How to Become a Dietitian

Education and Licensing Requirements

Dietitians plan food and nutrition programs in schools, community agencies, colleges, healthcare facilities, and company cafeterias. Some work in private practices. 

As obesity and other nutrition-related problems continue to affect people's well-being, these healthcare professionals teach the public to eat better. As part of this effort, they educate us about what foods can harm our health and which ones can protect it. Are you interested in this occupation? Learn how to become a dietitian.

What Education Do Dietitians Need?

Dietitian students
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To become a dietitian, you must earn at least a bachelor's degree in dietetics, foods, and nutrition; foodservice systems management; or a related area. Before choosing a program, decide if you want to become a Registered Dietitian (RD).

RD is a credential the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics grants to graduates of college programs approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). If you want to have that designation—valuable when job searching because it indicates that you have met certain standards—you will also have to do an ACEND-accredited six to 12-month supervised internship and pass an exam. To maintain the RD credential, you will have to complete continuing professional education requirements throughout your career. 

ACEND accredits two types of bachelor and master degree programs. The first is the Didactic Programs in Dietetics (DPD) and the second is the Coordinated Programs in Dietetics (CP). In a DPD, you will study the foundations of dietetic practice and upon graduation will be able to apply for an ACEND-approved supervised practice program, also known as an internship. In a CP, you will learn the foundations of dietetic practice and, simultaneously, complete the practical training needed to become an RD.

Before beginning coursework in your major, whether it's culinary nutrition, dietetics, or foods and nutrition, you will have to fulfill your school's general education requirements. This includes taking science, social science, and humanities classes.

While accredited programs must meet the standards for dietetics education set forth by ACEND, there is no other requirement regarding precisely what courses they must offer. For example, programs in culinary nutrition, like the one at Johnson & Wales University, offer culinary arts classes in addition to nutrition courses. The dietetics curriculum at Georgia State University's Division of Nutrition emphasizes community health and nutrition. Here are some examples that illustrate the wide variety of classes that all may result in someone becoming a Registered Dietitian:

  • Community Nutrition
  • Human Nutrition
  • Medical Nutrition Therapy
  • Nutritional Chemistry
  • Applied Nutrition Counseling
  • Lifespan Nutrition
  • Medical Ethics
  • Spa Cuisine
  • Vegetarian Cuisine

While a bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement to become a dietitian, some people decide to earn a master's degree. This advanced degree is a viable option for a student who is already a dietitian but would like advanced training, or one who has a bachelor's degree in another area of study and would like to pursue a career in this field.

How to Get Into a Dietetics Program

Dietitian Student in lab
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Admission requirements vary by school. Most undergraduate programs accept students directly out of high school and often require a transcript that includes classes in math, chemistry, and biology. 

Some master's programs are designed for those who are already dietitians and others for career-changers. Find the one that best suits your goals.

What Will You Have to Do After Graduation?

Graduation Day
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Forty-six states require dietitians—both RDs and those who aren't— to be licensed or certified. Students who wish to become RDs must complete an ACEND-approved practice program (internship) and sit for a written examination. 

You are advised to check with the state in which you want to work to find out if a license or certification is required, and if one is, what the specific regulations are. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics maintains a list of contact information for each state: State Licensure Agency Contact List.

Some dietitians call themselves nutritionists. Other people who provide dietary advice go by that title as well. Before deciding to call yourself a nutritionist, do some research to see if the state in which you want to practice regulates the use of that term.

How to Get Your First Job As a Dietitian

Dietitian in white lab coat
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After graduating from college, possibly getting your RD credential, and obtaining a professional license if required to do so, you will be ready to look for work. Job announcements from various sources had the following specifications:

  • "Knowledge of wide range of chronic diseases, prognosis, medication, treatment methods, and disease response to medical nutrition therapy"
  • "High level of self-direction to work independently"
  • "Training in cost control, food management, diet therapy, etc."
  • "Ability to effectively communicate with hospital staff, physicians, and patients"

Do you meet those qualifications?