What Is A Registered Dietitian (RD) & How Do You Become One?
By far the most common questions I receive in my inbox are about becoming a Registered Dietitian (RD). From what an RD is, what the schooling and training entails, how to study for the RD exam – so many of you are interested in this career path (which is awesome)! While I love answering each of you individually, sometimes it can be hard to cover everything over DMs or emails. I’ve decided to round up some of the most common questions I get and tell you everything there is to know about how to become a dietitian!
Do note that most of this information applies to becoming a dietitian in the United States and Canada, as I am registered in both countries. If you have more specific questions that I don’t cover here, please feel free to comment below – chances are there is someone else wondering the same thing!
What Is A Registered Dietitian?
Registered Dietitians are regulated healthcare professionals and food/nutrition experts who have met strict criteria to earn their RD or RDN credential. Dietitians are trained to provide evidence-based nutrition advice and counseling, and may work in a variety of areas, such as health care, business/industry, foodservice, public health, government, research, education, and media. Note: the RD and RDN credential are the same in the United States; dietitians may choose to use whichever the prefer.
How Do You Become A Dietitian?
In the United States, to earn the RD/RDN credential, one must:
- Complete a 4-year bachelor’s degree at the university/college level, with dietetics coursework that has been approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). If one already holds a bachelor’s degree unrelated to nutrition, a Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) can be completed instead. The DPD program will take approximately 2 years full time, depending on how many prerequisites one has already completed. NOTE: effective January 1st, 2024, an entry-level RD will need to have a minimum of a graduate degree (i.e. Master’s) from an ACEND-accredited program.
- Complete an ACEND-accredited supervised practice program/dietetic internship. The minimum requirement is 1200 supervised practice hours, which can run between 6-12 months in length. Sites include approved healthcare facilities (hospitals/long-term care), community/public health agencies, and foodservice facilities.
- Pass a national registration exam administered by the CDR (Commission on Dietetic Registration). This exam can only be taken upon completion of the undergraduate coursework and dietetic internship.
- Complete continuing professional educational requirements. This is achieved after one has become an RD in order to maintain their credential. In the US, 80 continuing education hours are required for every 5-year cycle.
Note: the process of becoming an RD in Canada is similar. A 4-year bachelor’s of science in an accredited food and nutrition program is required, as well as a 1-year dietetic internship placement, followed by a national registration exam (the CDRE). Continuing education requirements are completed on a 3-year cycle.
What Is The Difference Between A Dietitian & A Nutritionist?
A dietitian is a regulated health care professional, and the title “dietitian,” as well as the RD/RDN credential, are protected by law (similar to a nurse, pharmacist, occupational therapist, etc.). The term “nutritionist,” on the other hand, is NOT protected under the law. What this means, is that there is no defined education, training, or experience that is required to call oneself a nutritionist. While some nutritionists do indeed have an educational background in nutrition, others may simply have an interest in the field or have completed a short online course. Thus, it is important to research someone’s credentials prior to working with them to ensure that you will receive the care you need.
What Classes Do You Have to Take To Become A Dietitian?
Exact classes will vary depending on the program, however all dietetics students will be required to complete undergraduate classes in food and nutritional sciences, biochemistry, foodservice management, education/counseling, and medical nutrition therapy. As an example, below are the dietetics classes I had to complete at NYU prior to applying to the dietetic internship (total 57 credits):
- Basic Science: modern chemistry (with lab), organic chemistry (with lab), nutritional biochemistry, food microbiology and sanitation, human anatomy and physiology
- Nutrition Science: nutrition and health, diet assessment and planning, nutrition and the life cycle, clinical nutrition assessment and intervention, nutrition education, and community nutrition
- Food Science: intro to foods/food science, food science and technology, food management theory, food production and management
- Intro to psychology and/or equivalent behavioral science course
- Research methods
As part of the combined Dietetic Internship and Master’s degree at NYU, I then completed the following graduate courses (total 40 credits):
- Medical nutrition therapy
- Nutrition-focused physical assessment
- Nutrition counseling theory and practice
- Clinical practice in dietetics I + II (the 7 month on-site portion of the internship)
- Advanced nutrition: protein, fats, and carbohydrates
- Advanced nutrition: vitamins and minerals
- Advanced clinical nutrition:
- Pediatric nutrition
- Weight management
- Advanced foods (elective)
- Food systems policies + politics (elective)
- Research applications (culminating experience conducting independent research)
What Is The Dietetic Internship (DI)?
Upon completion of the didactic coursework, anyone who wishes to become an RD must complete an accredited dietetic internship in order to be eligible to sit for the national board exam. While practice sites and program focuses vary, all accredited DI programs must be a minimum of 1200 hours, and include rotations in clinical nutrition (often completed in a hospital), community nutrition, and foodservice management. Some DI programs may include a stipend, while others are part of tuition fees and are counted towards course credit.
