industry, work a lot of hours, volunteer your time, put your heart and soul into it, and get paid little to nothing.
To do it all over again, I would give you this advice. If you are an entry level dietetics professional you should do three things.
Find a Mentor (as suggested in chapter 2)
Network, network, and network some more.
Create content for your mentor(s) and/or peers
Finding a mentor was never a true part of my strategy. I never desired to be a front line services provider and when it comes to nutrition and/or exercise science knowledge, there’s nowhere higher to go than having a PhD, especially in my local market. I connected with various other high-level experts through social media across the country but none of these connections fostered a collaboration. With all that being said, I have always desired a mentor but I haven’t been able to find one. I’ve climbed too high on the ladder and am one of the most educated people in our field. I’ve always wanted a business mentor but my reluctance to join someone’s niche nutrition brand has also prevented me from doing so. I don’t want to join the problem (model), I want to change it, and therefore, my mentor pool is extremely small. With all that being said, I still strongly believe that for entry level dietetics professionals, finding a mentor is one of the most important things you can do.
If you are having trouble finding a good mentor, your second best option is to find great peers. For a very long time it seemed like I was all alone in the health & wellness industry. It was just me and a bunch of people that I didn’t agree with (scientifically speaking). I couldn’t find my peer group. But I am so happy to say that I have finally found them and it’s amazing! I’m having so much fun helping them with their businesses when I can and they do the same for me. I found my peer group through networking, both in person and online.
Create content for your mentor(s) and/or peers. You can start your own brand and social media channels on your own from scratch but it seems to me that a good strategy would be to find someone a little further into their career with a larger following and to create content for them and at the same time, by doing so, create an online presence for yourself.
I essentially “wasted” a bunch of really good content because I didn’t have an audience to see it. If you have 35 followers on your new channel, that’s a speck of dust, no one is going to see it. I know we all believe that our content is really good and that maybe it will go viral (I know I thought that) but those chances are very, very small. Instead, I’d build a brand within someone else’s organization and then once you become more established feel free to break off.
I would also make a list of people and businesses you like and contact each and every one of them to see if you can write content for them. Oftentimes these businesses will be more than happy to have you write content for them. They don’t have the time, energy or resources to create content so you’d be doing them a huge favor.
In conclusion, if you are unemployed or quasi employed like I often am, don’t think that you have unlimited time to say “yes” to anything and everything to stay (and look) busy. I spent my time doing anything and everything that I thought could boost my resume and guess what, most of it didn’t matter one way or another. I’m not saying you shouldn’t volunteer, take business classes, or be active on social media but you need to consider your Return on Investment (ROI) and whether the things that you are doing are getting you any closer to your goals.
Your goals and your target audience can and will change over time. I started EBNC to showcase to employers that I was more than just a molecular biologist and I wanted to attract some clients. EBNC has now morphed into the intern mentoring branch of my businesses. It is inevitable, that you are going to “waste some time” exploring various options but hopefully by following some of the advice that I have outlined you’ll waste less of it, after all, your time is precious, allocate it strategically.
chapter 12: Entrepreneurship (sales) is valued more than formal training
The health & wellness industry is a commission based industry and as such entrepreneurship and sales are valued more than formal training in nutrition or exercise science (i.e. university degrees). Whether you are
a gym owner
a contracted practitioner for a boutique gym
work in a big box gym
are a social media influencer
your salary is based upon how many memberships or products you can sell or services you can provide, and not necessarily on the quality of those services or client success. In this system the practitioner isn’t necessarily paid for client success as much as they are paid for the potential for client success.
You could say that I’m splitting hairs here, that if you’re not very good at what you do and your clients don’t have very good success that you’re not going to be able to get any new clients. To that I’d say, look at any weight loss company (Atkins, Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers or way of eating, i.e. Paleo, Ketogenic, Alternate-Day-Fasting, Mediterranean) and tell me that sales and customer success are tightly coupled. If you can market well, sell, and highlight those that are successful (testimonials) you’ll do just fine in the dieting world.
