Nutritional Sciences

How (and Why) to Become a Dietitian

How (and Why) to Become a Dietitian
Job satisfaction will always be on the menu. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry December 3, 2019

A lot of people claim to be healthy eating gurus, but only registered dietitians (or dieticians) can truthfully claim expertise. It's actually not that hard to turn a passion for food and health into a fascinating career. Here's everything you need to know to get started.

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The popular conception of registered dietitians (sometimes called registered dietitian nutritionists, RDs, or RDNs) is of one-on-one counselors who help clients improve their eating habits. Many dietitians do indeed work in this practice, but that’s not all there is to dietetics.

There are also dietitians who work in a public health setting to formulate institutional or community food plans. Others conduct dietetics research at universities and hospitals and in corporate labs. There are, in fact, many different career paths open to these experts in nutrition science. If you are fascinated by food and nutrition, and you have an aptitude for science, there’s probably a career in this field for you.

This article explains how to become a dietitian. It covers the following questions:

  • What is a dietitian?
  • Where do dietitians work?
  • What’s the difference between a nutritionist and dietitian?
  • Can you be a registered dietitian without a degree?
  • Do you need a master’s in nutrition to become a dietitian?
  • What other kinds of training are required to become a dietitian?
  • How long does it take to become a dietitian?
  • How much do dietitians earn?
  • Is this the right career for you?

What is a dietitian?

Dietitians work in many different roles, so it’s difficult to define what a ‘typical dietitian’ does. In broad terms, RDs advise and counsel people on food and nutrition. What this entails depends on the dietitian’s specific role. For example:

  • Clinical dietitians help people create healthy eating and nutrition plans and provide medical nutrition therapy to prevent or treat illnesses. They can work in private practices or in settings like hospitals, outpatient care centers, and long-term care facilities.
  • Community dietitians create educational programs for groups (or the public at large) that are focused on food and nutrition. They can work for nonprofit organizations, public health clinics, or government agencies.
  • Management dietitians work in food service in a variety of settings (schools, businesses, etc.) developing menus, managing kitchen staff, buying food, and creating or approving budgets.
  • Pediatric dietitians work with primary-care physicians, hospitals, school systems, and government agencies to develop food programs for children. Their work may involve creating customized programs for children with food allergies and/or eating disorders.
  • Research dietitians conduct experiments and studies to evaluate health policies and determine the health impact of dietary trends and new food products.

Where do dietitians work?

Dietitians don’t just work in clinical settings. Some dietitians open their own private practices, where they teach clients how to have healthy relationships with food. Some work in hospitals, doctors’ offices, and other healthcare facilities. Others, however, find employment in food service, product development labs, restaurants, and schools. Still, others conduct independent research, create and run educational programs for corporations or sports leagues, cover the nutrition beat for a media organization, or work as consultants for fast food chains.

What you do when you become a dietitian will probably depend a lot on where you work. Many aspiring dietitians dream of working one-on-one with clients, but you might be more at home working in a laboratory run by the product development arm of a frozen food manufacturer.

What’s the difference between a nutritionist and dietitian?

There’s a big difference! Most people don’t realize that these designations represent two very different careers. Anyone can go to school to study nutrition, and anyone can call themselves a nutritionist—even without a degree or any formal training. Registered dietitians, on the other hand, must have a college degree, many hours of specialty training, certifications, and a state license to practice. A nutritionist may call themselves a nutrition expert; dietitians have the credentials to back up that claim.

Can you be a registered dietitian without a degree?

No. Registered dietitians must have at least a bachelor’s degree from a university accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. ACEND outlines three acceptable educational pathways in dietetics and/or nutrition for aspiring RDs.

There are a lot of different types of degrees that fulfill ACEND requirements for accreditation. That means you can take a surprisingly wide range of dietetics courses during your undergraduate years. Depending on what type of degree you choose, you might take classes focused on:

  • Anatomy
  • Biochemistry
  • Community nutrition
  • Computer science
  • Culinary arts
  • Food science
  • Food service systems management
  • Medical ethics
  • Microbiology
  • Nutritional chemistry
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Nutrition science
  • Sociology
  • Vegetarian cuisine

You can find some of the best bachelor’s degree programs for nutrition at:

During your undergraduate years or after graduation, you’ll complete an ACEND-accredited supervised dietetics program internship. These internships take place in a variety of clinical settings and expose students to different practice areas in nutrition, such as:

  • Clinical nutrition research
  • Community nutrition
  • Geriatric nutrition
  • Medical nutrition therapy
  • Pediatric nutrition

Do you need a master’s in nutrition to become a dietitian?

