How to Become a Dietitian

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Learn how to become a dietitian, including the necessary educational requirements, supervised training, certifications and licensing, and credentials that can boost your career.

[Featured Image]: A person preparing for courses as pursues a career as a dietitian.

As a dietitian, you’ll help your clients with meal planning and preparation and educate them on the foods they should eat or avoid to optimize their health. To get started on your path to becoming a dietitian, you'll pursue your bachelor’s degree, complete the required training, become licensed, and obtain and maintain certifications. Once you are a credentialed dietician, you have a variety of career paths and work settings to choose from.

Meet educational requirements 

To work as a dietician, you must typically have a bachelor's degree in nutrition or a related field. Dietitians earn degrees in dietetics, nutrition, food service systems management, clinical nutrition, public health nutrition, or closely related fields. Choose a degree program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). You'll need to graduate from an accredited program to be eligible to take the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam, which makes you a registered dietician (RD) upon passing.

Earn a Bachelor’s degree in dietetics or a related field 

The first step to becoming a dietitian is to earn a bachelor’s degree. Those graduating after January 1, 2024, will be required to pursue a graduate degree due to changes made by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Read more: A Guide to the Bachelor of Health Science Degree

Consider advanced degrees 

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that many dietitians have obtained advanced degrees. Advanced degrees are optional for those completing their bachelor’s degree by Dec. 31, 2023. Suppose you are just getting started on your educational requirements, though. In that case, you will need to enroll in a graduate degree: a master’s degree, practice doctorate, or doctoral degree (e.g., PhD., EdDor, DSc). You can pursue a graduate degree in any area if granted by a US Department of Education-accredited institution or foreign equivalent. 

After obtaining your bachelor’s degree, you can enroll in an ACEND-accredited master’s in nutrition or other degree programs, such as a master’s in public health/registered dietitian (MPH/RD). Some universities offer programs that let you earn both your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years, such as Bradley University, which is ACEND accredited.

The changing requirement to become a registered dietitian occurred in response to a recommendation in the Council on Future Practice (CFP) Visioning Report. According to the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), a joint meeting of CFP, ACEND, and CDR in 2011 resulted in a consensus that changing the requirements would “elevate practice at all levels of the profession” [1].

Read more: Master's Degrees Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Online degrees are an option

You also have the option of pursuing an online dietitian or nutrition degree. ACEND offers a directory of all its accredited programs, including those that offer distance learning. Distance education means completing all coursework online, and rotations are locally done. This option benefits if you are juggling a job and your education, need accommodations, or simply prefer online learning. 

Undergo required training 

Dietitians usually undergo hundreds of hours of supervised training through internships, school programs, and employers. Some schools offer coordinated dietetics programs that allow you to complete supervised training as part of your undergraduate- or graduate-level coursework. 

Complete an internship

Completing an internship is part of your path to becoming a dietitian. You can complete this after graduation or during your degree program if your school offers that option. ACEND offers a Dietetic Internship Centralized Application Service (DICAS), through which you can apply for internships. It features a checklist, so you know you have completed all the application steps. DICAS allows you to apply to multiple programs by completing just one online application. As part of your application, you’ll list dietetics-related coursework you’ve taken along with non-dietetics classes. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, you can then choose from either a Dietetic Internship (DI), a Coordinated Program (CP), or an Individualized Supervised Practice Pathway (ISPP).

Your internship will include practicums to give you experience in various areas while being supervised by a registered dietitian. These include clinical nutrition, ambulatory care, food service, and research. Many internships are 40 hours per week and may require more hours for assignments, presentations, or projects. 

You will need to log your internship hours to verify that you have completed at least 1,000 hours of supervised training. You’ll take a registered dietitian practice exam or review course as well. Meeting all these internship requirements allows you to receive the dietetic internship verification statement that you need to be eligible for the RD examination.

Read more: Public Health Internships: How to Find the Right One

Meet program requirements

All programs must be ACEND-accredited; the organization provides a directory of all eligible programs on its website. The Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics provides a list of updated state requirements, state agencies, and statutes and regulations.

You’ll undergo a background check and drug testing as part of the internship or coordinated program application process. As an intern, you’ll need to update your immunizations and perform health checks.

Undergo employer training

Because dietitians work in various settings, the employer training you’ll undergo will also vary. Dietitians can work in such workplaces as schools, hospitals, clinics, non-profits, gyms, or other food services. On-the-job training may look like duties performed during an internship or supervised training. If you plan to work for yourself, you might need training in business administrative tasks. Some self-employed dietitians outsource business and marketing tasks to focus solely on their client base.

