What Steps Should I Take to Become a Registered Dietician?

The decision to become a registered dietician, or RD, could very well be a life-changing one. With job opportunities for nutritionists and dieticians growing in the United States right now, this valuable credential has a very real possibility of leading to a rewarding career in the health and wellness industry. Registered dieticians not only make above-average salaries, but they often find personal fulfillment in their roles as patient counselors and advocates as well. As the country’s baby boomer population ages and people of all ages become more cognizant of the role nutrition plays in personal health, the need for registered dieticians trained to provide nutritional advice continues to grow.

If this information about employment opportunities for dieticians piques your interest, you may be wondering what exactly it takes to become a registered dietician. You’ve come to the right place, then. In this article, our experts outline the precise steps one needs to take in order to become credentialed as a practicing RD.

What Is a Registered Dietitian?

Before we delve into the precise steps you need to take to become a Registered Dietician (RD) in the United States, let’s take a moment to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the occupation at hand. The truth is that RDs are often confused with nutritionists because many of their tasks and responsibilities are the same. While job duties may overlap, there is a distinct difference between the positions of nutritionist and dietician. The main difference between the two jobs has more to do with training and regulations as well as individual employer’s requirements than with actual functions and obligations, though. Still, there are some things registered dieticians can do that nutritionists may not be able to, such as diagnosing eating disorders and other conditions related to personal nutrition and providing medical nutrition therapy.

What Do Registered Dieticians Do?

Like nutritionists, registered dieticians support individuals as they strive to maintain wellness through nutritional choices. These licensed professionals often work in hospitals, outpatient care centers, and other healthcare facilities where they advise patients and clients on necessary dietary changes to fight various healthcare conditions like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease, for instance. They may also provide advice and resources for people looking to achieve health and wellness goals such as losing weight or increasing energy levels, for example.

Some registered dieticians specialize in a certain sub-field of nutrition or dietetics. For example, some RDs may work specifically with patients who suffer from certain health conditions like diabetes or kidney disease. These RD specialists create detailed nutrition plans for their individual patients and counsel them as to how to treat their condition with medical nutrition therapy.

Other registered dieticians specialize in management, overseeing the operations of a food service program such as those in institutions like schools, hospitals, and prisons. These types of RDs need specific leadership skills as they manage other nutrition professionals and plan daily operations for food procurement, preparation, and service.

Job and Career Information for Registered Dieticians

The Registered Dietician (RD) credential is a sought-after credential because it opens up many doors of opportunity for trained nutrition and dietetics professionals. Although the field is currently growing faster than average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), it is still relatively small, so competition for available positions is strong. The 11% projected growth in the industry between 2020 and 2030 will result in approximately 7,800 new jobs for dieticians and nutritionists. Many employers prefer those candidates who hold the RD license over other applicants with just a nutrition degree.

The occupation of a registered dietician is also associated with higher-than-average wages as well, compared to other jobs in the US. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for dieticians and nutritionists in 2020 was over $63,000 with top earners in the field making more than $90,000 that same year. It’s clear that taking the steps to become a registered dietician can increase your earning potential while you help others achieve their wellness goals. It’s a win-win situation!

How to Become a Registered Dietitian in 2022

If all of this good news about the career prospects for registered dieticians has you thinking about pursuing a nutrition degree, you should know that there are very specific guidelines for becoming a registered dietician. The requirements for becoming a Registered Dietician (RD) in the United States are established by the Commission on Dietetic Registration of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. These same requirements have been in place for years. They include:

  • A bachelor’s degree (or higher) from a regionally accredited college or university
  • Completed coursework approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
  • An extensive supervised internship
  • A passing score on the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s Registered Dietician (RD) exam

Let’s discuss each of these requirements in more detail.

Bachelor’s in Nutrition (or Related Field)

To become a Registered Dietician, a four-year nutrition degree or degree in dietetics is preferred. This degree can be a traditional, face-to-face program, or it may be a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics online program, so long as it is from a regionally accredited college or university. Receiving an undergraduate degree specific to the field of dietetics and nutrition is the most direct pathway towards the RD credential.

Students who hold an undergraduate degree in another field may still be able to achieve the RD credential if their coursework is approved by the Accreditation Council for Education and Dietetics (ACEND), however. To seek approval, individuals should submit their undergraduate transcript to the program director of the ACEND-accredited dietetics program they’re considering for evaluation. The director will then approve or disapprove courses that can be applied to a dietetics program and recommend further coursework to fill any gaps in the student’s transcript. Additional required coursework may span topics in the nutrition/dietetics discipline such as biochemistry, pharmacology, foodservice systems, microbiology, culinary arts, physiology, and organic chemistry, for example.

Dietetics Internship

It is a common misconception that Registered Dieticians need just a nutrition degree at the bachelor’s level in order to become credentialed. The reality is that becoming licensed is a much more rigorous process. In addition to a nutrition degree (online or otherwise), prospective RDs must also complete an extensive internship requirement to become eligible for the Registered Dietician credential. This internship must include at least 1200 hours of supervised practice in the field of nutrition and dietetics. Individuals who intend to fulfill this requirement should look for an Individualized Supervised Practice Pathway (ISPP) program or a Coordinated Program (CP) in Dietetics. Either of these options is suitable for fulfilling the formal internship requirement.

Completing an internship in nutrition and dietetics is arguably the most rigorous part of becoming a registered dietician. Moreover, meeting the Dietetics Internship requirement may be particularly concerning for distance learning students who opt to complete their nutrition degree online. To help alleviate this concern, many online colleges for dietetics programs have allowed their students to complete this internship at their place of employment or another facility near their location as opposed to on or near campus.

