How to Become a Dietitian

Alternate Career Titles:

Registered Dietitian, RD

Dietitian Job Description: Dietitians promote healthy living through expert advice on the nutritional value of food intake.

Dietitian Salary (Annual): $58,920

Dietitian Salary Range: $36,470 to $82,410

How Long To Become a Dietitian: 4 years

Dietitian Requirements: Bachelor’s Degree in Dietetics or Nutrition

Dietician Medical Career

Become a Dietitian

Career Description

A Dietitian is responsible for assessing patient dietary needs for the benefit of their overall health. Based on these assessments, Dietitians will provide counsel on areas of concern and best practices regarding eating habits. Furthermore, they often help patients by developing meal and nutrition plans to help promote enhanced health outcomes.

In creating these plans, Registered Dietitians (RD) must consider patient preferences and financial constraints. Once a meal plan is created, a Dietitian will evaluate the plans effectiveness over periods of time, documenting patient progress and adjusting the components of the plan as needed. In addition to evaluating the health of their clients and advising them on beneficial nutrition choices, these professionals will often create educational materials for the general public and keep up-to-date on, or contribute to, nutritional research.

Dietitians may also implement Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT) to treat certain chronic conditions. This evidence-based medical approach uses an individually-tailored nutrition plan to counsel patients on lifestyle changes and self- management skills. The goal of this intervention is to establish positively long term eating habits and health.

Outside of the clinical setting, RDs have an incredibly wide range of responsibilities. They can be tasked with determining tube feeding calculations, educating others through classes, optimizing food service management at a designated facility or setting and much more. Healthcare professionals who may recommend that their patient seeks out a Dietitian include Registered Nurses, Nurse Practitioners, Physician Assistants and Surgeons.

“I enjoy my career as a Dietitian, mostly because I can make the career cater to my professional preferences,” Ana Reisdorf, RD, a Dietitian practicing in Tennessee, said. “In the 11 years I have been an RD, I have worked in several different capacities including at hospitals, outpatient clinics and in a university setting.”

Dietitian vs. Nutritionist Note: Many people think that a Nutritionist is qualified to hold the same responsibilities as a Dietitian. However, a Nutritionist may not have the education and experience that is required to become a Dietitian. Prior to becoming a Registered Dietitian, a professional must either obtain an undergraduate degree or master’s degree in nutrition and dietetics. They must then complete an internship program and take a registration examination. Once credentialed by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, a Dietitian may use the title of “Registered Dietitian” or “Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.” This credential must be maintained via continuing education periodically every five years. Learn about other careers in nutrition dietetics today!

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Education & Training

To become a Dietitian, professionals must obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in either dietetics, public health nutrition, clinical nutrition or a related field. Through these areas of study, learners can expect to receive instruction in nutrition, psychology, biology and other science-related topics. They will also be expected to complete several hundred hours (usually at least 1,200) of supervised training, perhaps as clinical training or in the form of an internship.

While many Dietitians choose to pursue an additional Master’s Degree, a Bachelor’s Degree is all that is required to practice along with a license and state registration or certification (depending on a state’s requirements). For example, to become an RD, a professional must pass an exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), which is the credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. To maintain this credential, Dietitians must complete 75 hours of continued education every 5 years.

“To be an RD you must complete a certain number of dietetic courses, and this usually takes about 4 to 5 years to complete,” Reisdorf confirmed. “These courses include instruction on food service, biochemistry, nutritional biochemistry, medical nutrition therapy, community nutrition, etc. I think the science is much more challenging than many people may think, but the curriculum is very chemistry and biology intensive.”

Reisdorf added that once a learner completes this course work, they have to apply for a year-long (and usually unpaid) internship which will provide them with the practical training needed. Next, they must sit to take their registration exam.

“I think one of the challenges now is that internships are very hard to get into and so many people wait several years before being accepted,” Reisdorf noted.

Advancement

To advance as a Dietitian, many professionals choose to pursue a specialty. One such specialty area is to become a Management Dietitian, or a professional who is responsible for planning food programs within food service settings (i.e. hospitals, prisons, schools, etc.). Another possible specialty is as a Clinical Dietitian, a dietary professional dedicated to providing healthcare nutrition therapy. Clinical Dietitians can find employment in long-term care facilities, and may become further specialized in assisting patients with specific conditions (i.e. digestive disorders, intolerance, diabetes, etc.).

Community Dietitians focus on counseling the general public in a variety of settings (government, clinics, non-profit agencies, etc.) on topics involving health, food and nutrition. Additional certification is possible through the Commission on Dietetic Registration in a specialty area of practice, such as sports dietetics, oncology nutrition, or pediatric nutrition.