You also don’t have to look very hard or far for influencers on social media that are marketing health & wellness products that have very little to no formal training, yet they have hundreds of thousands and even millions of followers. Whereas, there are numerous people, such as myself, who have dedicated their lives to and have spent years and sometimes decades learning about diet and exercise only to have a tiny amount of influence.
For many in the health & wellness industry, health & wellness wasn’t their first career. They often started in another field and found fitness or nutrition as a secondary career path. The “passion” for nutrition and/or fitness lead them to their new career and away from their first career path. These career changing individuals should theoretically be at a huge competitive disadvantage compared to those with formal training in the subject and yet they are not because if you can market and if you can sell, it’s not necessary for you to have a mastery of nutrition or exercise science.
I don’t want to whitewash everyone that lacks formal training in a topic, there are some individuals who are going to know more about diet and exercise than those with formal training but that’s difficult to do considering those with formal training have dedicated at least 3 years to their craft, whereas those without formal training haven’t had that type of protected time to read up, learn, and be mentored by higher level professionals (i.e. university professors).
Another disadvantage for people with formal training is that they tend to do things “by the book”. I’ve always likened it to “fighting with one hand tied behind my back”. In the health & wellness sector, people are free to say whatever they want, it doesn’t have to contain more than an ounce of truth. As a trained academic, I can’t do this. My brain simply will not allow me to. This is akin to wearing a virtual reality headset and standing at the edge of a cliff. You know you are standing on a flat surfaced floor in a building and yet, you can’t take a step further because you would fall off a cliff! Well, that’s exactly what it is like to be an academic (formally trained) and to be in the health & wellness industry. Your higher brain centers see and understand the rules of the game that everyone is playing by but you can’t get yourself to play by those rules because they are completely counter to your training and values.
To play devil’s advocate for why the health & wellness industry is the way it is let’s consider a couple of counter-arguments to take the emphasis off sales and put more emphasis into formal training.
a gym owner: besides the ability to have a higher earning potential, gym owners have the freedom to design and implement whatever type of programs they desire. Some type of governing body could be developed to oversee what they are doing but this would be too costly (there are millions of gyms) and infringes upon the gym owner’s ability to conduct his/her business as they see fit. As a society, we’ve left it up to market forces (people paying gym memberships) to decide whether this business should exist the way it does or be forced out of business. So in essence, the public decides how this gym should be run, not other health professionals or professional organizations.
a contracted practitioner for a boutique gym: contracted practitioners for boutique gyms typically pay a small fee per month or per session they bill for clients they bring into and train at the gym and are not considered employees of the gym. The gym has some incentive to make sure that the contractor isn’t tarnishing their “brand” but this also needs to be balanced against the contractor’s ability to bring in money for the gym, therefore there isn’t much of an incentive to either train the contractor or to ensure they are promoting the highest level of professional advice.
work in a big box gym: It has been said and even observed that if personal trainers or nutrition coaches working in a big box gym became salaried workers they will become lazy and ineffective. The vast majority of trainers working in a big box gym have a four year degree and a personal training certification but it should be pointed out that big box gyms churn through personal trainers with little to no investment. If the trainer can’t sell, they’ll find another one who can.
are a social media influencer: you likely rose to influencer status, not by promoting sound advice but by being enthusiastic, looking the part, and promoting a service, product or idea that is NOVEL and interesting. You have no incentive whatsoever to get things right. In fact, in our current health & wellness climate, I would argue that you have every incentive, NOT to do things based on science. The ability to manipulate (I mean market to) people via social media is far more important than formal training. You already have power, what use is it to obtain formal training.
Before we go on, it should also be noted that the ability to run a business (entrepreneurship) is different than knowing a lot about nutrition. This is probably stating the obvious but in my opinion, we’re putting far too much emphasis on the ability to run a business and not enough emphasis on nutrition or exercise science knowledge. Would you want your doctor selling you tests and devices you really don’t need or your car salesman selling you additional vehicle features? With more formal training, professionals have a better opportunity to tell you what you need and what you don’t need, minimizing the amount of time, money, and effort that you’re otherwise wasting.
