How to Become a Registered Dietitian
In 2013 there were 89,300 Registered Dietitians in the United States, and this number has been steadily rising (6). The need for Registered Dietitians is increasing in the United States due to the rise of food insecurity, the Baby Boomer generation entering into geriatric care, and the obesity epidemic, among a variety of other factors. Becoming a Registered Dietitian, however, is not as easy as surfing the web and taking an online course to become a certified “nutritionist.” Anyone who calls themselves a nutritionist has no regulated specialty or certification, but the specific details about the differences between dietitians and nutritionists will be explained in a future article. This difference does, though, lend itself to the question: what is a Registered Dietitian, and how do you become one?
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the definition of a Registered Dietitian (RD) is “a food and nutrition expert who can translate the science of nutrition into practical solutions for healthy living.” RDs use their nutrition expertise to help people of varying backgrounds and medical histories make unique, positive lifestyle changes to benefit their overall health (7). Dietitians can work in a wide range of settings; they can be employed by hospitals, universities, sports teams, specialty outpatient centers (i.e. eating disorder, bariatric, or gastrointestinal clinics), food banks, schools and universities, private practices, and numerous other settings (2). Dietitians are advocates for preventative care and for advancing the nutritional status of people around the world (7). The road to becoming a Registered Dietitian is not an easy one, but it is well worth it.
The first step to becoming a Registered Dietitian is to obtain the necessary education (3). An RD must complete a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and receive a verification statement from an accredited university. This coursework includes specific classes that must be accredited by ACEND, the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (8). Classes in this curriculum range from science courses such as organic chemistry and human metabolism to courses in other realms, like psychology and nutrition counseling (3). Not all universities that offer nutrition majors hold ACEND accreditation, however; for example, a student graduating with a degree in Nutritional Science from North Carolina State University is unable to become a Registered Dietitian because this school does not offer all of the accredited coursework required to become an RD, and they would need to complete their education elsewhere (10). There may also be multiple options available at universities that are accredited, such as The Pennsylvania State University. Penn State offers “dietetics,” “applied sciences,” and “basic sciences” options. A student interested in becoming an RD must declare the dietetic option of the Nutritional Science major in their spring semester of sophomore year to continue on the path of accredited coursework necessary to become an RD (1). There are varying requirements across different states, but effective January 1, 2024, all students in the United States wishing to become a Registered Dietitian must complete a Master’s degree (5)(9).
The second step to becoming a Registered Dietitian is to get matched to and complete an ACEND-accredited supervised practiced dietetic internship program (3). A dietetic internship is a postbaccalaureate program that provides at least 1200 hours of supervised pre-professional experience (5). A dietetic internship usually lasts six to fourteen months, and to become accepted into an internship, a student must go through what is called the Match (3). The Match is an online process that allows an applicant to submit resumes, cover letters, personal statements, GRE or other test scores, extracurricular activities, honors and achievements, memberships, nutrition-related experience, major GPA and cumulative GPA, work experience, and recommendations. Students submit this information to the programs that they are interested in attending. All of this information is reviewed by these programs, after which they may offer the student an interview. And then it is the waiting game. If a student’s application is strong enough, they will be “matched” with one of the programs that was ranked on the student’s list. In 2015, 49% of the applicants who applied to a dietetic internship were matched (4). If a student is not matched the first time around, they may apply to an Individualized Supervised Practice Pathway, or wait until the next Match and gain nutrition-related experience in the interim that will hopefully make them a more competitive applicant (12).
During the 1200+ hour dietetic internship, an intern will complete a variety of rotations and coursework. Rotations must include clinical dietetics, food service management, and community wellness, and oftentimes also include staff relief and some sort of enrichment rotation. Enrichment rotations may be spent in areas such as an eating disorder clinic, a burn unit, a NICU, or with a sports team. The rotations over the course of the dietetic internship are cumulatively designed to expand knowledge and provide opportunities for the intern to gain independence and grow as a health practitioner (13).
After completing the dietetic internship, the next step to becoming a Registered Dietitian is to pass the RD exam (3). This is a national exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), and passing it is the only way to earn the national RD credential (14).
Once someone passes the RD exam, he or she can officially call themselves a Registered Dietitian! This person will then obtain licensure in the state in which they wish to practice prior to beginning work as a Registered Dietitian. To maintain licensure, an RD must earn 75 continuing education credits with the CDR every five years (3).
Once registered and licensed, a dietitian’s options are limitless. With the ability to optimize a person’s health while preventing or controlling disease risk, they are an asset to any healthcare setting. Dietitians strive to share nutrition information in a relatable way that will help change and save lives, and is a life-changing career that is truly worth the work to become.
RD Nutrition Consultants LLC, is the industry leader in Consultant Dietitian Services Nationwide. We specialize in providing contract Registered Dietitian services in a wide variety of healthcare and wellness organizations.