“To advance in this career a Dietitian could consider obtaining a Master’s Degree, but having this advanced degree does not always guarantee job advancement,” Reisdorf explained. “Personally, I think if you want to make more serious income, you need to start your own business of some kind.”

Experience & Skills

An effective Dietitian possesses extensive knowledge about the ways in which food and nutrition affect health. They must be able to use problem-solving skills to determine the needs of their clients, and create appropriate and reasonable meal plans based on these needs. A dietitians must also be able to assess whether or not their plans are working, and alter them according to their findings. Furthermore, these professionals should be able to listen to their patients, help them understand their goals, and be efficient communicators. Through discussion, clients should have a clear understanding of the goals, costs and restrictions of their meal plan.

“The most important experience and training is obtained during your course work and internship,” Reisdorf stressed.

Personality

Dietitians themselves should be mindful of good health, and enjoy promoting strong nutritional practices among others. They should also be kind and considerate to those struggling with health-related topics such as obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels, etc. They should genuinely want to see the health of their patients improve, while being supportive and caring about their emotional needs. Thus, Dietitians must also be empathetic and able to understand how difficult a change in diet can be for some individuals.

“In this career, professionals need to be able to work well with an interdisciplinary team, be detail oriented and be very, very patient,” Reisdorf explained. “Dietitians should also be task-oriented, and most RDs are very type-A personalities.”

Lifestyle

Most Dietitians work full-time, although about 25 percent choose to seek part-time employment. Depending on the employer, Dietitians may be asked to work evenings or weekends to accommodate the schedules and needs of their clients. Additionally, due to the nature of their work, most Dietitians choose to live healthy lifestyles themselves. Learn more about other careers in healthcare and their lifestyles.

“RDs work in so many capacities, meaning that everyday is different. Most play some sort of role in seeing patients, either in an outpatient or inpatient setting, creating nutrition plans for these patients or having some hand in food service.”

Employment

Now is a great time to begin a career as a Dietitian! Over the next decade, employment of these professionals is projected to increase 15 percent. This growth can be attributed to an increasing number of the population who are obese, and therefore require the services of Dietitians to help change their eating habits. Along with obesity, a greater demand for preventative healthcare measures has increased interest in health and wellness and thus the need for Dietitians to help the public make healthy food choices. Family Physicians and Counselors will often suggest that patients struggling with obesity seek out a Dietitian. The aging baby boom population further increases the need for these professionals, as the longevity of their lives is largely depending on healthy choices.

The majority of Dietitians are employed by state, local and private hospitals, followed by the government, outpatient care centers, nursing homes and residential care facilities. Additionally, approximately 6 percent are self-employed. The state with the highest level of employment within this occupation is California, followed by New York, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania.

“The career outlook is very strong for Dietitians, as most medical facilities are required to have an RD on staff,” Reisdorf said. “When seeking employment, begin networking, and by reviewing online career postings which are a great place to start searching.”

Earnings

Employment as a Dietitian can be financially rewarding! The median annual wage for Dietitians was $58,920. While the top 10 percent of earners made more than $82,410, the lowest earning 10 percent were recorded to have made less than $36,470. The highest paying employers include outpatient care centers, hospitals, nursing homes, residential care facilities and the government. The top paying states for this occupation are California, Maryland, Oregon, Hawaii and New Jersey.

“The pay in this career is about average”, adding “unless you open your own business, then you aren’t as limited in salary,” Reisdorf said. “I would say most RDs earn somewhere between $40,000 to $80,000 a year.”

Unions, Groups and Associations

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) is an organization dedicated to assisting the government in conserving food while improving the health and nutrition of the public. This organization is also committed to improving and advancing dietetics through advocacy, research and education.

Getting Started

  • Shadow a Dietitian
  • Find an accredited secondary education program and enroll
  • Apply for an internship
  • Network with career professionals
  • Pass the RD exam

All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Dietitian Ana ReisdorfMeet the professional: Ana Reisdorf, RD

Age: 38
Practice: Contractor
Location: Franklin, TN

What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?

“I would suggest someone trying to become a Dietitian study hard, even though those chemistry classes are rough.”

What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?

“The biggest mistake some people make coming into this career is that they think they are going to make a lot of money.”

What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?

“I am not sure people really understand how technical this career is. I think they think being a Dietitian is just about telling people to ‘eat healthy,’ when the career is not about that at all.”

Why did you choose to become a Dietitian?

“I wanted a flexible career that would allow me to have a family. I also love science and eating!”

If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?

“Determination.”

Credentialing organization: Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics

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