With the current emphasis on sales rather than formal training, I don’t know why anyone would go to school for nutrition or exercise science at all. Unless things change dramatically, it certainly seems to me that you should be going to school for business, marketing or communications and not nutrition or exercise science.
The health & wellness industry has very little to no incentive to change the way it works. There are no governing bodies, the industry is not data-driven (testimonials rule), many health & wellness jobs are commission based, and many gym owners lack the formal training (and protected time) necessary to more fully understand the human body.
The health & wellness industry “rules of the game” are that you can say whatever you want, no matter how crazy or inaccurate it might be, yet my brain will not allow me to play by these rules, putting myself and others at an extreme competitive disadvantage.
If you don’t like the rules of the game, what do you do about it? You change the rules. There are no formal rules to change in the health & wellness industry, so how do you go about changing them? You must win over public opinion, because in essence, the public sets the rules and the entrepreneurs simply take advantage of them.
The health & wellness industry isn’t going to change on its own. We have to force the issue and fight back and that’s what I’m doing with The Nutrition Advocate. If we don’t band together, we are going to get crushed individually by the health & wellness machine as we currently know it. And we can’t rely on professional organizations to help us change the culture of health and wellness. They are too busy protecting their members, some of whom are part of the problem in the first place.
We need to collectively raise the health & wellness industry to a higher standard and personally, I don’t care if you have formal training provided you are skeptical, curious, critical, and good at your job.
chapter 13: Health & wellness is driven by consumers, it does not matter what you know
In the fall of 2018, I attended a marketing workshop as part of Denver’s Start-Up week and in essence I was told that what I know and think doesn’t matter. What matters is what the consumer knows and thinks. I have to be honest with you, this really pissed me off. I have 12 years of post-secondary education and years of experience teaching and working in the field. To have a marketing guy tell me that essentially, none of that matters was disheartening, frustrating, and gave me a general sense of hopelessness.
But the worst part of it was, from a pure dollars and sense business perspective, he was right. Their marketing scheme was more complicated than how I am going to explain it but from what I understand this strategy is pretty common. Take a topic of interest, say protein shakes, and then create three different Facebook ads for the same product, each targeting a specific audience. The number of clicks that you get for each ad will then determine where you should focus your marketing efforts, the audience you should target, and the branding you should consider.
While I agree this is a perfectly logical strategy, it’s highly flawed for the following reason. Consumers don’t know what they want and they most certainly do not know what they need. The current model of health & wellness (sell to the consumer’s preference) does not and will not help them. Take, for example, the perspective of obesity. By our best estimates, the prevalence of obesity was
1890’s – 3%
1960’s – 6 – 10%
1990 – 10 – 14%
2019 – 37%
And with each passing decade, consumers have more, not less say in the products and services available to them. You can take numerous other disease conditions (i.e. diabetes) and see a similar trend. While I know that obesity and diabetes are multifactorial and complex with no singular cause and that the world and our food supply has changed drastically, the power that the consumer holds in shaping their healthcare decisions and in shaping the products offered to them does not work and is not in their best interests.
In our current system, consumers have all the power, they decide (or are manipulated into deciding) what to buy. With the exception of medications, you don’t walk into the doctor’s office, tell the doctor what your problem is, and ask him/her to prescribe you what you think you need. Yet, this is exactly what happens in the health & wellness industry. For all of its flaws, the physician-patient relationship allows the physician to use his/her training and expertise to help the patient in the best way they know how.
So what’s the big deal, how does this hurt the consumer and/or the nutrition practitioner?