Not yet. Currently, you only need a master’s degree (plus 1,000 supervised practice hours) if your goal is to become a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS). Beginning in 2024, however, the Commission on Dietetic Registration will raise the minimum required education level for registered dietitians and all RDs will be required to earn a master’s degree to be eligible to sit for the registration exam. Practicing registered dietitian nutritionists will be grandfathered in and will not be required to earn advanced degrees to continue working.

The goal of the new requirement is to change how people regard dietitians. Right now, many people confuse dietitians and nutritionists, and RDs are typically paid a lot less than other non-physician clinicians. The idea is that if dietitians are required to hold advanced degrees—like a Master of Science in Nutrition or a Master’s in Nutrition and Exercise Science—they’ll be held in higher regard.

Be aware, however, that aspiring RDs are only required to have a master’s degree, not a specific master’s degree. That means dietitians who have completed a bachelor’s degree program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics can stay on the right side of the new rules by earning a master’s degree in any discipline, from business to art history. Getting a master’s degree in a complementary field like counseling or public health may open additional doors, however.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics maintains a searchable list of advanced degree programs in nutrition, dietetics, and related areas that are good options aspiring dietitians who want to get a jump on working toward fulfilling the new degree requirements for RDs.

What other kinds of training are required to become a dietitian?

Becoming a dietitian requires more than just getting your degree and completing an internship. To become a registered dietitian, you need to pass the national registration exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. At that point, you’ll be a full-fledged RD, but you will probably still have more to do before you can start practicing legally. Each state has its own licensing and certification requirements (which you can find here), and you’ll need to meet them in the state where you intend to work. Most states require licensed and certified dietitians to complete a set number of continuing education hours to maintain registration and licensure.

Some RDs pursue voluntary certifications related to specialty practice areas in addition to required credentials to stand out from the crowd when job hunting or to earn more money. These include:

How long does it take to become a dietitian?

Becoming a dietitian can take five years or more. Completing a bachelor’s degree typically takes four years of full-time study, and may take longer if you are enrolled in a part-time program. Dietitians must also complete a supervised post-bachelor’s internship that can last anywhere from eight months to two years. About half of all registered dietitian nutritionists find their internship placements through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, but placements are competitive. You may have to wait until a suitable placement becomes available to get the required hands-on experience, which will increase the amount of time it will take you to become a dietitian.

If you already have a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated subject, you can potentially become an RD faster by looking into coordinated master’s degree programs. These programs enable you to earn an advanced degree in nutrition and complete the required internship hours at the same time. You’ll graduate ready to take the registration exam in just about two years.

How much do dietitians earn?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average dietitian annual income is about $60,370. RDNs with master’s degrees don’t make much more. Hopefully, that will change when the new educational requirements for dietitians go into effect in 2024, though there are no guarantees.

The good news is that right now, the job outlook for registered dietitians is robust. The job market for dietitians and nutritionists is growing at an 11 percent rate, significantly faster than the rate at which the job market as a whole is growing. Chances are that you’ll be able to find a job when you choose this career, which can be just as important as the number on your paycheck.

Is this the right career for you?

If you love food, science, and helping people, then you will probably enjoy this career. Dietitian Sharon Palmer asked other RDs what they love about their jobs for a blog post she published on Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Day, and the responses she got were quite similar. Shannon A. Garcia, MDS, RD, LD, said: “It’s such a blessing to make a career communicating about such an important component of our daily life!” Lindsey Janeiro, RDN, LDN, CLC, said that her favorite thing about being a dietitian is “helping people cut through all the information overload and get back to the basics.” Pushpa Soundararajan, RDN, thinks the most rewarding part of being an RD is “empowering patients or clients with tools to take charge of their health and well-being.”

When you become a licensed dietitian, there will be stressful days. There will be people you simply cannot seem to reach. Sometimes you may not have the resources you need to feed the people you need to feed. And there will be times when it feels like you’re fighting an uphill battle: nutritional guidelines are always changing, the most nutritious foods are often the most expensive, and some patients don’t have the bandwidth to focus on improving their diets.

You will, however, probably have more good days than bad ones in this career, and you will be part of a community that has the power to influence both individual health and public health for the better in a big way. That means job satisfaction will always be on the menu.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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