A research dietitian conducts studies on human nutrition and supports other researchers with clinical trials and other endeavors. Nutritional status can have a very important role in the outcome of a study, even if it is not explicitly about nutrition. Working with a dietitian in the design and implementation of a study can help researchers develop a better protocol, avoid problems, and document their results more effectively. Research dietitians may work for academic institutions, government agencies, and private companies.
In nutrition studies, the research dietitian develops study goals, determining what researchers want to learn, and works on a way to conduct the research safely. These studies can include everything from the effect of diet on cancer therapy to weight loss studies. Dietitians consider known nutritional needs, information about the nutritional value of foods, and other factors when they develop meal plans and nutritional advice to support a study. They may also work on surveys and other tools to track patients.
Some may work with researchers like sociologists to look at dietary issues within specific populations. A research dietitian might want to know if nutritional deficits explain why some students lag behind their peers, for example, or could conduct research to find out why some communities have difficulty meeting their dietary needs. This research could involve observation and fieldwork, not just clinical study in a lab environment. Dietitians might find, for example, that communities lack access to fresh foods, and this leads to vitamin deficiencies. Research dietitians may also discover beneficial nutrients for those who suffer from specific illnesses, such as heart, kidney, or gut health issues.
Clinical studies not specifically about diet may also call for a research dietitian. The intake interview may need to collect information about nutritional status, for example. Researchers might also want to have a dietitian on hand to evaluate patients during the study and provide feeding advice. Patients who experience nausea and vomiting on a trial medication, for instance, might need advice from a research dietitian who can develop a meal plan to make sure they get the nutrients they need while in the trial.
Support for clinical trials can include developing, administering, and writing up trial results. Clear connections between nutritional status and health illustrate that a research dietitian may be needed to control some of the potential variables in a trial to achieve more reliable results. Patients testing a new medication, for example, might experience variable outcomes depending on what they eat. The drug could interact with citrus, or might work more effectively when administered during meals, and these factors need to be controlled during the study.