Our current model takes the focus away from what really works and/or matters. GMO-free, antibiotic free, all natural, no high fructose corn syrup, organic, you name it. I’m not saying these don’t matter but when the consumer’s focus is concentrated on these buzzwords, it’s not focused on what matters most to weight loss (energy balance) or health (a whole-foods, plant based (WFPB) diet). The human mind can only hold and juggle so much information, if your focus is on eating organic and all natural, you might lose sight of the basic elements of nutrition that give you the most nutrition and exercise return on your investment (NEROI) like energy balance and eating a WFPB diet.
Nutrition professionals end up “branding” themselves to cater to consumer demand. The Paleo diet and Ketogenic diets are perfect examples of this. I don’t believe that there has been a recent flood of new scientific information showing that these diets are superior in weight loss or health to a conventionally based diet, yet the popularity of these diets have exploded and as a result we have health professionals jumping on the bandwagon to be “the Paleo guy” or the “Keto-nutritionist”.
While the Paleo movement has done a nice job of taking some of the focus off of our obsession with processed foods and more towards a WFPB diet, it promotes a diet high in saturated fat and eliminates whole grains, legumes, and dairy. How is cutting out these beneficial nutrient sources a good idea? Yes, the Paleo diet decreases processed food consumption but the restriction of these other beneficial nutrient sources just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me nor is it supported by the bulk of the scientific literature to be superior to more conventional options.
Nutrition professionals providing sound advice are lost in the noise. Human beings are attracted to novel stimuli. Paleo diets are novel, caloric restriction is not (be careful Paleo people, it won’t be too many years before your novelty wears off and you’ll be forced to adopt the newest trend).
If a diet works, it works, I understand that. But the reason the Paleo diet works is because it restricts calories and gets people into a negative energy balance. So really, the Paleo diet is a form of caloric restriction. Nothing more, nothing less. Eating like our ancestors is just dressed up marketing bullshit to get people excited about a new diet and a way to restrict calories. I’m not trying to say that caloric restriction is better than the Paleo diet but when the focus is on the “diet type” there is attention paid to creating sustainable dietary patterns. The nutrition professionals preaching sustainable dietary patterns won’t even get the chance of working with people because people are chasing the next fad diet and not the sound advice of a seasoned dietetics professional.
There is no history of success in the consumer driven, practitioner model. With each year that passes, we continue getting fatter and unhealthier and it is not due to a lack of free market options. As I have stated previously, there are more than 72 different diets out there, each promising to be the next big thing. Consumers aren’t able to differentiate between fact and fiction, what works and what doesn’t work, the sexier the option (the better marketed it is) the more likely the consumer will pick that particular diet.
The consumer centric model of selling is great for the bottom line but it is bad for the consumer.
So what is the solution to this?
Unfortunately, our options aren’t great because there are far too many health professionals who’d rather make a buck than do what’s right by the consumer. Now to be fair, many health professionals “think” they are doing right by the consumer but that is due to either their arrogance, their ignorance, or both. If you know the literature (like I do) you can’t help but come to the same conclusion, that putting this much power into the consumers hands is not good for them.
Instead, this is what I propose.
We start “calling out” marketing, other health professionals, and companies that aren’t providing relevant, contextual, science-based information. This is basically going to be anyone and everyone and I understand that some of you can’t do this because that would mean a) biting the hand that feeds you or b) destroying a future opportunity of working with one of these companies.
We’ll also run the risk of coming off as hyper-critical or negative; but the stakes are too high and this is a risk that we have to be willing to take. Only truth and transparency can help us begin to the “right the ship”. We need to be able to illustrate to consumers, why much of the information provided to them isn’t in their best interests, taken out of context or doesn’t really apply to their own unique situation.
I also realize that asking consumers to give up some of their power might be a big ask for some people and that consumers purchase products and services based on emotion and not facts. Fact based practitioners like you and I are not going to be able to win the emotion game. But this is how we can win
We need to be flat out better than our non-contextual competitors
We need to deliver results
If we can’t, then who really cares who is right or wrong. Who really cares about the truth. If we’re not helping people, then none of it matters.
chapter 14: The importance of an online presence vs in-person contact
As a prospective health practitioner, what’s more important, a strong online presence or quality in-person contact. Like any difficult question, the answer is, it depends. On the one hand, a strong social media and online presence can increase your “brand” or business’s awareness, adding people into your sales funnel.
