Registered Dietitian Certification and Licensure
“Invest in yourself – buy nutrition.” That was the motto way back in the disco ‘70’s when the first National Nutrition Week campaign rolled out. After just a few years this week-long campaign’s popularity reached such heights that many said a week is just not enough and began calling for a nutrition awareness month. In the early ‘80s they got their wish.
More than four decades later this statement has only become more imperative. Dietitians who entered practice back in the 80s are now reaching the end of their careers and preparing to pass the torch to the next generation of professionals – that’s you!
The road to promoting healthy lifestyles through diet and nutrition is long, satisfying, vital, and at times challenging. One of the first hurdles you’ll face is navigating the process for obtaining your Registered Dietician (RD) certification. This guide is here to make that process easy.
Registered dietician certification can refer to two things, but typically refers to this first item:
The national Registered Dietitian (RD) credential – This is a nationally recognized professional credential available through the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). This is what dietician “certification” usually refers to, and that’s what we’ll be talking about in this guide.
Note that the CDR allows you to interchangeably use the credential titles RD and RDN (Registered Dietician Nutritionist) – these are the exact same thing.
State certification that allows you to practice as a dietician – Currently there are five states that refer to their state-level process for granting legal permission to practice dietetics as “certification” – but don’t confuse that with national certification through the Commission of Dietetic Registration.
If you live in Connecticut, Indiana, Utah, Vermont, or Wisconsin you’ll hold state-level “certification” to legally refer to yourself and market your services as a Certified Dietician, while all other states with laws governing the practice of dietetics use the term “license” or “registration.” Regardless of the term the state uses, earning the right to practice dietetics in any state requires that you first earn the national RD credential through CDR.
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The Importance of Registered Dietitian (RD) Certification Through CDR
The Registered Dietitian (RD) certification is required for practicing as a dietitian in 43 states, and often comes with increased earning power and career advancement opportunities.
The credential demonstrates you have proven skills at a professional level. This means advanced knowledge about key dietician and nutrition subjects including:
- Nutrition demands of specific population segments
- Assessment and screening of individuals based on their diets
- Nutrient principles of dietetics
- Food and nutritional science
- Nutrition research and study principles
- Nutrition program management
- Business and financial management of nutrition programs and services
- Food production sanitation and safety
- Menu development based on nutritive principles
These are exactly the skills employers are looking for, not to mention that becoming an RD demonstrates you have the level of professional expertise that state regulatory agencies expect.
Therefore, it comes as little surprise that the RD credential is required for licensure in many states.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dietitians earned an average salary of $65,620 as of May 2021. Early career dietitians earned about $49,490, while those with extensive experience earned about $93,640 during this time.*
Hospitals, government agencies, and community health clinics routinely require their dieticians to be certified through the Commission on Dietetics Registration. The RD credential opens up job opportunities in places like:
- Universities – at university health centers and research opportunities
- Hospitals, HMOs, doctor’s offices, and private practice
- Community and public health clinics, and related initiatives
- Nutrition and food-related businesses
- Corporate wellness companies
- Sports teams and fitness centers
Holding an RD also opens up doors in the future for more advanced CDR certifications in the field of nutrition.
Earning and Maintaining the Registered Dietician (RD) Certification
The rigorous certification process for becoming an RD is in place to ensure that only the best and brightest are entrusted with offering professional advice and developing diet plans designed to promote health and nutrition.
To qualify for RD/RDN certification you must fulfill education and supervised practice requirements established by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). After fulfilling these requirements, you would then need to go on to pass the Registration Examination for Dieticians.
Earn a bachelor’s degree at minimum through a dietetics program with a curriculum approved by ACEND (Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics). ACEND approved programs are available through regionally accredited colleges and universities. This can include both online and on-campus programs.
Supervised Practice Requirements
The CDR gives you the choice of completing one of the following three options to fulfill its supervised practice requirement:
Complete an accredited dietetic internship
- This is completed after earning a bachelor’s degree
- It must include at least 1,200 hours of supervised practice
- It must be offered by an accredited internship provider
Complete an accredited coordinated program
- Some bachelor’s programs include the guided experience as part of the curriculum
- 1,200 hours of approved supervised practice are integrated into the program’s curriculum
Complete an individualized supervised practice pathway (ISPP)
- This is an acceptable route to earning experience through a program that hasn’t been pre-approved by ACEND and is designed for those who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree, but did not complete a period of supervised experience as part of their degree program
- This route includes the option to take up to three years to gain the experience
- If you have earned a bachelor’s or master’s degree a representative from your school will need to complete a Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) verification statement for submission to the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) before your can start your ISPP. This is not required if you completed a doctoral program.
Pass the Registration Examination for Dieticians
The Registration Examination for Dieticians is administered by the third-party testing company Pearson VUE and comprised of between 125-145 questions taken from these topic areas:
- Management of nutrition and food programs and services
- Nutrition care for individuals and groups
- Dietetics and nutrition principles
- Foodservice systems
Maintain Your Certification
Once you’ve completed these steps you’ll use your CDR-issued Registered Dietician (RD) certification to apply for a license through your state dietetics board.
Your state will have its own licensing maintenance requirements, while others simply require you to keep your Registered Dietician (RD) certification with the CDR in good standing.
Maintaining your RD in good standing is also required if you want to pursue more advanced nutrition certifications through the CDR.
To maintain your RD certification through the CDR you must complete three steps over the course of five years:
- Create a learning plan – you have complete choice of what this includes
- Maintain an activity log with details on how you complete your learning plan
- Conduct a professional development evaluation (PDE)
During a five year period you’re required to complete one continuing education unit on ethics. Each year you also pay a re-certification fee to the CDR.
Advanced Nutrition Certifications through the CDR
Congratulations! At this point you can focus on what you’ve prepared to do for years: dedicate your education, skills, and training to make the people in your community healthier.
The Commission on Dietetic Registration sponsors six advanced nutrition certifications you can earn once you’ve gained experience as an RD. These are preferred or required credentials for many advanced positions in the field of nutrition and dietetics and can open up new career paths.
Each of these requires passing a specific exam and has a qualification requirement that can be fulfilled by holding an RD/RDN certification:
- Board Certified Specialist in Gerontological Nutrition
- Board Certified Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management
- Board Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition
- Board Certified Specialist in Pediatric Nutrition
- Board Certified Specialist in Renal Nutrition
*2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for dietitians and nutritionists reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2022.