In recent years, people in Hong Kong have come to realise that staying slim and fit is a matter of having a healthy lifestyle coupled with a properly balanced diet. Not surprisingly, this has led to growing demand for professional dietitians and opened up a raft of new opportunities for those who are concerned about promoting well-being within the wider community.
Peony Lee, a registered dietitian with Watsons, is a perfect example. She has had a long-standing interest in food science and in understanding the impact of nutrition on human health. Early on, she decided to pursue a career in the field and this led her to take a bachelor's degree in food and nutritional science at the University of Hong Kong.
"It was a relatively new subject at that time, which I considered a good opportunity," Ms Lee recalls. "I was also personally drawn to the subject, as I wanted to be able to give practical advice to my family and friends if they ever had any health concerns."
As things turned out, her career has been a journey of exploration. It has taken both flair and determination to reach her current position. Upon graduation, Ms Lee first joined a nutrition consultancy firm where she picked up practical knowledge about the relationship between diet and health. Realising, though, that competition for jobs in the sector was likely to intensify, she then decided to study for a master's degree in nutrition and diet at the University of Sydney and also became a member of the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA).
It can require a lot of patience to convince people to change their habits
This enabled her to learn about many other facets of the profession. However, when she returned to Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak in 2003, the depressed job market meant she could not find a specialist position to make full use of her new expertise. Therefore, she started to work for a beauty clinic, giving consultations to clients whose primary goal was weight loss. Given her background and ambitions, it was not too surprising that the work became routine and repetitive. "I was keen to learn more and to work in a more dynamic environment," she says.
Fortunately, a chance to join Watsons as a registered dietitian came up early this year and, since then, Ms Lee has not looked back. The daily routine now involves contact with a much wider range of clients and requires her to handle phone enquiries and provide consultations about the company's health products. By using the results of tests to check such things as blood pressure and levels of fat, Ms Lee advises clients about diet and the best choice of health products. She also works closely with the in-house pharmacists, who refer clients with specific diseases and diet needs to her for detailed consultations.
"This has given me much broader experience and allowed me to learn about the latest health products on the market," Ms Lee says. "Offering free consultations also makes it possible for me to raise public awareness about the importance of a balanced diet."
As yet there is no statutory system of registration for the profession in Hong Kong, but graduates can become registered dietitians by taking a master's degree in the US, the UK, Canada or Australia, and then obtaining membership of the relevant professional association in those countries. HKU SPACE (School of Professional and Continuing Education) also offers a postgraduate diploma with internship opportunities in the UK, which will give candidates the necessary professional qualification.
According to Ms Lee, a number of pharmacy chains, nutrition consultancies, health product companies and beauty clinics now have entry-level positions for dietitians. Even restaurants and supermarkets are creating new posts.
She points out that aspiring dietitians must have a genuine interest in their work and be prepared to keep learning continuously. Being in daily contact with clients also makes it important to have a cheerful personality and a real desire to help others improve their well-being. "It can require a lot of patience to convince people to change their habits," she says. "The reward, though, is when you see clients following your advice and that your efforts are making a difference for them."
Considering the future, Ms Lee believes the dietitian's role will continue to increase in scope and that registered professionals will be in ever greater demand. She hints that this may also lead to a tightening of regulations, since not all dietitians practising in the private sector are registered or fully qualified. "However, the main task for the profession is to help more members of the public to realise the importance of a balanced diet as an essential part of their daily lives," she says.
Ms Lee notes that a number of local beauty clinics have opened mainland branches and have hired dietitians from Hong Kong as in-house consultants. "Trends in weight loss are starting to catch on in China, and the general public is also getting more health-conscious," she says. Dietitians who decide to move can expect salaries equal to those in Hong Kong. The range of opportunities is expected to increase as the China market continues to open up.