If helping people eat well is important to you, then you might be curious about how to become a dietitian.
These professionals support people’s nutritional needs so that they can regain strength, manage chronic conditions, or improve their athletic performance.
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Read on to learn about the options for dietitian schooling, certification, licensure, and career paths. Once you have a better understanding of how to become a registered dietitian, you may be ready to start looking for schools and beginning your education in nutrition science.
How to Become a Dietitian
The primary credential for clinical nutrition professionals is registered dietitian (RD), or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). These two titles are interchangeable. Becoming an RD is a process with multiple steps that can take a number of years to accomplish.
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Here’s a general overview of how to become a registered dietician:
- Earn an accredited degree in the field. Currently, either a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree will qualify. In 2024, though, only people with graduate degrees will be able to become a registered dietician. Whether your program is at the undergraduate or graduate level, it should be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).
- Complete supervised practice. It’s necessary to earn 1,200 hours of supervised work experience. This can be done in conjunction with your college if you enroll in a coordinated program, or you can match separately with a dietetic internship site if you choose a didactic program instead.
- Take the exam. After completing the educational and dietetic internship requirements, it will be time to take the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam. Passing this test is a requirement for becoming a registered dietician.
- Fulfill state requirements. In many states, you will apply for a license once you have passed the CDR exam.
- Keep up with your credentials. To stay a certified RD, you’ll earn continuing education credits on a regular basis.
- Consider specialization. As a practicing RD, you may want to pursue an additional credential, such as Specialist in Oncology Nutrition or Specialist in Pediatric Nutrition.
While these steps involve hard work and perseverance, each one is essential if you want to reach your goal of becoming a registered dietitian.
Dietitian Education Requirements
You can study nutrition and dietetics at the undergraduate or graduate level. In 2024, though, new standards will require anyone registering for the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam to hold a graduate degree.
At the undergraduate level, you will spend around 4 years in school. In the process, you’ll typically earn 120 credits in general education and the field of dietetics.
Bachelors programs in clinical nutrition often prepare students for a dietetic internship. Some offer a didactic curriculum, and then students secure separate internship programs after graduation. Others have coordinated programs, in which the internship is arranged through the school. Because the internship is built into the studies, coordinated programs may take 5 years to complete instead of 4.
Although internship-preparation tracks are common, not all undergraduate nutrition programs fit that mold. Instead of preparing students to become RDs, some offer coursework to prepare graduates for roles in public health, education, or fitness. For whichever track you choose, your classes might cover topics like nutrition throughout the lifespan, health promotion, nutrition science, and behavioral changes.
At the graduate level, programs require 30 or more credit hours of coursework. All of the classes typically focus on clinical nutrition and related subjects.
For admission to a master’s degree program, you’ll likely need to hold a bachelor’s degree. Some graduate nutrition colleges prefer for your bachelors to be in a field related to nutrition. As with undergraduate schooling, a master’s degree program for registered dietitians can be didactic or coordinated.
Your graduate curriculum might cover metabolism, medical nutrition, food preparation, and nutrition education. You can also study research and statistics, and you may need to write a thesis.
Health and Nutrition Careers & Salaries
Dietitians and nutritionists help people choose the right foods for their needs and obtain proper nourishment. Some are clinical workers who assist people with particular health conditions.
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Others oversee food service programs or provide nutrition leadership in community organizations. Before working as a dietitian, you might be a dietetic technician. These employees assist dietitians, and they may handle responsibilities like planning meals or speaking with clients.
Graduate dietitian degrees may open a rewarding career path. Depending on their degree focus, professionals may work as community college professors or food scientists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dietitians and nutritionists earn a median annual salary of $61,650.
|Careers||Annual Median Salaries|
|Agricultural and Food Scientists||$74,160|
|Social and Community Service Managers||$74,000|
|Writers and Authors||$67,120|
|Junior College Teachers (State)||$63,590|
|Dietitians and Nutritionists||$61,650|
|Health Education Specialists||$60,600|
|Food Service Managers||$59,440|
|Community Health Workers||$46,590|
|Fitness Trainers and Instructors||$40,700|
The salaries listed in the table above represent national averages. Your income may vary depending on your role, education, experience, and employer. Many nutrition experts, such as public health workers or educators, work in community settings. Management roles in community agencies might also be available for those with experience.
Writing is another way to share your nutrition knowledge with others. Some professionals write books or articles about healthy eating. Your nutrition background could also prepare you for a variety of other jobs. For example, some graduates pursue work as fitness instructors who also provide dietary advice, while others manage a restaurant or cafeteria.
Nutrition and Dietetics Programs Accreditation
Some students may wonder how to become a nutritionist. If you want to become a licensed registered dietitian nutritionist, it’s essential to earn a respected degree. The first step to ensuring that your college degree will be widely accepted is to attend a regionally accredited institution.
Regional accreditation is valued by other schools, employers, and credentialing boards. Accreditation increases the chances that your credits will transfer elsewhere, that you’ll be eligible for graduate programs, and that you can qualify for jobs.
