How to Become a Dietitian

Degree and Licensing Requirements

Dietitians  plan food and nutrition programs in schools, community agencies, colleges, healthcare facilities, and company cafeterias. Some work in private practices. With obesity continuing to be a major health problem among both adults and children, these healthcare professionals  teach the public to eat better, which includes educating us about what foods can harm our health and which ones can protect our well-being. Are you interested in this occupation? Learn how to become a dietitian.

If you decide to pursue this occupation, you will learn a lot through your professional training. There are some things, however, your training won't teach you. If you weren't born with these traits, you will have to develop them through your life experiences. For example, dietitians must be excellent communicators. If you can't understand what your clients are telling you or are unable to convey information to them, it will be impossible to succeed at your job. Since keeping up with the literature in your field is important, you must also have good reading comprehension skills. In addition, you must be sensitive to your clients' needs. Take the Dietitian Quiz to find out if this career is for you.

What Education Do You Need?

Dietitian students
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What degree should you earn if you want to become a dietitian? The short answer is a bachelor's degree in dietetics, foods and nutrition, food service systems management, or a related area. It gets a bit more complicated, however, as you have to decide whether or not to become a Registered Dietitian (RD).

RD is a credential the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics grants to graduates of programs approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). To become a Registered Dietitian one must have also completed an ACEND-accredited six to 12 month supervised internship and passed an exam. RDs maintain their status by completing continuing professional education requirements. This designation indicates to prospective employers that job candidates have met certain qualifications.

ACEND accredits two types of programs: Didactic Programs in Dietetics (DPD) and Coordinated Programs in Dietetics (CP). Some result in a bachelor's degree and others in a master's degree. In a DPD, students will study the foundations of dietetic practice and upon graduation will be able to apply for an ACEND-approved supervised practice program, also known as an internship. Students who are enrolled in a CP learn the foundations of dietetic practice and complete the practical training needed to become an RD at the same time.

While in college, you will first fulfill your school's general education requirements by taking science, social science, and humanities classes. Then you will take courses that are specific to your major, whether it's culinary nutrition, dietetics, or foods and nutrition. While accredited programs must meet the standards for dietetics education set forth by ACEND, there is no other requirement regarding precisely what courses they must offer. For example, at a program in culinary nutrition, like the one at Johnson & Wales University, you will take culinary arts classes in addition to nutrition courses. The dietetics curriculum at Georgia State University's Division of Nutrition emphasizes community health and nutrition. Here are some examples that illustrate the wide variety of classes that all may result in one becoming a registered dietitian:

  • Community Nutrition
  • Human Nutrition
  • Medical Nutrition Therapy
  • Nutritional Chemistry
  • Applied Nutrition Counseling
  • Lifespan Nutrition
  • Medical Ethics
  • Spa Cuisine
  • Vegetarian Cuisine

While a bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement to become a dietitian, some people decide to earn a master's degree instead. This option would appeal to a student who is already an RD but would like advanced training, or one who has a bachelor's degree in another area of study and would like to become a registered dietitian. The student who is not already an RD should enroll in a graduate level program that is accredited by ACEND.

How to Get Into a Dietetics Program

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Admission requirements vary by program. Most undergraduate programs accept students directly out of high school and often require that one's transcript include classes in math, chemistry, and biology. Check with the programs you are interested in to learn about their application processes. Graduate programs are geared toward career changers or dietetic professionals who seek advanced training.

What Will You Have to Do After Graduation?

Graduation Day
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As discussed earlier, students who wish to become RDs must complete an ACEND-approved practice program (internship) and sit for a written examination. Forty-six states require dietitians, whether or not they are RDs, to be licensed or certified. Without this license or certification, you will not be able to work as a dietitian in those states. You are advised to check with the state in which you want to work to find out whether a license or certification is required, and if one is, what the specific regulations are. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics maintains a list of contact information for individual states: State Licensure Agency Contact List.

You may have heard of the job title "nutritionist." Some RDs use it, as do other people. Before you decide to call yourself a nutritionist, you check to see whether the state in which you want to practice regulates the use of that term.

How to Get Your First Job As a Dietitian

Dietitian in white lab coat
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After graduating from college, becoming an RD if you so choose, and getting a professional license if required, you are now ready to look for work. Job announcements in various sources had the following specifications:

  • "Knowledge of wide range of chronic diseases, prognosis, medication, treatment methods and disease response to medical nutrition therapy"
  • "High level of self-direction to work independently"
  • "Training in cost control, food management, diet therapy, etc."
  • "Ability to effectively communicate with hospital staff, physicians and patients"

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