The decision to become a registered dietician, or RD, could very well be a life-changing one. Job opportunities for nutritionists and dieticians are currently growing in the United States. Thus, a nutritionist degree (online or on-campus) can lead to a rewarding career in the human health and wellness industry or food industry. Registered dieticians make above-average salaries. Moreover, they often find personal fulfillment as patient counselors and advocates. The country’s baby boomer population is aging, and people of all ages are becoming more aware of the role nutrition plays in personal health. As a result, the need for registered dieticians is growing. These nutrition and food science professionals are trained to provide nutritional advice and promote health and wellness.
Does this information about employment opportunities for dieticians pique your interest? Then, you may wonder what it takes to become a registered dietician, including whether you should pursue an online nutrition degree. You’ve come to the right place, then. Below, our experts outline the precise steps one needs to take to become credentialed as a practicing RD in the field of nutritional sciences. We’ll address educational requirements such as completing a nutrition program like a nutrition bachelor’s or master’s degree online. We’ll also discuss credentialing and necessary soft skills to work in clinical nutrition, community nutrition, or the food industry.
What Is a Registered Dietitian?
This section delves into the precise steps you need to take to become a Registered Dietician (RD) in the United States. First, let’s take a moment to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the occupation. The truth is that RDs are often confused with nutritionists. That’s because many of the tasks and responsibilities of these health professionals are the same. While job duties may overlap, there is a distinct difference between the positions of nutritionist and dietician. The main difference between the two jobs has more to do with training and regulations and individual employer’s requirements than actual functions and obligations. Still, there are some things registered dieticians can do that nutritionists may not be able to do. One example is diagnosing eating disorders and other health concerns related to personal nutrition. Another is providing medical nutrition therapy.
What Do Registered Dieticians Do?
Like nutritionists, registered dieticians work in health promotion. They support individuals as they strive to maintain wellness through nutritional choices and a healthy lifestyle. These licensed nutritional sciences professionals often work in hospitals. Some work in outpatient care centers and other healthcare facilities. They counsel patients and clients on necessary dietary changes to fight various healthcare conditions. Some examples include the following:
- cardiovascular disease
They may also provide advice and resources for people seeking health and wellness goals. These professionals might assist a person interested in losing weight or increasing energy levels.
Some registered dieticians specialize in a particular sub-field of nutritional science or dietetics. For example, some RDs may work specifically with patients who suffer from certain health conditions like diabetes or kidney disease. These RD specialists create detailed nutrition plans for their individual patients. They may also counsel them on how to treat their condition with medical nutrition therapy.
Other registered dieticians specialize in food and nutrition management. They are charged with overseeing the operations of a food service program. This might include those in institutions like schools, hospitals, and prisons. These types of RDs need specific leadership skills to manage other nutrition professionals. They must also plan daily food procurement, preparation, and service operations.
Nutrition Careers: Information for Registered Dieticians
The Registered Dietician (RD) credential is a sought-after credential. That’s because it opens up many doors of opportunity for trained nutrition and dietetics professionals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the field is growing faster than average. However, it is still relatively small. Thus, competition for available positions is strong. The 7% projected growth in the industry between 2021 and 2031 will result in approximately 5,100 new jobs for dieticians and nutritionists. Many employers prefer those candidates who hold a registered dietician license. These candidates will have the edge over other applicants with just a nutritional science degree, such as a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition.
Like a certified nutrition specialist, the occupation of a registered dietician is also associated with higher-than-average wages. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for registered dieticians and nutritionists in 2021 was over $61,650. Top earners in the field made more than $93,000 that same year. Taking steps to become a registered dietician can increase your earning potential while you help others achieve their wellness goals. It’s a win-win situation!
How to Become a Registered Dietitian
If the career prospects for registered dieticians have you thinking about pursuing a nutrition degree, read on. There are very specific guidelines for becoming a registered dietician. The requirements for becoming a Registered Dietician (RD) in the United States are established by the Commission on Dietetic Registration of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. These requirements have been in place for years. They include:
- A bachelor’s degree (or higher) from a regionally accredited college or university (includes online education such as online nutrition degree programs)
- Completed coursework approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
- An extensive supervised internship
- A passing score on the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s Registered Dietician (RD) exam
Each of these requirements enables prospective dieticians to showcase their nutrition knowledge. Let’s discuss them each in more detail.
To become a Registered Dietician, there are specific education requirements. A four-year nutrition degree or degree in dietetics or nutritional sciences is preferred. This degree in nutrition can be a traditional, face-to-face didactic program. Or it may be a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics online program. Both traditional and online nutrition degree programs must be from a regionally accredited college or university. An undergraduate degree specific to dietetics and nutrition is the most direct pathway toward the RD credential. An example would be the food and nutrition bachelor degree online.
Students who hold an undergraduate degree in another field in health sciences may still be able to achieve the RD credential. But their coursework must be approved by the Accreditation Council for Education and Dietetics (ACEND). To seek approval, individuals should submit their undergraduate transcript to the program director of the ACEND-accredited dietetics program they’re considering. The director will then approve or disapprove courses that can be applied to a dietetics program. They must also recommend further coursework to fill any gaps in the student’s transcript. Other required coursework may include major courses spanning topics in the clinical nutrition/dietetics discipline. These may include:
- Foodservice Systems
- Culinary Arts
- Food and Nutrition
- Sports Medicine
- Sports Nutrition
- Organic Chemistry
- Holistic Nutrition
- Nutritional Counseling
- Nutritional Science for the Registered Dietician
Some general education courses may also be required, even for a degree in nutrition online.
A common misconception is that Registered Dieticians need just a nutrition degree at the bachelor’s level such as a bachelor of science degree. But becoming licensed is much more rigorous than simply taking nutrition courses. Aside from a nutrition degree (online or otherwise), prospective RDs must also complete an extensive internship. This internship must include at least 1200 hours of supervised practice in the field of nutrition and dietetics. Individuals should seek an Individualized Supervised Practice Pathway (ISPP) program or a Coordinated Program (CP) in Dietetics. Either of these options is suitable for the formal internship for most professional organizations.
The internship in nutrition and dietetics may be the most rigorous part of becoming a registered dietician. Meeting the dietetics internship requirement may be particularly worrying for distance learning students who opt to complete their nutrition degree online. To help ease this concern, many online colleges for dietetics programs have allowed their students to complete this internship at their place of employment. Alternatively, they can choose another facility near their location.
Registered Dietician (RD) Examination
The complex process of becoming a registered dietician end with taking and passing the official exam for licensure. The Registered Dietician (RD) exam is administered by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Commission on Dietetic Registration. It is offered at more than 250 official test locations each year. The exam is comprised of four primary sections:
- Nutrition Care for Individuals and Groups
- Principles of Dietetics
- Management of Food and Nutrition Programs and Services
- Foodservice Systems
Specific subtopics assessed on the official RD exam include:
- Food Science and Nutrition Composition of Foods
- Sanitation and Safety
- Nutrition and Supporting Sciences
- Equipment and Facility Planning
- Screening and Assessment of Nutrition Care
- Menu Development
The RD exam is scored on a scale of 1 to 50, and test-takers must achieve a score of 25 or higher to pass. Coursework in a traditional or online nutrition degree program is designed to prepare students for success on this exam. Still, some test preparation before exam day is recommended. Many prospective RDs complete study guides or practice tests before taking the official licensing test.
Changing Requirements for Registered Dieticians
Becoming a dietician with just a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, dietetics, or a related field (i.e., Bachelor of Science in Nutrition) is still possible. But this won’t be the case for very long. Beginning January 1, 2024, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Commission on Dietetic Registration will mandate that Registered Dieticians hold a graduate degree before they can sit for the official registration exam for dieticians. This change in favor of advanced degrees was made (at least in part) to keep up with the increase in educational requirements for other occupations in the broader field of healthcare. In 2012, the Council on Future Practice found that the curriculum taught in graduate-level nutrition degree programs was commensurate with the knowledge and skills required of registered dieticians today.
About Online Master’s in Nutrition Programs for Registered Dieticians
Graduate programs around the country are taking note of the elevated eligibility requirements for registered dieticians. They are responding to the demand for convenient, accessible master’s in nutrition degree programs. As a result, there are many online master’s in nutrition and dietetics programs currently accepting new students. That’s good news if you have a desire to study nutrition online. These master’s degree programs enable non-traditional students like parents and career changers to earn the necessary RD-eligible credentials (i.e., online nutrition degrees) without the hassle of attending in-person classes. For online students interested in earning a graduate-level nutrition degree via distance learning, there are both hybrid and fully online master’s in nutrition programs available. To accommodate their distance learners, many online colleges for dietetics programs allow nutrition education students to choose a nearby location to conveniently complete the accredited dietetic internship component of the online nutrition degree plan. To find the best online nutrition programs for a master’s degree, we recommend considering several factors. Before deciding on an online nutrition degree, evaluate accreditation, curriculum, cost, and scheduling options.
Maintaining the Registered Dietician (RD) Credential
Online nutrition degree programs can prepare students for initial licensure as registered dietician nutritionists. Still, it is up to them to maintain their credentials. The Commission on Dietetics Registration requires that RDs participate in professional development. They must do so every five years to keep their license. Registered dieticians must earn at least 75 professional development credits during the five-year cycle to achieve recertification. This rule is put in place by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Its purpose is to ensure that registered dieticians in the health care and health sciences field are trained in current, research-backed practices and trends in the industry. When their certification cycle is nearing its end, registered dieticians must submit a portfolio of their professional development hours to the Academy for evaluation. A successful review means the dietician can become recertified. Thus, they can continue practicing as a registered dietician for another five years.
Developing Personal and Professional Qualities of a Successful Registered Dietician
As with most occupations, registered dieticians need specific skills and characteristics. Educational materials can’t teach some of these in their food science or nutrition degree programs. Instead, these qualities must be intentionally developed over time. A commitment to personal and professional growth and practice in the field is necessary. In this section, we’ll briefly discuss some of the necessary qualities of a successful registered dietician outside of an online nutrition degree. These are identified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Compassion and Empathy
Like all professionals in the healthcare industry, registered dieticians will interact with individuals suffering from physical ailments that affect their quality of life. To effectively help these patients with healthy eating, RDs must compassionately interact with them. When compassion and empathy are absent, the work of a registered dietician is compromised. That’s because clients are unlikely to accept nutritional advice from someone who does not appear to care for them or their well-being.
Registered dieticians are required to keep thorough and detailed files on each of their patients. Ensuring these files are kept safe yet readily available to patients and other healthcare staff requires advanced organizational skills. Errors in record-keeping or misplaced files can have a negative impact on a patient’s health.
A nutrition degree (online or traditional) doesn’t usually address organization skills directly. Still, students can practice these skills while studying for a food science or nutrition degree. That way, they’re prepared to apply them in the field after graduation.
A significant part of the work of a registered dietician requires effective communication. This communication takes place directly with patients and other healthcare providers. It can occur either verbally or in writing. Thus, these human nutrition professionals must have exceptional written and oral communication skills. They must communicate clearly and in plain language to explain dietary principles to clients. Failure to do so can compromise the health and well-being of their patients.
A nutrition degree program like a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition can help students develop written communication skills. Before becoming a registered dietician, oral communication must be practiced during the supervised internship.
Becoming a Registered Dietician (RD) is not something that happens overnight. It is a lengthy and somewhat complex process. It requires years of study and adherence to specific regulatory guidelines. Still, for those students who desire to complete online nutrition degrees and fulfill the other various requirements of becoming licensed as a registered dietician, many rewards can be enjoyed.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Commission on Dietetic Registration
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Council on Future Practice Visioning Report
- Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook: Dieticians and Nutritionists
- Top Master’s in Nutrition
- Top Online Colleges in Nutrition
- FAQs About Nutrition Degrees
- Best Degrees for Stay-at-Home Moms: Most Affordable Degrees in Nutrition
- What is the Job Outlook for Nutritionists
- Can I Get a Nutrition Degree Online