- How to Become a Dietitian
- Dietitian Degree Requirements
- Online Dietitian Programs
- Dietitian Job Duties
- Dietitian Salary
- Dietitian Certification & Licensure
Learn How to Become a Registered Dietitian
If you wonder what to feed an astronaut who will be weightless in space for six months, or go to a Super Bowl party and speculate about what type of diet allows a quarterback to be on the field for three hours without collapsing, you may be the perfect candidate to pursue a career as a registered dietitian.
For you, it’s not just about the food. It’s about the science behind the food—and how the application of science and diet can impact health and well being. So, how do you become a registered dietitian? We’re here to help you understand what dietitians do, what the outlook for jobs is, what the requirements are, the dietetics education you’ll need, and how to navigate the process.
What Is a Dietitian?
Food and nutrition experts, a dietitian (sometimes spelled dietician) is trained at identifying and treating problems related to people’s nutrient intakes, or lack thereof.
As such, RDs and RDNs are required to study both dietetics (the science of food) and nutrition, take several years of science (like chemistry, physiology, biology, and biochemistry), earn a college degree, complete a supervised practice program and sit for a national registration exam—all of which will take four to five years.
As you read this, you might be wondering if a dietitian and a nutritionist are the same. They are not. While both deal with nutrition and some tasks seem similar, the education and training required for the two jobs is significantly different.
A nutritionist is generally required to have only a high school diploma (or GED) and to study nutrition in a certificate program, which usually takes six months or so. Though one can get a bachelor’s or a higher degree in nutrition. When in doubt, follow this wisdom from the Academy: “All registered dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians.”
Is Becoming a Dietitian Worth It?
With job growth for dietitians expected to be 7% over the course of 2021-2031, and earnings increasing at a rate higher than inflation—and higher than average compared to other jobs—the future for dietitians is bright. Opportunities for dietitians have rapidly expanded in the past few years as dietitians have moved into new roles and workplace settings.
“Growing public awareness of the importance of diet in relation to health has dramatically increased the demand for dietitians,” according to Seattle-based Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). “Primary care physicians average 2,300 patients per year,” Hultin says.
During your annual check-up, there is a good chance your doctor tells you to change your diet to improve your health, but has no time to explain in detail how to go about doing that. That scenario makes private consulting one of the fastest growing jobs for dietitians. “That’s what I do,” Hultin says. “Having your own RDN makes sense as part of your care team whether you’re perfectly ‘healthy’ or you’ve got some things to work on.”
How to Become a Dietitian – Step by Step Guide
Step 1 – Decide Where You Want to Work
Dietitians work in a wide variety of settings and serve in a number of diverse roles. An associate’s degree can prepare you for an entry-level jobs such as a dietetic technician, dietetic service supervisor or nutrition assistant.
Registered Dietitians (RDs) and Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) (the titles are interchangeable), who hold at least a bachelor’s degree, are trained to provide scientific-based food and nutrition services, counseling, and education to individuals and groups. Once primarily found in large clinical institutions like hospitals, medical centers, doctor’s offices, and long-term care facilities, dietitians are now working in more public-facing settings:
On the job, you’ll find dietitians working in a variety of jobs:
Duties might include:
Some dietitians will choose to specialize in certain areas of practice and become board certified in focus areas like Oncology Nutrition, Sports Dietetics, Pediatric Critical Care Nutrition, or Renal Nutrition. You’ll love the diversity and options available to you in this career.
Step 2 – Budget For & Choose Your Schooling Format
Costs range widely depending on the school, its location, whether you are a resident or non-resident and the degree you seek. In general, average total costs for tuition, fees, room and board are around $20,000 per year to earn a bachelor’s at a public university and $41,000 a year at a private university.
For graduate degrees, average total cost to pursue a master’s is $25,000, while a research-focused doctoral degree costs $32,000. There are grants and scholarships, as well as financial aid, available at all levels for students in dietetic programs at accredited schools.
Can You Become a Licensed Dietitian Online?