Registered Dietician (RD) Examination

The final component of the complex process of becoming a registered dietician is taking and passing the official exam for licensure. The Registered Dietician (RD) exam is administered by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Commission on Dietetic Registration at more than 250 official test locations each year. The exam is comprised of four basic sections:

  • Nutrition Care for Individuals and Groups
  • Principles of Dietetics
  • Management of Food and Nutrition Programs and Services
  • Foodservice Systems

Specific subtopics assessed on the official RD exam include:

  • Food Science and Nutrition Composition of Foods
  • Sanitation and Safety
  • Nutrition and Supporting Sciences
  • Equipment and Facility Planning
  • Screening and Assessment of Nutrition Care
  • Menu Development

The RD exam is scored on a scale of 1 to 50, and test-takers must achieve a score of 25 or higher in order to pass. While coursework in a traditional or online nutrition degree program is designed to prepare students for success on this exam, some test preparation prior to exam day is recommended. Many prospective RDs complete study guides or practice tests before taking the official licensing test.

Changing Requirements for Registered Dieticians

While it’s possible in 2022 to become a dietician with just a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, dietetics, or a related field, this won’t be the case for very long. Beginning January 1, 2024, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Commission on Dietetic Registration will require that Registered Dieticians hold a graduate degree before they can be eligible to sit for the official registration exam for dieticians. This change was made (at least in part) in order to keep up with the increase in educational requirements for other occupations in the broader field of healthcare. In 2012, the Council on Future Practice found that the curriculum taught in graduate-level nutrition degree programs was commensurate with the knowledge and skills required of registered dieticians today.

About Online Master’s in Nutrition Programs for Registered Dieticians

Colleges and universities around the country are taking note of the elevated eligibility requirements for registered dieticians and are responding to the demand for convenient, accessible master’s in nutrition degree programs. As a result, there are numerous online master’s in nutrition and dietetics programs that are currently accepting new students. These programs enable non-traditional students like parents and career-changers to earn the necessary RD-eligible credentials without the hassle of attending classes in person. For students interested in earning a graduate-level nutrition degree via distance learning, there are both hybrid and fully online master’s in nutrition programs available. To accommodate their distance learners, many online college for dietetics programs allow students to choose a nearby location where they can conveniently complete the supervised internship component of the degree plan. To find the best online nutrition programs, we recommend considering factors like accreditation, curriculum, cost, and scheduling options.

Maintaining the Registered Dietician (RD) Credential

While a nutrition degree can prepare students for initial licensure as a registered dietician, it is up to them to maintain their credentials. The Commission on Dietetics Registration requires that RDs fulfill a professional development requirement every five years in order to keep their license. This requirement mandates that registered dieticians earn at least 75 professional development credits during the five-year cycle to achieve recertification. This requirement is put in place by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to ensure that registered dieticians practicing in the field at any given time are trained in current, research-backed practices and trends in the industry. When their certification cycle is nearing its end, registered dieticians must submit a portfolio of their professional development hours to the Academy for evaluation. A successful review means the dietician can become recertified and continue practicing as a registered dietician for another five years.

Developing Personal and Professional Qualities of a Successful Registered Dietician

As is the case with most occupations, registered dieticians need skills and characteristics that can’t be taught in their nutrition degree programs. Instead, these qualities must be intentionally developed over time through a commitment to personal and professional growth as well as practice in the field. In this section, we’ll briefly discuss some of the necessary qualities of a successful registered dietician identified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Compassion and Empathy

Like all professionals in the health care industry, registered dieticians will interact with individuals who are suffering from physical ailments that affect their quality of life. In order to effectively help these patients, RDs must interact with them in a way that expresses their compassion for the person’s situation. When compassion and empathy are absent, the work of a registered dietician is compromised. That’s because clients are unlikely to accept nutritional advice from someone who does not appear to care for them or their well-being.

Organization

Registered dieticians are required to keep thorough and detailed files on each of their patients. Ensuring that these files are kept in a safe place yet readily available to patients and other health care staff requires advanced organizational skills. Errors in record-keeping or misplaced files can have a negative impact on a patient’s health.

While a nutrition degree (online or traditional) doesn’t usually address organization skills directly, students can practice these skills while in school studying for a nutrition degree so that they’re prepared to apply them in the field after graduation.

Communication Skills

A significant portion of the work of a registered dietician requires communicating directly with patients, whether verbally or in writing. Thus, these nutrition professionals must have exceptional written and oral communication skills. They must be able to communicate clearly and in plain language as they explain dietary principles to clients. Failure to do so can compromise the overall health and wellbeing of their patients.

While coursework in a nutrition degree program can help students develop written communication skills, oral communication must be practiced during the supervised internship period prior to becoming a registered dietician.

Becoming a Registered Dietician (RD) is not something that happens overnight. On the contrary, it is a lengthy and somewhat complex process that requires years of study and adherence to certain regulatory guidelines. Still, those students with a desire to complete a nutrition degree and fulfill the other various requirements of becoming licensed as a registered dietician, there are many rewards to be enjoyed, both personally and professionally.

Sources:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Commission on Dietetic Registration

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Council on Future Practice Visioning Report Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook: Dieticians and Nutritionists

Bambi Majumdar
Author

Melissa Anderson
Expert

Julie McCaulley
Editor-in-Chief