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Programmatic accreditation is important, too. If you plan to take the CDR exam, then your program must be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).
Dietitian Nutritionist Licensure and Certifications
The most well-known credential in this field is registered dietitian (RD), also known as registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). In addition, many states require licensure through a state board in order to offer nutrition services. To become state-licensed, you may need to hold RD certification.
Here are some additional certifications in this field that can enhance your expertise as a well-rounded nutrition expert:
- Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting (CHNC): This undergraduate certificate program helps prepare you to guide others toward more natural diets and lifestyles.
- Certified Health Coach (CHC): This program from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) is appropriate for people committed to encouraging others on their fitness journeys.
- Certified Sports Nutritionist from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (CISSN): With advanced knowledge of sports nutrition, you can recommend proper eating plans for athletes.
The Commission on Dietetic Registration also offers board certification in various specialties.
What Is a Dietitian?
A dietitian is an expert in food, health, and wellness. These professionals have specialized training in meeting people’s nutritional needs—including those of children, senior citizens, and people with health conditions. They may be responsible for planning meals, offering nutrition counseling, or operating food service programs.
Dietitians work in a variety of settings. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some of their most common work settings are hospitals and nursing homes. Nutrition professionals can also work for the government or be self-employed. Registered dietitians (RDs) are certified experts who have earned an accredited education, completed a dietetic internship, and passed a credentialing exam.
What Does a Dietitian Do?
A dietitian is a professional who helps people get the nutrition that their bodies require. Clinical dietitians often work in hospitals or other healthcare settings. Their job is to help people eat the right foods for their particular health needs, and their clients may have a chronic condition or be recovering from an illness.
Dietitians can also work in food service settings. For instance, they may coordinate meal plans for the cafeterias of schools or residential facilities. Dietitians can work in community settings, too. They might provide education about balanced diets or head up food distribution programs.
Some registered dietitians work in private practice.
How Much Does a Registered Dietitian (RD) Make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for dietitians and nutritionists is $61,650. Most earn between $42,530 and $93,640.
Dietitians and nutritionists who work in outpatient care centers have some of the highest salaries in this field, with a median salary of $74,640. Other related positions in which nutrition professionals might work include health educator, community service manager, and fitness trainer. Some dieticians also work in private practice.
The median salary for health education specialists is $60,600 per year. Social and community service managers have a median annual income of $74,000, and fitness trainers and instructors make a median of $40,700 each year (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
How Long Does It Take to Become a Dietitian?
With the upcoming changes in educational requirements for becoming a registered dietitian, you can expect it to take around 6 or 7 years to complete your educational and dietetic internship components.
First, getting a bachelor’s degree could take about 4 years. Then, you can enroll in a graduate program, such as a Master of Science in Nutrition. Depending on the credits required, you may spend 1 to 2 years in a master’s program. The internship experience will take time as well. It usually lasts about 1 year.
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To accelerate the process, some schools offer combined bachelor’s and master’s programs with shared credits. Since the licensing phase varies by state, you may want to research your specific state board’s requirements for RDs.
Is a Dietitian a Doctor?
No, a dietitian is different from a doctor. Whether at the bachelors or masters level, dietitians and nutritionists study nutrition science in college. Meanwhile, medical doctors go to medical school.
Both dietitians and doctors complete a dietetic internship, but the internships have different focuses. Also, doctors’ internships and residencies last much longer. Both specialties require an understanding of the human body and biology, but the curriculum is otherwise pretty different. While medical doctors receive some training in nutrition-related topics, they don’t receive as much as nutritionists.
Some people may be both medical doctors and licensed nutritionists, but that’s only possible if they’ve completed two separate education programs.
What’s the Difference Between a Dietitian vs. Nutritionist?
The terms “nutritionist” and “dietitian” are often used interchangeably, but they don’t always mean the same thing.
Credentialing rules for these professions vary a good deal from state to state. In some places, nutritionists may hold the well-respected CNS credential. Elsewhere, nutritionists may have less training.
Is Becoming a Dietitian Worth It?
Yes, becoming a dietitian is worth it for many students. Working in this field has the potential to make a lasting difference in others’ quality of life. Good nutrition can help people strengthen their bodies, recover from illnesses, or achieve optimal athletic performance.
Plus, this is a growing field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities for nutritionists and dietitians will grow by 11% over the next decade. Around 7,800 new positions are expected during that period.
Getting Your Dietitian Degree Online
Earning a nutrition degree could be the first step toward a fulfilling career path in dietetics. You can learn how to provide nutritional support for people from all walks of life.
The people you help may be young or old, ill or athletic. In any case, your work could make a difference in their well-being. Online classes are an option for earning your nutrition degree in a convenient manner. With accredited online nutrition degree programs, you could learn the same material that on-campus students learn.
You can start looking at accredited colleges today to find the nutrition program that best contributes to your goal of becoming a dietitian.