If your crazy, busy personal schedule has you wondering if online education is a possibility, you are in luck. ACEND-accredited online classes are available and many people take them, especially for continuing education. In addition, ACEND has also reviewed and accredited several bachelor’s and master’s online degree programs. It is possible to complete substantially all of the course work for a degree at both the bachelor’s level and master’s level, with two possible exceptions. Science courses that require lab work may need to be taken at on onsite location (arrangements can be made for distance learning students to do that locally) and the supervised hands-on practice requirement is usually done onsite as well.
Step 3 – Earn Your Dietitian Degree
What Should I Study to Become a Dietitian?
Currently, to become an RD or RDN, the minimum educational requirement is typically a bachelor’s degree (in any subject) granted by a U.S. regionally accredited college or university and with course work accredited by the Academy’s Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND®).
Upcoming Changes to Educational Requirements
However, beginning January 1, 2024, the minimum educational requirement for new RDs and RDNs will be a graduate degree, such as a master’s or PhD. Many students already opt for a master’s degree because their earnings potential is higher with a graduate degree. (This new requirement will not affect current RDs and RDNs.)
How Long Does It Take To Become a Dietitian?
It will generally take you four or five years to complete your bachelor’s degree. A master’s degree will take an additional two to three years, depending on what your undergraduate major was. If you did not take all the basic science requirements as an undergrad, you’ll need to take them as a post-grad student.
How to Become a Registered Dietitian if You Already Have a Degree?
Not to worry if you’ve already graduated, have been working for a few years and your bachelor’s is not in dietetics, nutrition, or a related field. There is an education pathway for you. You’ll complete the prerequisites for science and math post-graduation. Then you enroll in a graduate program.
Hultin was an English major as an undergrad and worked as a fitness trainer when she made the decision to become a dietician. She went back to school for more than two years to prepare for her enrollment as a graduate student at Bastyr University. Was it worth it? “Yes, 100%,” Hultin says. “Becoming an RDN was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
For those who attend a community college and earn an associate’s degree in dietetics, nutrition, or a related field, you will be able to work in an entry level job. You won’t, however, be eligible to take the Academy’s Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) National Registration Exam and may not use the RD or RDN designation until you complete your bachelor’s degree and fulfill the other requirements for test eligibility.
Step 4 – Complete an ACEND-Accredited Practice Program
You will also need to complete an accredited supervised practice program for hands-on experience at a health care facility, community agency, or a food service corporation. These programs generally run six to 12 months and may be combined with an undergraduate program or graduate studies. To be eligible to take the national registration exam, the CDR requires completion of a minimum of 1,200 hours of supervised practice.
During your supervised practice rotations, you’ll be assigned to work in different areas (like clinical care, pediatrics, surgery, health promotion, and food services) and will perform duties that RDs and RDNs normally handle. It’s hard work, but very rewarding—and it gives you the chance to explore different practice areas to determine which best fit your interests and talents.
There are three options for supervised practice:
Step 5 – Pass the CDR’s National Registration Examination
Once you have completed your accredited supervised practice program, you’ll be eligible to take the national registration examination. When you successfully pass that exam, you become a registered dietitian and may use either the RD or RDN credential, whichever your prefer. In recent years, RDN has become the credential of choice for professionals in this field.
Step 6 – Get Licensed or Certified in Your State
Because of the medical nature of the work, earning dietitian credentials is a far more stringent complicated process than many people may think, especially if you’re also exploring studying and working as a nutritionist.
Common State Requirements
In fact, to legally practice as an RD or a RDN—titles most employers demand dietitians have—most states require the following to become licensed or certified (note that different states use both terms somewhat interchangeably):
In addition, to maintain and renew your license, you’ll need to complete about 75 hours of continuing education every five years.
Voluntary Board Certification
Beyond licensing through your state, you can choose to pursue voluntary board certification through the NCBTMB. Certification symbolizes a certain level of expertise and commitment by demonstrating that you’ve gone above and beyond the entry-level requirements. Maintaining your certification involves a good amount of continuing education, so employers and clients will know that you’re dedicated to staying on top of the latest advancements in the field.
