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. 

As obesity continues to be a major health problem among both adults and children, these healthcare professionals teach the public to eat better. As part of this effort, they educate 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.

Before going any further, it is important to find out if you have the necessary skills to succeed in this occupation. While your formal education will teach you how to do your job, there are some things you won't get through your professional training. Dietitians need certain personal qualities to succeed in this field. If you weren't born with these particular soft skills, you will have to develop them through your life experiences.

Dietitians, for example, must be excellent communicators. If you don't have superior active listing skills, you will be unable to understand what your clients are telling you. It will be difficult to convey information to them if you do not have exceptional verbal communication skills

To keep up with the literature in your field, you need strong reading comprehension skills. You must also be sensitive to your clients' needs. Take the Dietitian Quiz to find out if you have what it takes to make it in this field.

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. You will also have to decide whether 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 earn it, you will have to complete an ACEND-accredited six to 12-month supervised internship and pass an exam. It will also be necessary to complete continuing professional education requirements to maintain your status. This designation indicates to prospective employers that you are a job candidate that has met certain standards.

ACEND accredits two types of programs: Didactic Programs in Dietetics (DPD) and Coordinated Programs in Dietetics (CP). Depending on the school you attend, you can earn either a bachelor's or a master's degree.

In a DPD, you 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. If you instead enroll in a CP, you will learn the foundations of dietetic practice and, simultaneously, complete the practical training needed to become an RD.

When you begin college, the first thing you will have to do is fulfill your school's general education requirements by taking science, social science, and humanities classes. Eventually, 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. 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 includes classes in math, chemistry, and biology. 

Check with each program in which you are interested to learn about its application process. 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 if 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, do some research to see if 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, possibly getting your RD credential, and obtaining a professional license if required to do so, you will be 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"