In order to be accepted into a DI program, one must apply through a national, online matching system. Matching occurs twice a year (in the Fall and in the Spring). Getting into a program is extremely competitive, with only about 50% of applicants receiving a match nationwide.
Once enrolled into a program, dietetic interns are expected to meet the required competencies to become RDs. During your “rotations,” you will be supervised by a “preceptor,” who is a practicing dietitian. Your preceptors often change with your rotations, and they will guide you through hospital protocols, review and co-sign your medical notes, provide you with various assignments, and meet with you to ensure you are completing the required competencies.
While some DI programs are available part time, others are full-time programs. This is not the type of internship where you are running around getting coffee!!! During your rotations you are visiting patients in their hospital rooms, conducting nutrition interviews, assessments, and physical exams, providing nutrition education, prescribing nutrition support interventions (calculating tube or parenteral feeds), diagnosing malnutrition, and documenting your nutrition care plan in the medical charts. Expect this experience to be like a full-time job (where everyday you are learning something new), plus extra homework, presentations, and assignments. A way to think of the DI is that it is to becoming a dietitian what a residency is to becoming a physician.
Note: the above process and DI requirements applies to the US only. Although Canada is similar, I am not too familiar with the process! More info can be found on the Dietitians of Canada website.
What Was NYU’S Clinical Nutrition Master’s Program & Dietetic Internship Like?
I completed both my DPD, Master’s degree, and Dietetic Internship through NYU. The program is VERY clinically-focused and the DI year was probably the hardest I’ve ever worked (weekends literally did not exist haha). That said, I felt that the coursework really prepared me for the DI, and that the DI was a very intensive and thorough experience (I learned A LOT). NYU has a great reputation and alumni connections, not only in New York City, but across the world.
The DI program at NYU begins with one semester of full-time coursework with your fellow interns (there were 12 of us). These classes included medical nutrition therapy (MNT), nutrition-focused physical assessment, nutrition counseling, and research methods. Despite how much we may have complained about the workload, I felt so much more prepared to enter the hospital after completion of these courses (particularly MNT).
After completion of the academic component, we were placed in hospitals throughout the city. I completed both my foodservice (6 weeks) and clinical (17 weeks) rotations at Mount Sinai Medical Center, followed by 4 weeks of community rotations. My clinical rotations at Mount Sinai included general medicine, oncology, GI, cardiology, renal/hemodialysis, neurology, transplant, pediatrics/maternal, acute inpatient rehabilitation, malnutrition, ICU/critical care, and staff relief. In addition to full-time rotations, I had to complete weekly study guides and readings, as well as give 7 oral presentations (patient case studies, journal clubs, etc). IT WAS INTENSE!!!
Can You Recommend Other Dietetic Programs?
As I am only familiar with the NYU program, it is hard for me to recommend others. However, you can search all the accredited dietetic programs in the US here, and all the accredited programs in Canada here. As I mentioned, NYU was very clinical; if you want to focus more on education/community nutrition, or foodservice, I would advise looking into what each DI program focuses on to find the right match. If you find one that appeals to you, reach out to the internship director or past students/interns if possible to get a better feel for the program. I’ve had so many people reach out to me about the NYU program, and I’m always happy to meet with them!
Do You Have Tips For Getting Into A Dietetic Internship?
These internship programs get tons of qualified applicants, so my best advice is to emphasize how you stand out and what makes you different. In your personal statement, think about something that only you can say – it is not enough to say that you’re interested in nutrition or that you like helping people. The application committee hears this all the time, so you want to write something unique and memorable.
While grades are extremely important, so are a variety of experiences. If you can, start volunteering or working in a nutrition-related field early on. I think most important is to have some experience volunteering in a hospital – reach out to your local hospitals and see if the food and nutrition department takes volunteers. Research organizations in your community, too – there are many nonprofits that take volunteers to give hands-on nutrition education to children, older adults, or low-income individuals. While having a variety of experiences is desirable (e.g. in clinical, community, foodservice, research), so is showing that you can commit to an individual organization long-term.
Get to know your professors and supervisors at your work/volunteer sites. Developing relationships with them early on not only provides great mentors, but also is essential for getting strong letters of recommendation. Be sure to give them ample time when you request a letter – I would say to ask at least a month before the due date and to offer to send them your current resume, a list of tasks that you completed for them, a draft of your personal statement, etc. to help them write a strong letter. Most programs require 3 letters of recommendations – one should be from a professor, and I think it also helps if the others are RDs themselves (if possible!).
If interviews make you anxious – practice, practice, practice! I wrote out answers to possible questions that I could think of, and practiced with some of my classmates. I would advise thinking of scenarios you’ve been in that could be applied to different questions – working with a team, how you dealt with conflict, how you manage stress, etc. Research the DI program thoroughly, and come prepared with a couple questions to ask your interviewers that show you’re interested in their program, too!
