What have I learned as a freelance nutritionist?
These are my learnings as a freelance nutritionist. I started studying nutrition in 2003 at the ripe old age of 25 after years of trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. So, my first bit of advice is that it takes some people a little longer to figure out what to do. Once you find your passion, you will find your drive to succeed in whatever you put your mind to.
After completing my degree, I fancied learning more about public health, which interested me most in my course. Despite the financial challenges, I decided to do a master’s degree on the topic as I knew I would never do it if I didn’t strike while the iron was hot. I worked my socks off and took out a bank loan to cover the substantial fees, then worked five nights a week in a restaurant to support myself. Hilariously, I remember the tutors on the induction week saying it wasn’t possible to work and study this course at the same time – a few hours after that lecture I put on my apron ready for work! I have always been a believer in doing whatever you have to do to achieve your goals – some of us just ain’t that privileged! After this, I continued to work in hospitality and volunteered at various charities and NGOs focused on nutrition.
I got a lucky break and found a job with a small tech company that developed software that helped schools, care homes and hospitals analyse their menu plans. Being part of a small company, I had to develop software and pitch the software to local authorities throughout the UK as well as talking at events and delivering training sessions. After several years doing this, I was given voluntary redundancy, which allowed me to set up on my own as a freelance nutritionist.
After paying for a website to be built and buying myself a new laptop and various bits of software, I got myself up and running. I contacted everyone I had worked with in my previous company and got work. At the same time, I also set up a small consultancy on the side called HOPE which was Helping Older People to Eat Well. I worked with many care home groups delivering training focused on older people and dementia through this consultancy. I also started to contact personal trainers and nutrition and wellness companies to offer my services while also building my social media profile on Twitter and Instagram. I also bagged a part-time position as head of nutrition with a leading supplement brand called Healthspan.
My position at Healthspan is very media-focused, working with the press office, which has helped me build my profile further in the media. At this time, I was also introduced to Lily Simpson by a contact and worked with her to help develop her business called The Detox Kitchen working on the food and menu planning side of things. Together we wrote a book called The Detox Kitchen Bible, published by Bloomsbury which has since been a very successful book sold in many languages around the world.
This gave me the platform I needed to get more work in this industry. I have since worked around the globe with many wellness brands, retreats, celebrities, and other high-end clients. Further to this, I also followed another interest of mine which is sleep. I wrote another book called The Art of Sleeping which has also been successful and sold worldwide in many different languages. What I love most about being a freelance nutritionist is that I am always learning as I have to cover so many different areas of nutrition in my work.
It all sounds very glamorous on paper, but I still have to work incredibly hard to make ends meet as a freelancer. I still worry all the time about where the next bit of work is going to come from and to be honest even the best of us are always trying to figure things out.
So, what have I learned, and what are my top tips for being a successful freelance nutritionist?
Here goes (in no particular order) and apologies as this blog appears to have become quite epic so you might want to make yourself a nice cup of tea at this point as you could be here for a while!
This is where the initial costs are involved. You need a website and it doesn’t need to be fancy to begin with. I did my first website myself then got someone else to do one for me when I had a little more money coming in. Think carefully about what you want to include on your site from the start.
The bare necessities will include a home page and then various pages explaining your services and obviously a contact page with a link to your email. I have a blog which to be honest is more for my own benefit than anything else as I can make them downloadable and use them as factsheets or direct people to them on social media. A place to store recipes is nice if that’s your thing and you may want to include a page to showcase any writing or other media work you have done. Make sure there are links on your site to all your social media.
Make sure you have control of the back end so that you can add stuff to your site easily – my website is built in Word Press. I have someone that hosts the server and also helps with the housekeeping which includes updates to the various bits and bobs (as you can see I have no clue what actually goes on in this department!).
Also, get some business cards made up and remember to keep them on you at all times as you never know who you are going to bump into. I have found the most cost effective place is Moo.com.
Join the AFN
As nutritionists you should join the Association for Nutrition. It’s a faff getting your portfolio together but you need to support this charity as they have your back. You have worked so hard to train in your qualification and this charity helps raise awareness of properly trained nutritionists. Without this type of backing and support anyone can call themselves a nutritionist even those that have done a weekend course on the topic so get with the program and be sure to mention them when you can so people understand who they can use as a trusted source in our industry.
Find your vibe
This is a really tricky one especially as you start out and look for work in many different areas. I have ended up working in many different areas labelling myself as a consultant and a lot of my work is media based (I also cover the topic of sleep) and my work has always included a huge food/recipe element.
However, I know many very successful nutritionists who have focused in on one particular area which could be weight management or gut health for example. While this may make it more difficult at first as you try to get experience it can make it easier in the long run as you build your profile as an expert in your chosen field. Becoming a trusted voice in one area can also make it easier to focus on things like your social media or give you a platform to pitch book ideas to publishers or collaborate with health and wellness brands as well as getting involved in expert working groups centred around your chosen specialism.
Get to grips with some of the basics
There are a few good skills you should try and get a grip on when starting out and many of these I still use on a day to day basis. Invest in a recipe analysis program as I always get asked to analyse recipes or menu plans and while this work is a little dull the information is useful to include when writing about nutrition and dealing with private clients. I use Nutritics mostly because its web-based.
Keep a note of foods that are high in one or other nutrients. I know this sounds a little rudimentary but I can’t tell you how many times I have to write about something and refer to foods rich in one or other nutrient. On this point it’s also useful to understand the health benefits of foods, nutrients and key conditions where food has been shown to play a role (e.g. fibre reducing cholesterol). I actually have spreadsheets now with all this stuff on as a quick reference and I organise them in my computer files by topic – it saves me loads of time.
It is also useful to develop your writing skills and learn how to translate the science into something everyone will understand. You should also try to include practical advice where possible as this is most useful thing to most people such as what to cook and how to cook it or include more of it in your diet. I have written tons of stuff in the media as well as copy for websites or PR campaigns. You need to understand your audience but at whatever level try to include references to anything science-related you refer to as this is the easiest way to cover your back should anyone question your opinions. Writing on your blog is a good way to get practice.
Develop a good understanding of public health nutrition. I know it’s not particularly glamorous but it is the grass roots of what is going on in the world to help keep the nation healthy and it provides perspective that can keep you grounded. Honestly, this to me is the most fascinating aspect of nutrition!
I know I work with companies that provide supplements and other such products but I try to get them to stick to the science and always give them the perspective of the population as a whole rather than just the worried well. It does leave me little patience with some clients but at the same time you can’t bite the hand that feeds you so you have to find a balance which is why you have to turn some work down from time to time.
Keep up to date with key nutrition papers and nutrition guidelines so you always have your finger on the pulse. The NDNS survey is a good one to keep track of as this has tons of information as to what the nations diet looks like. The EFSA nutrition and health claims are also good to familiarise yourself with if you are working with food companies. I also keep reports to hand from charities like the British Heart Foundation and I also find factsheets from resources such as the British Dietetic Foundation useful to keep as a reference. Also good to keep abreast of what is trending in the world of health and wellness. On this point…. Don’t get sucked into what the media says… You are scientifically trained in nutrition so use this skill to try and see the wood for the trees!
I also have loads of templates to hand that I have created in powerpoint and other programs to give me a quick way to create new presentations, lectures and reports. I also think it’s a really useful skill to learn how to put together an interesting presentation that isn’t “death by powerpoint”. I know you learn this stuff at uni but it took me ages to understand that I could use a picture or other interesting visual in place of endless bullet points. Honestly, there is nothing worse than presenting something to a sea of bored faces! Don’t be shy to let your personality shine through – I use all sorts of funny gifs and video links as I don’t like to take myself too seriously but of course you still need to remain professional and what you choose to use must be sensitive to the topic in hand.
Get familiar with programs like Canva as it is a really easy way to create things like infographics which you can use in your writing or with clients – you can also create some really nice content for your social media with this program.
Last one….I am really annoying in that I love to pick up the phone and talk to people. This gets things done in half the time and talking to someone is a better way to build working relationships than always corresponding via email.
