How to Become a Dietitian or Nutritionist
Dietitians and nutritionists must clearly explain eating plans to other healthcare professionals.
Dietitians and nutritionists typically need a bachelor’s degree, along with supervised training through an internship. Many states require dietitians and nutritionists to be licensed.
Dietitians and nutritionists typically need a bachelor's degree in dietetics, foods and nutrition, or a related field, such as interdisciplinary studies. Many dietitians and nutritionists have advanced degrees.
Dietitians and nutritionists typically receive several hundred hours of supervised training, usually in the form of an internship following graduation from college. Some schools offer coordinated programs in dietetics that allow students to complete supervised training as part of their undergraduate or graduate-level coursework.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Many states require dietitians and nutritionists to be licensed in order to practice. Other states require only state registration or certification to use certain titles, and a few states have no regulations for this occupation.
The requirements for state licensure and state certification vary by state, but most include having a bachelor’s degree in food and nutrition or a related area, completing supervised practice, and passing an exam.
Many dietitians choose to earn the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) credential. Although the RDN is not always required, the qualifications are often the same as those necessary for becoming a licensed dietitian in states that require a license. Many employers prefer or require the RDN, which is administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The RDN requires dietitian nutritionists to complete a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and a Dietetic Internship (DI), which consists of at least 1,200 hours of supervised experience. Students may complete both criteria at once through a coordinated program, or they may finish their required coursework and degree before applying for an internship. These programs are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND), part of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In order to maintain the RDN credential, dietitians and nutritionists who have earned it must complete 75 continuing professional education credits every 5 years.
Nutritionists may earn the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential to show an advanced level of knowledge. The CNS credential or exam is accepted in several states for licensure purposes. To qualify for the credential, applicants must have a master’s or doctoral degree, complete 1,000 hours of supervised experience, and pass an exam. The credential is administered by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists. To maintain the CNS credential, nutritionists must complete 75 continuing education credits every 5 years.
Dietitians and nutritionists may seek additional certifications in an area of specialty. The Commission on Dietetic Registration offers several specialty certifications in topics such as oncology nutrition, pediatric nutrition, renal nutrition, and sports dietetics, among others.
Analytical skills. Dietitians and nutritionists must keep up to date with the latest food and nutrition research. They should interpret scientific studies and translate nutrition science into practical eating advice.
Compassion. Dietitians and nutritionists must be caring and empathetic when helping clients address health and dietary issues and any related emotions.
Listening skills. Dietitians and nutritionists must listen carefully to understand clients’ goals and concerns. They may work with other healthcare workers as part of a team to improve the health of a patient, and they need to listen to team members when constructing eating plans.
Organizational skills. Because there are many aspects to the work of dietitians and nutritionists, they should stay organized. Management dietitians, for example, must consider the nutritional needs of their clients, the costs of meals, and access to food. Self-employed dietitians and nutritionists may need to schedule appointments, manage employees, bill insurance companies, and maintain patient files.
Problem-solving skills. Dietitians and nutritionists must evaluate the health status of patients and determine the most appropriate food choices for a client to improve his or her overall health or manage a disease.
Speaking skills. Dietitians and nutritionists must explain complicated topics in a way that people with less technical knowledge can understand. They must clearly explain eating plans to clients and to other healthcare professionals involved in a patient’s care.