What Happens If You Don’t Match To A Dietetic Internship?
As I mentioned, only 50% of applicants match to a DI across the entire country. I know SO many smart and qualified applicants who did not match the first time around, but who did match the second time. While it was so hard for me to admit at the time, I did not match the first time I applied either. I had straight As, tons of volunteer and work experience, good references, etc. but still didn’t match. I felt so devastated, but it only made me try harder the second time around. I would advise looking at what were possibly the weak points in your application – continue to gain experience, have people you trust read your personal statement, and just remember that it often is not a reflection of you as a person; there are simply not enough spots for all applicants!
Things always work out in the end. I ended up continuing with my master’s classes, matched 6 months later, and had the best internship class I could have asked for. After finishing the internship, I only had 2 classes left of my degree, and now I’m so happy with the way things worked out!
Do You Have Tips For Studying For the RD Exam?
I and everyone I know used Jean Inman’s study guide to prepare for the exam. While the material and audiotapes are pretty dry, it really covers a lot of what you’ve learned in your dietetic degree. Without this guide I wouldn’t even have known where to begin going through notes from class. Any area that I didn’t feel comfortable in, I would supplement with my class notes or textbooks. In addition to Jean Inman, I used the Pocket Prep mobile app for practice questions. I know some of my classmates also used Visual Veggies and found it helpful, too.
I found the exam to be really detail-focused and required memorization of a lot of little facts. It was definitely a tough and incredibly nerve-wracking exam, but I was able to pass on my first try. For me the best way to study is to write everything out, read it through, and to do lots of practice questions; I would advise to study the way you know works best for you! Most of my fellow interns took between 3-4 weeks to study for this exam.
Note: I have taken (and passed) both the US and Canadian RD exams. I found both to be very challenging, although in completely different ways. The US exam was 2 hours and very detail-focused, whereas the Canadian exam was 4 hours and much more case study-based. To study for the Canadian RD exam, I used my notes from Jean Inman and then went through the CDRE study guide to ensure I felt comfortable with each competency. Because I studied in the US, I spent time researching health care and nutrition-related policies in Canada as well.
What Career Paths Do Dietitians Have?
One of the best parts about being an RD is that there are SO many different employment opportunities. This is by far the most recognized credential in the nutrition field, and it opens up a lot of doors in industries you may not even think of. Below are some examples of possible career paths:
- Healthcare practitioner (clinical dietitian) in a hospital, long-term care facility, doctor’s office, health center, or private practice
- Nutrition consultant to the media, food companies, restaurants, culinary schools, or corporate wellness programs
- Business and industry – nutrition communications, public relations, marketing, product development in food and nutrition-related fields
- Foodservice managers and directors – overseeing staffing, purchasing, preparation, menu development in schools, hospitals, restaurants, correctional facilities, etc.
- Sports dietitian – educating clients about the connection between food and fitness, counseling athletes, professional sports teams, etc.
- Community and public health dietitian – creating public health programs and influencing public policy, improving healthy eating habits in the community setting
- Research dietitian – conducting food/nutrition-related research for food or pharmaceutical companies, universities, or hospitals
- Nutrition professor at universities or medical centers
Can I Become An RD If I Have My Undergrad Degree In Something Else?
Yes! I was in this exact position, having already completed an undergraduate degree in psychology before I decided that this was the career path I wanted to take. With a non-nutrition undergraduate degree, one can choose to complete an accredited didactic program in dietetics (DPD), which is essentially all the undergraduate courses needed to apply for the dietetic internship. The length of the DPD program will depend on how many of the courses you have already completed. If you’re starting from scratch, it will take you approximately 1.5-2 years full-time to complete the coursework needed to apply for the dietetic internship.
Am I Too Old To Become An RD? Are The Sciences Hard?
In my Master’s program I had classmates of all different age groups and educational/career backgrounds. My classmates ranged from their mid-20s to their mid-50s; some were pregnant/had young children, and some had kids closer to my own age. Some came from food science or pre-med programs, others from communications, psychology, business, or musical theatre. One even had a law degree and had practiced as a lawyer for over 20 years! That said, please don’t feel like you need to have a science or health background or that you are too old. The diversity of knowledge that my classmates brought to the table made for an incredible experience.
As for the science classes – yes, they are hard and took many, many hours of studying and intense memorizing. However, once you make it past the basic chemistry courses, everything becomes focused on nutritional biochemistry and pathophysiology. If you’re interested in the field, learning these topics is incredibly fascinating and such wonderful knowledge to have, both for your professional and personal life. Never did I once think that I would be learning biochemical pathways, the physiological processes of disease, or the interactions between nutrition and pharmacology, but I think it is so cool that I understand these topics now!
Do you guys have any other questions related to becoming an RD? Are any of you interested in this career path? Let me know in the comments!
Pin it for later: