What Does a Dietitian Do?

woman writing healthy menu
woman dietitian creating healthy diet

Dietitians have traditionally been associated with the medical community, hospitals, nursing homes, schools and other institutions. But over the last decade the role has expanded quite a bit, and the field is expanding, too, with more places to work and more career pathways than ever before. 

That’s not a surprise to Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, a Seattle-based registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who says that two factors, the rise in preventative care and eco-conscious food consumption are driving the increase in job growth for registered dietitians. “With the medical community focusing more on preventive care, the public now has an increased awareness of the critical importance of nutrition, food, diet and lifestyle in everyday life,” says Hultin.

The focus on preventive care and eco-conscious eating has increased public awareness of the importance of nutrition, food, and diet in healthy living—and that means more opportunities for dietitians.

Additionally, says Hultin, “concern about environmental sustainability and its impact on the food cycle—how it’s grown, how food waste is managed, how climate change impacts supply and quality, and how that might impact the nutritional needs of future generations—is increasing the demand for experienced and knowledgeable dietitians working in public policy, research, academic and government roles, as well as in the food industry.”

With an projected 11% growth in dietitian jobs over the next eight years—and earnings increasing at a higher rate than inflation—there has never been a better time to explore working as a dietitian.

What Kind of Work Does a Dietitian Do?

If you pursue this type of work, you may provide food and nutrition services to individuals and groups in a variety of settings and may work in specialty areas such as weight management, oncology, or pediatrics. Your training and experience governs the setting in which you’ll practice, be it a medical center, health club, university, food service or private practice.

Depending on the job and workplace, you might plan diets and educate patients about how to eat properly to help manage a disease such as diabetes. Or, you may manage menus and food service operations at a school cafeteria or work in product development for a food manufacturer. Another option is to teach at colleges and universities and do advanced research on topics like the impact of nutrition in developing regions around the globe—or how food insecurity impacts the homeless. Perhaps you’ll join the military and establish standards for nutrition in war zones; or work on such exotic challenges as feeding astronauts on the Space Station. You might even start your own company and consult with individuals and families about everyday meal plans for eating healthy.

Some dietitians plan diets for patients; some will do advanced research on the impact of nutrition in developing regions around the globe; some will work on such exotic challenges as feeding astronauts on the Space Station

The common denominator of these various jobs is that the work entails a deep understanding of the sciences of food, nutrition, management, and communication; biological sciences, genetics, pharmacology, chemistry, biochemistry; and physiological, behavioral and social sciences.

“People don’t always realize what it takes to become a dietitian,” Hultin says. “They may not be prepared for the rigorous scientific study required.”

By the time you have the knowledge and training to explain the differences in how the Mediterranean Diet compares to the Keto Diet in a straightforward manner, or why going vegan may be beneficial to a client, you have earned at least a bachelor’s degree at an accredited college. You’ll also have completed an intensive practice internship, working hundreds of hours to gain experience. You will also have passed a national registration exam to earn the coveted RD or RDN (Registered Dietitian or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist—they are essentially interchangeable) credential from the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), the credentialing arm of the Academy. So you’ll be well qualified to handle a number of jobs in a wide range of environments.

As Anne Lund, MPH, RDN, program director of the Graduate Coordinated Program in Dietetics at the University of Washington put it when she was named a Fellow of the Academy: “Since becoming an RDN, I’ve had opportunities to work in Nepal with mothers’ groups, train child care providers on implementing nutrition, studied how state and federal nutrition legislation changes school environments and have been Director of the UW dietetics program for a decade. I love the profession and the variety of work available to me as an RDN.”


Dietitian Career Paths and Typical Workplaces

Dietitians work in a number of fields and in a number of environments. It is a field where job satisfaction runs high, according to the Academy’s latest compensation survey of its members (see more detail on salaries as they relate to the different type of jobs below). Following are the settings in which you might typically work:

Clinical


These jobs are typically in hospitals, clinics, and long-term care facilities. You’ll work with doctors and nurses as a vital member of a patient’s healthcare team, administer medical nutrition therapy, plan diets and educate patients about nutrition. Many develop specific expertise in areas such as diabetes, eating disorders, cancer, pediatrics, and kidney disease.  

Community and Public Health


Working for local, state and national government agencies, professionals in this sector work on programs to educate and advise the public about healthy eating; focusing especially on the needs of families, children, pregnant women, and seniors.

Consulting or Private Practice


If you choose this pathway, you may work in your own business or for a firm that provides staffing to health care or food companies on contract. Dietitians in this segment often provide individual nutrition screening or assessment, weight loss guidance, and nutrition counseling for clients, including those with diet-related health issues.

Food and Nutrition Industries


This area appeals to creative, business-oriented, and entrepreneurial types. Using your knowledge and training, you may work in areas like consumer affairs, public relations, marketing, sales, or product development. You may even work in specialty retail stores helping shoppers identify nutritious meal options for their families.

Food Service


Some RDs and RDNs have a knack for organization and process management and choose to manage institutional food service operations for schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities.