On the other hand, if you are able to put yourself in front of enough people and develop relationships with them, although your sales funnel is smaller, you’re more likely to be able to convert some of those relationships into paying customers.
I chose to write this chapter, not to provide you with detailed advice, because honestly I don’t know what the answer to this question is but I think it is something you should consider, whether you’re starting off on your own or have been in the field for a while.
When I first launched my business I felt a lot of pressure to be as active as possible on social media even though I dislike social media and frankly am not all that good at using it. I created, posted, and shared a bunch of content every week, some of which I hoped would go viral. From my perspective now, I focused far too much on creating an online presence and not enough on in-person contact.
In a way though, this makes perfect sense. I just finished writing my dissertation (130 pages long) and was very comfortable digging deep into an issue, solitarily working on my own, and writing about it. I’ve always been more interested in educating than counseling and part of me thought that if I started counseling that I would become trapped in that role. I really didn’t want to one-on-one nutrition consult in the first place but from my limited knowledge of the industry, it seemed like as a wellness professional with my qualifications, this is what I would be expected to do.
I have often told people that EBNC was a “forced entrepreneurship”. Many, many people told me my resume was great but no one seemed interested in hiring me, so I decided I needed to take some action and try to make it on my own. In a way, I was forced into the role I currently am. I produced a great deal of content (75 blogs and counting) but I never had a specific product to sell. EBNC receives over 5,000 visitors/month but I don’t nutrition counsel any of them. There’s plenty of interest in EBNC but there aren’t any conversions. In my case a strong online presence does not translate in paying customers.
Everyone will tell you that you’ve got to use social media to create a strong online presence if you want to survive in the health & wellness world but I don’t think that’s the case for everyone. I can think of three people off the top of my head that don’t use any social media and are successful at what they do. They are a personal trainer at a big box gym, a gym owner, and dietitian who owns her own business. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have to have a website, but it also means that posting to social media on a day-to-day basis is the best use of time for everyone in the industry.
As an alternative to putting a lot of time and effort into social media, I’ve been told by a number of highly successful entrepreneurs about what I will refer to as “the rule of one”. In a nutshell, the rule of one states that all it takes for you to start being successful is to get one customer, treat that customer like royalty and turn that customer into another customer and another customer and another customer. This isn’t the only thing you’re focused on but it’s important to get that start. For a variety of reasons I focused on an online presence and less on trying to make strong personal connections. If I had wanted to build up my nutrition counseling business, to me focusing on making strong personal connections would have better served that purpose. But of course, that’s easy to say when I have already tried the alternative path.
Many of the people that I know that are the most successful in filling up their client list, barely post anything online. Although an overly simplistic view, you could take this approach to analyzing someone’s business. The more they are posting and/or writing, the fewer clients they are probably seeing. The less they are posting and/or writing, the busier they may be with seeing clients. In the former situation, the practitioner is trying to attract clients, in the latter situation, the practitioner is too busy seeing clients to be able to create content to attract the client.
This of course assumes that the practitioner is working by his/herself but the point is, you can’t be everywhere all the time. Deciding whether that next blog post or re-tweet is going to get you that new client or whether more in person contact (workshops, presentations, seminars, networking events) is where you should focus your time is a question you must consider.
In the age of social media, people will tell you that you have to be a constant presence online. I don’t think this is for everyone though. An online presence is important and part of equation but it is only part of the equation. You don’t need to be a social media maven to attract clients, nor do you have to have a strong online presence. I’m not trying to say that a strong online presence doesn’t help but it may not be necessary depending upon what your goals are, the types of services you provide, and the role that you play in your organization.
chapter 15: Imposter syndrome
In a recent conversation, my good friend and metabolic specialist for LifeTime Fitness, Jeff Burkart told me that “apparently he doesn’t know anything anymore”. I couldn’t help but laugh at his comment, Jeff is the person that I respect the most out of anyone I know in the fitness industry, he has 15+ years of personal training experience, trains Olympic caliber athletes, and is constantly curious and self-improving. We’ve had hundreds of hours long conversations about health & wellness, and now he’s telling me that he doesn’t know anything anymore?!!
