How to Become a Registered Dietitian

Overview

Dietitian listens while seated at a desk

Registered dietitians share the energizing goal of improving the quality of life through nutrition. As experts in human nutrition, these professionals help people to prevent and manage disease by eating the right foods, and they often work closely with physicians to make sure patients receive safe and appropriate nourishment.

Registered dietitians’ expertise in food chemistry, disease process and biology help them to create personalized nutrition plans for patients with a wide variety of nutritional goals. They help patients:

  • Gain or lose weight (obesity, pregnancy, eating disorders)
  • Prevent the onset of disease (diabetes, osteoporosis)
  • Manage chronic conditions (heart disease, high blood pressure)
  • Withstand the rigors of treatment regimens (dialysis for kidney failure)
  • Improve athletic performance

Registered dietitians can take many different career paths. Some work in hospitals providing medical nutrition therapy to the sick and injured. Agencies such as the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program employ these professionals to assist with client education, planning and policy-making. Other dietitians oversee food service programs at hospitals, schools and even correctional facilities.

Many diseases and their life-altering consequences are preventable through small daily adjustments to diet. Registered dietitians help people make the important nutritional changes that improve their health and quality of life now and into the future.

Work Environment

Registered dietitians work in a wide variety of health care settings, including:

  • Hospitals
  • Physician offices and group practices
  • Retail pharmacies
  • Public health agencies
  • Hospice and palliative care services

Dietitians who provide medical nutrition therapy to patients are called clinical dietitians. In this role, they work closely with physicians and other professionals to treat patients with special nutritional needs. This often involves adjusting the person’s intake of vitamins, nutrients or calories.

Many dietitians work outside the health care industry. Corporations, school systems, correctional facilities and other large institutions employ these professionals to help them meet the nutritional needs of the people they serve. Those with advanced degrees often teach, perform research or work with the government to shape public health policy.

Requirements

Education

Certification as a registered dietitian requires a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, nutrition or a related field from an accredited university. Those aspiring for certification should take high-level courses in biochemistry, physiology, food chemistry, anatomy, culinary arts and nutrition science. About half of all dietitians hold a master’s degree or doctorate, though this is not required for certification.

Training

To be eligible for the RD credential, students must complete a 1,200-hour post-bachelor’s internship under the supervision of a licensed dietitian. This training takes six months to a year. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) maintains a list of approved dietetic internships on its website.

Licensing and/or Certification

Candidates who hold a relevant bachelor’s degree and have met the internship requirement are then qualified to sit for the national RD exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Strong communications skills, warmth and compassion are invaluable assets for dietitians who provide direct care to patients. Because the field of dietetics combines elements of biology, chemistry and physics, aspiring registered dietitians should have a passion for science as well as technical aptitude.

Opportunities for Advancement

Registered dietitians with advanced degrees command higher salaries and have a more diverse choice of career paths. (A doctorate in nutrition, for example, opens up careers in research and academia.) Professionals can also increase their advancement opportunities by relocating to an area with a shortage of health care professionals.

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Salary

According to the 2011 Compensation and Benefits Survey conducted by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the median entry-level wage for registered dietitians was $24 an hour. This increased to $27.88 for all registered dietitians regardless of experience. Dietitians earned the least in inpatient hospital settings ($25.96) and the most in food and nutrition management ($34.13). The median annual salary for registered dietitians with a year or more of experience was $59,300.

Job Outlook

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of registered dietitians will increase by 20% between 2010 and 2020, which is considered faster than average for all occupations. The growing elderly population and the obesity epidemic are two factors driving demand for qualified registered dietitians.

Further Reading

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