Obtain licensure

Registered dietitian licensing and credential requirements vary by state. Some states require that you be licensed and credentialed, while others require CDR credentials but not licensure. The nationally recognized credentialing organizations are the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS), and the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB). 

Depending on your state, you’ll need a license or credential to work as a dietitian. Keep up with any required ongoing education to maintain your license or credentialing. Nutritioned.org has links to each state’s requirements regarding licensure.

Earn optional certification

You can become certified in one of two ways: becoming a registered dietitian through the CDR or earning certification through the state you want to practice in. The Registered Dietician Nutritionist certification is considered the same as Registered Dietitian for this purpose. 

According to Nutritioned.org, five states refer to their state-level process for granting legal permission to practice dietetics as certified, but that does not equate to national certification through the Commission of Dietetic Registration. Connecticut, Indiana, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin grant state-level certification to legally refer to yourself and market your services as a Certified Dietic. However, you'll need the CDR’s RD certification to practice in any state.

Career pathways for dietitians 

You can also pursue a variety of career paths with your training as a dietician.

These include:

• Health educator

• Personal chef

• Personal trainer

• Registered dietician (RD)

• Dietetic technician registered (DTR)

• Clinical dietician

• Health coach

• Community dietician

• Diet counselor

• Food service dietician

• Pediatric dietician

• Public health dietician

• Research dietician

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Skills needed to work as a dietitian

Dietitians work with clients or patients and must have strong communication and listening skills. Empathy and compassion are needed as you’ll work with people who sometimes face tough challenges. You should also have solid problem-solving and organizational skills to find treatment solutions while keeping track of patient paperwork and other administrative tasks. Additionally, analytical and math skills are necessary to interpret scientific data and translate that into patient treatment and guidance. 

The ability to speak languages other than English is beneficial in certain communities where many residents speak different languages. Dietitians should be comfortable speaking with others, including in groups. 

You’ll use your teaching and coaching skills when pursuing leadership positions to manage and guide others. You’ll also likely have to supervise interns. Dietitians may, at times, present in front of community members on issues related to nutrition.

Work environment and industries where dieticians work 

Dietitians work in hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, cafeterias, research entities, governments, gyms, and private companies. Most dietitians work in a health care setting. In hospitals, registered dietitians may guide patients on nutrition and treat them with nutrition therapy as part of the medical team. Registered dieticians (RDs) may also manage the food-service operations in health care settings. RDs can also work in schools, daycare centers, and correctional facilities. The responsibilities can range from food purchasing and preparation to managing staff in these facilities. 

Dietitians can work for private companies, including those in pharmaceuticals, running wellness programs for employees. They can offer guidance in developing nutritional products for businesses. Dietitians may hold public affairs, communications, marketing, or research and development positions in these companies. 

Some dietitians choose to open their own practices and would either work with patients or contract with health care or food organizations for food service and other nutrition-related work. Dietitians may work in public health or at non-profits, where they would work to educate the community on healthy eating habits and how food and fitness are related.

Dietitians can go into teaching positions at universities, medical centers, and other venues, teaching physicians, nurses, students, and others about foods and nutrition.

Average salary and job outlook for dietitians 

The median annual salary for dietitians and nutritionists is $61,650, or $29.64 per hour, as of May 2021 [2]. In 2021, the total number of dietician jobs was 74,700. From 2021 to 2031, jobs in the field are expected to grow by 7 percent, or 5,100 jobs, which is faster than average, according to the BLS.[2] The BLS also says 5,600 openings for dietitians and nutritionists are projected each year, on average, in that period, most of which are replacements for retirees [3].

Read more: What Do Health Care Jobs Pay? Salaries, Job List, and More

Getting started

Get started on your path to being a dietitian by learning more about the field through an online course, such as Stanford University’s Stanford Introduction to Food and Health or the Academy of Sports Medicine Nutrition Essentials from NASM, the National Academy of Sports Medicine. If you are ready to pursue a degree to become a dietician, consult the ACEND directory of accredited schools to find one close to you or an online program.

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Article sources

1

Commission on Dietetic Registration. "Graduate Degree Registration Eligibility Requirement Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), https://admin.cdrnet.org/vault/2459/web///Graduate%20Degree%20Registration%20Eligibility%20Requirement%20FAQ%20October%202021.pdf." Accessed October 17, 2022.

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