(Optional) Earn Specialty Certifications
Once you’ve been practicing, the CRD also offers certifications in specialized areas of dietetics such as oncology nutrition, pediatric nutrition, sports dietetics, and others. To earn any of these certifications, you must have held RD or RDN status for two years, have 2,000 hours of practice experience in the specialty area within the last five years, and pass the appropriate exam. To maintain certification, you’ll need to provide documentation for another 2,000 hours of specialty experience and retake the exam every five years.
Step 7 – Keep Up with the Industry Trends
Whether you’re just getting started in school or looking for courses to add to your skill set, staying on top of the latest dietitian practices, philosophies, and changes in the industry is key to staying current and competitive in order to offer clients a full spectrum of services. These blogs, podcasts, newsfeeds, association journals, and social media feeds will help keep you in the know.
Professional Resources for Registered Dietitians
Are you an aspiring student? Newly minted Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)? Or an experienced professional at the pinnacle of your career? Whichever stage you’re at, you’ll benefit from access to a wide range of available resources for the dietetics community.
These include professional organizations, journals, podcasts, websites, blogs, and more that offer information and support—and the occasional touch of humor.
Get access to current industry news, trends, and research that will help expand your knowledge and your opportunities for mentoring, jobs, and continuing education throughout your studies and career.
The Importance of Staying Connected in the Dietetics Field
As your journey begins or continues, you’ll join a vibrant community of like-minded practitioners, gain information, seek advice, offer input in various forums, and build your personal network. You’ll continue to learn about subjects like the latest in dietetic science, how to build your own consultancy, trends in the industry, innovative online dietitian degrees, and new options for continuing education. You’ll stay up-to-date—and connected.
“Resources like these are invaluable to those thinking about a career change, students and professionals; you’ll refer to them often as your studies and career progress,” says Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Some of her recommendations are included below.
Hultin herself is a career changer and consulted several of these resources on her journey to an RDN credential. Initially a personal trainer after college, Hultin decided to pursue a master’s in nutrition, and moved to Chicago for a rigorous dietetic internship at Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Hospital.
She stayed in the city for five years, working in a clinical practice before returning to Seattle and starting ChampagneNutrition.com. Hultin says she still refers to many of these sources everyday. Once you establish your own set of go-to sources, you’ll do the same.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
With more than 100,000 credentialed practitioners, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) is the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals.
Founded in 1917, the Academy is committed to improving the nation’s health and advancing the profession of dietetics through research, education and advocacy. Members include Registered Dietitians and Registered Dietitian Nutritionists; Dietetic Technicians, Registered; other dietetics and nutrition professionals holding undergraduate and advanced degrees in nutrition and dietetics; and students pursuing under graduate and graduate degrees.
The Academy is the place to start for all things related to nutrition and dietetics—from requirements for credentialing and lists of accredited colleges to definitions of terms, job opportunities, dietitian salaries, and continuing education options—plus everything in between. We’ve listed some of the main links below that you’ll find essential to your education, career development, and networking.
Career resources, including resume development, interview techniques, and career guidance
RDN career path info for those changing careers
Listing of all accredited undergraduate and graduate programs
Job postings for job seekers and employers
Resources to manage practice and career, from standards of practice tools to marketing tips
RD/RDN Fact Sheet
Education requirements and career options
Dietetic Practice Groups
Interest groups for areas of focus, such as diabetes, clinical nutrition, or healthy aging
State Affiliate Groups
State dietetic associations
Associations and Organizations
While the Academy is the dominant organization in the field of dietetics and nutrition, there are other organizations that will be of interest to you, depending on your practice area and interests.
These groups provide access to current industry news, trends, and research that will help expand your knowledge. You may also benefit from programs for mentoring, networking, job opportunities, and continuing education that they may provide.
We’ve listed a representative sample of these professional organizations here. (Note: While RDNs may have an interest that aligns with some of the following groups, RDN credentialing is done through the Academy.)
Journals, Magazines, and News
Following these publications, and others like them, will keep you up to date on what your professional colleagues are writing about and reading—and, just as importantly, what your clients are seeing in the news.
Written and reported by:
Natural Healers Team
With professional insight from:
Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO