Staying slim and fit has become the fashion in Hong Kong in recent years and, as a result, the demand for dietitians has grown by leaps and bounds. Many beauty and fitness centres now have in-house dietitians to advise clients how to shed those excess pounds while still eating well on a healthy diet. That is because fitness-conscious types are well aware it takes more to stay in shape than simply using exercise machines, taking pills, or applying certain creams.
Flavia U, who is chairman of the Hong Kong Dietitians Association and also works professionally with the Tseung Kwan O Hospital, foresaw the increase in demand as early as 1994. She had originally planned to study pharmacy in England but, after touring a university exhibition about careers, decided instead to become a dietitian.
"I realised there were few people in this field in Hong Kong and thought it would be easier to find a good job after graduation," she recalls. Things, though, did not go exactly according to plan. After graduating from the University of London in 1998 as a registered dietitian, Ms U returned to find the territory right in the midst of the Asian financial crisis. The government was trimming budgets and had suspended recruitment at all hospitals and clinics.
"I saw this as an opportunity to gain a wider range of work experience before becoming a full-time dietitian," says Ms U. She took a part-time post at a public hospital and also provided advice for the private sector by assisting nursing homes with catering improvements and helping education centres in their efforts to upgrade school meals. In 2001, the chance came to join the Tseung Kwan O Hospital in a job with a clinical attachment, a role which Ms U has found to be the perfect for her.
A dietitian must have excellent communication skills, a cheerful character, and love talking
"Looking back, that varied experience has really helped in my present duties," she says. Working in the private sector also brought satisfaction in a number of ways. Ms U recalls helping one client successfully shed 60 pounds, advising diabetics, and devising new recipes for in-patients, in each case guiding people to a significantly better quality of life.
Now, she sees about 20 patients a day, most of whom have chronic diseases like high blood pressure or renal failure. Diet therapy, to control the types of food they eat, requires checking clinical data such as blood tests, measuring their levels of fat and recommending changes. There is, of course, close contact with the medical staff.
Ms U finds that no two days are ever the same. She also treats elderly people with poor appetites, children with obesity or malnutrition, and critically ill patients in intensive care dependent on intravenous feeding.
"Each case is different and, therefore, a dietitian must have excellent communication skills, a cheerful character, and love talking," she notes. "When patients first consult us, they are often downbeat. They think they will have to give up their favourite foods and have a boring, tasteless diet. They do not realise how many choices they still have. By developing good rapport, we can persuade patients to change their dietary habits and accept the need for long-term treatment."
Ms U adds that dietitians must keep updated on the latest food products and enjoy cooking. This helps when telling patients how to prepare meals in the best possible way.
She firmly believes that everyone can benefit from advice about diet and is encouraged that the subject is now attracting broader media coverage. One sign that people are becoming more aware of calorie intake, nutrition, and striking the right balance is that dietitians are being asked to spread the word in schools and community centres.
Good grades in biology and chemistry are expected of anyone applying for a four-year degree course in nutrition and dietetics available in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia. A BA degree is awarded on completion of the first three years of the course and opens up career options in food product companies, research, and the health industry. The fourth year of study involves a clinical attachment and qualifies students to become registered dietitians able to give recommendations to patients.
As chairman of the local professional association, Ms U is lobbying for a registration system to protect the public from receiving sub-standard services from unqualified dietitians. "It is a pressing issue as more dietitians, who may not be fully qualified, are now working in the private sector," she explains. "The lack of statutory registration for the dietetic profession could, potentially, lead to malpractice and put at risk the health and safety of members of the public."
As China develops, obesity has emerged as a particular problem in urban one-child families. In response to this, Hong Kong dietitians are exploring the possibility of opening clinics on the mainland. They are not yet allowed to practise across the border, but Ms U hopes to establish better communications with the Chinese authorities and establish a clear set of professional requirements for training and registration.