Management


Dietitians with solid experience in operations or general management may also move into senior management and leadership positions in healthcare organizations, food industry companies, trade organizations, and other businesses.

Research and Education


There are opportunities for teaching and doing primary research for individuals in this field with advanced degrees at universities, medical centers, teaching hospitals, governmental agencies, pharmaceutical companies, food industry companies, and other organizations.

Sports and Wellness Nutrition


Professionals working in this field can educate sports professionals, recreational athletes, and athletic teams about the connections between food, fitness, and health. They also provide assessment and nutritional counseling for optimum performance and recovery.

Trade or Professional Organizations


Working for these organizations focuses on supporting their membership and the industries they represent; and educating the public, shaping policy and supporting research in their respective fields.


Areas of Specialization

As you gain experience and expertise in certain areas, you may qualify for board certification by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) for one of the recognized dietetics specialties. “Board Certification signifies the possession of expert knowledge in the field and is not for entry level RDs and RDNs,” explains Hultin. “It is generally for RDs and RDNs with five or more years of experience and hundreds of hours in the specialty.” Hultin herself is a Board Certified Specialist in Oncology and says that the application and documentation process is challenging, as is the comprehensive exam. While it’s not required, many job postings indicate a preference for board certification in some roles. You may earn more and be more likely to move into management positions with board certification.

The CDR offers Board Certification in the following specialties:

Specialists in pediatric nutrition apply evidence-based knowledge in providing medical therapy, usually working directly with healthy or ill children (newborn to 21 years of age), as well as children with special health care needs. RDs and RDNs may also work in management, care coordination, education, quality improvement, or research linked specifically to pediatric nutrition.

Dietitians specializing in Renal-nephrology nutrition work directly with patients with acute kidney injury, chronic kidney disease, or those receiving renal replacement therapies, or they work in management, education, or research linked to renal nutrition.

These healthcare professionals provide care to promote quality of life and optimal health for older adults across the continuum of care in multiple settings including acute care, primary care, long-term assisted living, home care, palliative care, and government programs. They may also focus on gerontological nutrition through roles in management, industry, education, and research.

Certified specialists in pediatric critical care nutrition are experienced RDs and RDNs who apply evidence-based knowledge in providing medical therapy for critically ill infants, children, and adolescents. Additional roles could include care coordination, education, quality improvement, or research linked specifically to pediatric critical care nutrition.

This Board Certification is awarded to registered dietitians working directly with individuals at risk for, or diagnosed with, any type of malignancy or pre-malignant condition, in a variety of settings (hospitals, clinics, cancer centers, hospices, public health), or they work in management, education, industry, or research linked specifically to oncology nutrition.

Specialists in sports dietetics provide individual and team counseling and education to enhance the performance of competitive and recreational athletes. Responsibilities include counseling on daily nutrition, performance, and health; translating the latest scientific evidence into practical sports recommendations and serving as a food and nutrition resource for coaches, support staff and families. These providers may also work in management, education, or research linked specifically to sports dietetics.

RDs and RDNs specializing in obesity and weight management educate, support, and advocate for patients and clients to understand and manage their weight and associated risks through the use of nutritional, behavioral health, medical, surgical, pharmacotherapeutic, and exercise and physical activity interventions.

What Can I Expect to Earn?

It takes a lot of commitment to become a RD or RDN, but it may be worth the effort. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an average annual wage in 2018 of $61,210 (the median is $60,370) for dietitians and nutritionists combined—almost $22,000 more than the median annual wage for all jobs in the U.S. But the Academy’s 2019 Compensation and Benefits survey, which perhaps paints a more accurate salary picture than the BLS data because it is focuses on dietitians only, showed that a full-time RD and RDN median salary was $68,600 per year, an increase of over 8% since the Academy’s last survey done in 2017.

Your earning potential depends on a number of factors including your location, years of experience, and area of specialization. The education and instruction you received will also be a factor. On average, clinical, community and long-term care positions tend to pay less, while senior positions in food and nutrition management, education, and research tend to pay more. Environments in which this line of work tends to earn the highest compensation include trade or professional associations; food, nutrition and pharmaceutical companies; and colleges, universities and academic medical centers. The highest paying roles include executive level positions and those with titles like professor, director of clinical nutrition, corporate dietitian, and dietetic internship director.

Explore annual wages by state

What Sort of Education and Licensing Do I Need?

Just as most states rely on the CDR’s guidelines for competency, so do many companies and organizations that hire dietitians. These organizations routinely specify that an RD or RDN designation is one of the requirements in job postings. Depending on your needs and schedule, you can also pursue your education online.

While it is possible to work as a dietitian in some states and at some companies without the level of education and registration required to be a Registered Dietitian, your opportunities and earnings potential may be limited.

Find out what education you’ll need

Build on Your Education and Career

Regardless of whether you’re getting started in school or looking to become certified in a specialty area, staying on top of changes and developments in the field of dietetics will serve you well. A number of podcasts, newsfeeds, association journals, and social media feeds will help keep you in the know.

Follow these blogs, associations, and professional resources

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