Mmmmm, I hate it, but it is something you just have to do. Social media has evolved so much since I started out, and to be honest, I tend to focus mainly on Instagram. I dip in and out of instagram posting pictures and writing content in the feed and do some videos. These days the video content gets much more attention than just pictures and text. Posting on stories is also an easier option and always seems to get more views.
You will ask yourself questions such as “what do I post”, “how do I get more followers”, bla bla bla. Don’t stress yourself out and don’t make this the main focus of how you think you will get work. It’s a nice platform but I have come to realise that I can’t compete with those in the wellness industry with 10’s if not 100’s of thousands of followers. I have a moderately OK number of followers, enough to allow me to do what I want to do.
I hate that the number of followers you have somehow defines your worth to some people as a nutritionist especially for me given my qualification and years of experience, but this is the way of the world! Remember that this is just one way to promote yourself for work but it’s not the only one and to be brutally honest you can spend hours every day on Instagram but it is unlikely to significantly improve your chances of getting work.
Put plenty of more valuable time into using your imagination and follow your passion. Get out there and meet people face to face even if this means doing stuff for free to start with and contact people you have a genuine interest in working with
As a 43-year old, I refuse to film gimmicky videos of myself trying to be funny – there is a limit to what I am prepared to do to get work! I would rather use these platforms to highlight stuff about nutrition I am genuinely interested in.
Structure your day
It’s lovely working at home but it’s easy for things to go awry if you have no structure to your day. I don’t work 9-5 as I am an early riser to prefer to start when I get up at around 6am. I hit the gym or go to yoga early to get out of the house then I work through to about 3pm on a usual day at home. I start by answering emails then spend some time going through the news and various websites to see whats going on and if there is anything new and interesting in the world if nutrition (good stuff to post on social media especially Linkedin). After that its about dividing my time between various bits of work I need to get done for clients and prioritising to (try) and meet deadlines.
I always set time aside to think about how I can get more work. This bit is always a bit painful so I tend to set about half a day week to focus on it. I also set a little time aside every day to do some social stuff although I have to admit my interest in this goes in waves!
If its quiet and you have done everything you need to get done then don’t feel guilty about enjoying your free time. I waste a lot of time when its quiet freaking out about work instead of using these periods to do other interesting stuff – something I regret when it gets busy again. You can also use this time to focus on any reading or watching podcasts/instagram lives/webinars on things that interest you in your field. Also spend some time looking for events you can attend as these are good places to meet people. Try a mix of events – some are nutrition focused and some of these offer CPD points but look at wellness and fitness events as these are good places to meet people. Eventbrite has lots of things going on (and don’t forget your business cards!)
This is my most valuable source of work. I hate talking about myself or blowing my own trumpet, but you just have to do it here and post everything you are doing or have done. This is where people look for professionals, and they need to see what you’re up to, so don’t be shy. Voice your opinions on anything you have come across as potential employers love to see this and it shows you are passionate about what you do. Also, share anything you have done in the media or achievements at work.
Know when to refuse work
I have really struggled with this over the years, but if you feel you are jeopardising your professional profile and if it just doesn’t feel quite right, then just say no. It’s so tempting some times when a company is offering you lots of money but honestly in the long run it’s just not worth it.
Again, I have struggled with this. Be mindful of where your work is placed, and always get a copy of anything you have written sent to you to be approved. You can charge for quotes and copy but make sure there is a timescale on this. The information you provide for a campaign should not really be rehashed and used by companies in perpetuity. It just dilutes your worth to future clients. It is often quite helpful to have a freelance contract you can give to the client to agree to your terms and conditions.
This is the biggest challenge as a freelancer. The problem is that there is no recognised fee structure for a nutritionist. I have a set day rate and costs for other things such as quotes or radio days, but these all end up being negotiable. I weigh up the cost of future work with a brand or company, and I reduce my costs if they offer a retainer. I am happy to do lots of stuff for free if it provides a reasonable quid pro quo which may mean a feature in a leading magazine or quote to help maintain my profile and build relationships with health journalists and PR agencies.
There is no point in going freelance if you’re unwilling to get yourself out there and meet people, as this is how you get yourself known. As your career progresses, you may have to do less of this as people start to contact you based on referrals, but you have to put the hard work in at the start.
Create a media pack
Suppose you want to work in the media. In that case, you need a media pack that includes a biography and examples of what you have done alongside a structure of fees. A showreel is also helpful to show what you have done on screen.
Control the narrative
This is one of the most important things to help maintain your integrity as a nutritionist. You’re the expert, and you are employed to provide your expert opinion, so if you disagree with what a client wants you to do, then walk away. On the whole, you can generally find a compromise to help companies deliver the messages they need to promote their products or services. Always stick to your guns when it comes to science and things such as health claims – I have learned the hard way with some clients and been pulled up on some bits of work or something I have said in the media.
I have to admit that I am totally hopeless when it comes to deadlines, but you need to keep clients in the loop if you cannot deliver on time. This is quite important if you want them to come back to you with more work.
It’s important to keep on top of invoicing and bookkeeping and things such as tax and VAT. If you can’t do it yourself, then employ someone to do it for you.
It took me ages to build up the confidence to do this, but years of training, delivering talks, and cooking demos at events have made me much more confident. This stuff also gives you the confidence to record videos on social media showcasing what you do. If you are going to work as a freelance nutritionist, you need to get to grips with this skill. I don’t have many tips to offer here but one thing that has always helped me is to socialise with people during the coffees beforehand as you get to meet people in the audience and this can offer a little familiarity and make you more comfortable. My default when I feel nervous or uncomfortable is humour so I always try to add a little humility to my presentations and always relate them where I can to real life experiences or something the audience can relate to.
You need to diversify all the time as a freelance nutritionist in order to increase your worth and open up new opportunities. I am just finishing off a post-grad diploma in sports nutrition as this is an area I fancy doing more work in.
All freelance nutritionists succumbs to this at some point when you feel you are crap at your job and that everyone is doing better than you. Stay confident in everything you are doing and continually refer to the scientific literature to support your opinions and work.
Focus on your own thing and try not to compare yourself to what other people are doing. Instagram is a real bugger for this but always remember that people tend to only post the good stuff. My feed is full of lovely experiences showing fancy press trips or videos with clients, but this is just a snapshot of what is going on at that point in time. I’m not going to post a video of me fretting about where the next bit of work will come from or that I am worried about how my age may prevent me from getting a job in the future!
Explore all avenues of work
I always try to think outside the box as a freelance nutritionist and get involved with new start-up companies I believe may have a chance of doing well. Sometimes they feel like they have little to do with nutrition, but I will always give things a go and offer ways I think I can help.
I dip in and out of this as a freelance nutritionist, and one of the reasons I have been doing my course in sports nutrition is because this is an area I feel I would be happy to help people with. I’ll be frank in saying I have very little interest in weight loss and don’t feel qualified to help people with specific health conditions. I like sports nutrition because it’s about performance. Those you deal with are fully committed to acting on your advice. My other bit of advice here is that you have to work out of a practice or somewhere you can rent a room for this to work financially. Traveling here, there, and everywhere to see clients in their homes is not economically viable in most cases.
Offer your services for the greater good.
I go through periods of getting a little bored with what I am doing, so I offer help to charities or other groups. I have delivered talks and cooking sessions to charity organisations and care homes, which I find exciting and inspiring. I have also been working with a para-athlete through my course, which has also been helping me to build my confidence in working with athletes on a one-to-one basis. It’s an excellent way to fill the time when you are quiet and learn new skills and, of course, forging new working relationships.
Create a network
As a freelance nutritionist it’s important to make contact with other people in your field. Freelancing can be lonely, and it’s great to have people to talk to in your field for advice on all work areas. I always have time for anyone who wants to get in touch to talk about anything they are working on. There is plenty of work to go around and ditch the idea that we are in some way all in competition with one another. I hate to say that sometimes I get emails from new nutritionists looking for advice but it can slip my mind to get back and respond. Don’t ever be shy to get in touch with people for help or advice.