When asked to clarify what he meant he said that it is just so hard to translate academic research findings into the day-to-day training of his clients, especially when human variability between subjects is so high. Much of human physiology doesn’t make any sense. For example, when you overfeed someone (give them more calories than they need) you would expect their metabolic rate to increase. Well, some people’s metabolic rates actually decrease. There is absolutely no scientific explanation for that and Jeff has to deal with hundreds of these “variabilities” on a day-to-day basis. When you repeatedly, day after day, encounter these counterintuitive findings, you can’t help but question whether you know what you’re talking about.
Now to be fair, Jeff stating that he “doesn’t know anything anymore” is more tongue and cheek than anything else. Of course he knows what he’s talking about, he is more so voicing his frustrations with how difficult it can be to write training programs and provide sound advice when everyone responds so differently.
At this point in his career, Jeff probably isn’t experiencing “Imposter Syndrome”, he’s too experienced and has been through too many challenges to truly doubt that what he’s doing is incorrect. But many less experienced practitioners experience imposter syndrome on a much more frequent basis, some of whom experience it all the time. So what is imposter syndrome? Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you don’t belong, that you’re not good enough, and that you don’t know what you’re doing.
And it isn’t unique to health & wellness professionals, nor is it unique to entry level professionals. I have experienced imposter syndrome at all stages of my career -- during my first nutrition counseling job, during my master’s, during my PhD, and for quite some time after. Even writing this career advice, sometimes I think, am I giving the best advice that I possibly can or do I need to speak with even more people before truly giving good advice? Do I have enough time in the field to be giving any advice at all?
With that being said, I think we’re all doing the best that we can (or at least most of us). Imposter syndrome reminds me of students that are nervous before their exams or athletes that are nervous before their events. Do you know why they’re nervous? Because they aren’t prepared. If you’ve left no stone unturned or if you’ve trained as much as you possible can, you’re not nervous, you’re maybe a little anxious, but you should be more confident than anything. What’s the saying that people use
Practice + Preparation = Performance
I think that it’s actually a good thing that we feel like an imposter every once in a while because it shows us that we don’t know everything and forces us to do the work and practice our craft to become better professionals. It helps us identify the line between what we know and what we don’t know.
Part of squashing the imposter syndrome is to practice, practice, and practice some more. Whether that means doing your research or mastering some small part of your nutrition counseling technique, the more practiced you are, the less often you’ll feel like an imposter. The second part of squashing the imposter technique is being able to say “I don’t know” and feeling okay with it.
Part of the reason that I did a masters and then went on to do a PhD was because I wasn’t confident in my abilities to provide sound advice. I didn’t feel like I knew enough (I felt like an imposter). After climbing to the top of the knowledge mountain (getting my PhD) and surveying the landscape, I could finally see that I’ll never be absolutely, fully confident in my advice, that I’ll never learn everything there is to know about nutrition and metabolism, and that’s okay. I finally gained the confidence to say “I don’t know” and I think you should be able to do that to. It will go a long way with making you feel less like an imposter.
Now, obviously, if you say this too many times, that means you’re not an imposter, you just don’t know what you’re talking about. Now, you’re not a professional or an imposter, you’re part of the public. If you’ve read the previous 14 chapters of my career advice, congratulations, you are one committed individual. One of the themes that you see coming from me again and again and again, is to find a mentor or peer group to assist you in continuing your education. The only thing worse than thinking you’re an imposter is being an imposter. If you constantly strive to become a better professional by working with a peer group, mentor or practicing your craft, you’re not an imposter, you’re a badass health & wellness professional. Be a badass health & wellness professional, don’t be an imposter.