'Be prepared to give up your social life'

Vicki Edgson, 48, is a nutritional consultant and author of several books on nutrition. She has co-presented Five's television series, The Diet Doctors.

What does your job actually involve?

As a nutritional consultant, I work with the medical profession - GPs, osteopaths and psychologists - who refer me to a wide range of people with nutritional complaints. I don't only deal with weight problems - I also deal with people who have hormone imbalances or eating disorders, children with behavioural problems or autism, and post-surgery patients. In the clinic, I'll see about six to eight patients for consultations a day. I ask them to fill out a questionnaire and run over any medical tests they have had. Then we'll work out a lifestyle and dietary plan.

I'll ask what kind of exercise they're doing, whether they're happy or unhappy, and whether they're getting enough sleep. Diet tends to be part of a holistic picture. I work out ideas and concepts to guide the patient, and they put the plan into practice.

What's the greatest thing about being a nutritional consultant?

What I love is having the knowledge to impart to other people, which they can use to empower themselves. It's nice to be able to sit down and give people information tailored to their needs, so they can get to the root of a problem and get control over their lives.

Often it's knowledge that people ought to have, but don't learn in school because there aren't nutritional science classes. The only way you can get nutritional information otherwise may be on the internet and food labelling, and that can often be very confusing.

Is there anything that's not so great about it?

All the admin! There are follow-up letters that have to be typed up and sent out to the doctors, and you have a responsibility to keep extremely detailed notes and files to hand. I always have to keep files up-to-date and know exactly where they are, as they might be opened in court if there is a case involving a patient.

What skills do you need to do the job really well?

You need the ability to listen well - you almost need counselling skills. You need to be able to identify when someone is being open with you. I've always been a good "people person", and I find that sometimes, people's silences tell you more than what they are saying. In terms of academic skills, from August 2007, you'll be legally required to have a degree in nutrition science to practise as a nutritional consultant. I studied at the Institute of Optimum Nutrition, but there are other universities offering degree courses.

Is there any advice you'd give to someone with their eye on your job?

My advice is to build expertise in your core area, but never stop learning. There's always something new to learn from your patients. And it's also very important to be humble enough to acknowledge when you don't know the answer to a problem, and to go away and do more research. If you want to study to be a nutritional consultant, be prepared to give up your social life and don't underestimate the amount of time that you'll need to dedicate to learning. Even part-time courses are very intense. After that, the hardest part is building up your clinical practice.

What's the salary and career path like?

When I started out, I earned £12,500 a year. If a top nutritional consultant is consulting three or four days a week, they could earn £50,000 - £60,000 a year. You could get involved in food research, product development, or affiliate yourself with a company, do workshops and lectures.

'The Diet Doctors Inside and Out' by Vicki Edgson and Wendy Denning is re-released in September. For more information about Vicki, see her website, www.vickiedgson.co.uk. For details on careers and training in nutrition, go to the British Nutrition Foundation's website at www.nutrition.org.uk. Academic courses accredited by the Nutrition Society are listed at www.nutritionsociety.org. For information on how to qualify as a registered dietitian, see the British Dietetic Association website, www.bda.uk.com.