“I want to become a registered dietitian nutritionist.” Whenever I tell people about this career goal, they often recognize it has something to do with helping people with food and nutrition. However, most people don’t quite understand all of the details that go into getting this credential or the variety of career options available to dietitians. So let’s break it down.
First off, what is the difference between a dietitian and a “nutritionist”?
Registered dietitian (RD) and registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) are the same thing. “RDN” is the more updated credential, simply used to clarify the title. However, a “nutritionist” alone is not the same thing and is much more loosely defined. For example, your friend who follows tons of nutrition accounts on insta or reads all the latest articles on the top diets could called themself a nutritionist. Although some nutritionists may have a basic knowledge of nutrition, they likely should not be giving in-depth education to individuals and legally cannot provide medical nutrition therapy.
On the other hand, RDNs undergo a rigorous required education, internship, and test process. Dietitians use evidence-based knowledge to provide education and coaching. If you ever have questions about nutrition or would like to receive nutrition services, ensure you are seeing someone with “RDN” behind their name to ensure they are the expert in the field. I wanted to be taken seriously when it comes to educating others, so I chose to undergo the extensive process to become a RDN.
What are the steps to become a dietitian?
- First, you have to complete a bachelor’s degree at an ACEND-accredited university. If you’re wanting to pursue this career path but completed a degree in an unrelated field, no worries. You can still go back and take the required classes. See this article for information on this. Starting in 2024, you will also have to complete a master’s degree.
- Next, you have to complete a dietetic internship. (more on this below)
- After all this required education is complete, you must pass the RD exam and then you can finally receive the credential behind your name.
More about dietetic internships
Internships are typically 9 months to 2 years long. Some programs combine a master’s degree and the internship into one. In the internship you gain first hand experience in the field. The internship is broken up into different rotations covering the areas of community, clinical, and food service.
- Some learning experiences in the community rotation include: cooking demos at farmers markets or TV, outpatient counseling, handout development, and leading classes at local wellness centers.
- Some learning experiences in the clinical rotation include: gain experience in providing nutritional care for all areas of the hospital including pediatrics, cardiac, oncology, ICU, renal, and more.
- Some learning experiences in the food service rotation include: food safety procedures, menu development, and food production.
Landing this internship is one tricky process
It is not a typical internship you think of where you apply, get your choice out of ones you get accepted to, and get paid for your work during the internship. Here’s how the process goes.
- First, you have to look through hundreds of programs to decide which one is the best fit based on things like rotation emphasis, location, and cost. Most internships, YOU pay for. “What?? The internship doesn’t pay you?” Nope. This is because it is essentially like another year of school with diverse learning experiences.
- When you settle on your top programs, you apply through an online centralized portal. Then, you undergo interviews and rank the programs in your preferred order.
- Finally, based on your rankings and how the programs rank you, you will receive a “match” or not. The match rate is only 50%, making this process even more stressful. On a set date and time, you will open up the portal and see if you get matched to a program.
When I opened up that portal at 5pm sharp and saw I received a match to the OSF Saint Francis Medical Center Dietetic Internship in Peoria, IL. I was so excited because this was truly the perfect program for me.
So you’re a dietitian… now what?
After you complete your internship and pass the RD exam, there are many different areas you can work in as a RDN. Options include working in a hospital providing counseling and administering medical nutrition therapy for a variety of different conditions, sports nutrition working for a professional team or even the olympics, nutrition communications and marketing for businesses, conducting research, counseling in public health care settings like WIC, working in the restaurant or meal kit industry consulting with chefs, private practice running your own nutrition business, and so much more. My goals right now are to start doing virtual nutrition counseling and continue to pursue healthy recipe development.