If you’re interested in the clinical, deeply scientific side of nutrition, then becoming a registered dietitian (RD) might be the career for you. In medical facilities across the nation, they can be found administering medical nutritional therapy and educating patients on what they need to do to maintain their highest quality of life.
But with those duties comes a rigorous education and training process. And in every state, that process looks a little different. From the various types of dietitians to the earning power they typically have, here’s what you need to know about your future registered dietitian career:
Registered Dietitian Job Description
Generally speaking, registered dietitians help people develop and maintain healthier eating habits. Sometimes, the goal is general weight management or to improve a person’s overall quality of life. But due to their extensive training, RDs can also help patients with complex medical issues maintain diets that align with their doctors’ orders.
Registered Dietitian Responsibilities
To meet these goals, registered dietitians typically have a few core responsibilities:
- Creating nutritional assessments based on health metrics and existing habits.
- Working independently and with other healthcare professionals to create individualized nutrition plans.
- Educating patients and families on their specific dietary needs.
- Developing meal plans that take patients’ life circumstances and chronic health conditions into account.
- Tracking patient progress.
- Connecting patients with other needed health services like fitness training and behavioral therapy.
- Promoting nutrition through community-wide presentations and awareness programs.
- Staying up-to-date on the latest nutritional research.
In all of these duties, registered dietitians strive to take a clinical, evidence-based approach. They don’t just make broad nutritional recommendations — they know and can explain the science behind them. Like doctors and specialists, they’re central to holistic, patient-centered care.
The following bachelors and Master’s programs offer career-focused instruction delivered by trained nutritionists with experience in the field. Find out more what each individual course of study offers through the locations below.
UNC's MPH Nutrition concentration prepares students to provide, evaluate and communicate nutritional and dietary guidance that improves individual and population-wide health outcomes. In addition to developing their knowledge of nutrition science, students will explore behavior change, communication, counseling and the effects of dietary culture on individuals and communities.
Arizona State University offers an Online Master of Science in Nutritional Science - Dietetics. Along with an Online Masters in Medical Nutrition
American University offers two different programs focused on Nutrition and Health. Their Online Master of Science in Nutrition Education will prepare you to become an influential leader in nutrition education and advocacy while promoting nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices in your community and beyond. Or Earn your Master of Science in Health Promotion Management from AU’s award-winning program in just 20 months with $10K available in scholarships upon enrollment (qualifier is a 3.0 GPA).
Types of Registered Dietitians
Though RDs may have similar responsibilities, their more specific duties are determined by the population they serve and the setting in which they work. Importantly, there is a wide variety in the types and roles and positions that registered dietitians can take on.
Following a surgery, medical diagnosis, or life-altering accident, proper nutrition is as important as physical therapy and medication. Clinical dietitians work with other members of a patient’s healthcare team to create nutritional plans that foster healing and maintain the best possible quality of life. They frequently work in hospitals, long-term care facilities, nursing homes, and residential treatment communities.
Clinical dietitians often specialize in a specific population like the elderly, pregnant women, children, cancer patients, or people with diabetes.
According to a 2014 study, people who don’t understand food labels are more likely to report unhealthy diets. Community dietitians fight this reality by educating communities through culturally-relevant, science-based health promotion initiatives. They often work for government agencies, non-profits, local health clinics, and insurance providers.
Management dietitians handle the behind-the-scenes side of an organization’s nutritional programs. They often oversee other dietitians and kitchen staff, buy food, manage budgets, and craft meal plans. Typically, they work in hospitals, cafeterias, and food-based businesses (manufacturers, restaurant chains, etc.).
Research dietitians conduct studies and surveys, examine the effects of nutrients on the body, and publish their work in academic journals. Though many work for colleges and Universities as professors, they can also be found working for pharmaceutical companies, research labs, government agencies, and policy-influencing non-profit organizations.
Sports dietitians help athletes develop pre- and post-performance meal plans, pick out the right supplements, and manage weight. Many sports dietitians work for fitness centers, personal training firms, and sports teams at every level.
Registered Skills Required
An RD’s required skillset is largely determined by the duties of their specific role. For instance, a research dietitian may need to know how to design scientific studies while a sports dietitian may require a deep understanding of kinesiology. On top of that, most dietitians may need a working knowledge of HIPAA regulations and health informatics.
However, being an effective registered dietitian often means having a well-developed set of soft skills:
- Good decision-making and judgment capabilities
- The ability to instruct others
- The ability to identify and solve complex problems
- Being socially perceptive; that is, aware of the reactions of others and understanding those reactions
- Good reading comprehension skills
- Good coordination skills and the ability to adjust one’s actions in relation to others’ actions
- Collaborative skills
- Effective logic, reasoning, and critical thinking skills
- Effective writing skills
- Effective speaking skills
- Active listening skills
- Ability to demonstrate empathy
For many, diet is a sensitive, hard-to-breech, and even harder to understand subject. To bring scientific nutritional aid to any community, these transferable interpersonal skills are often vital.
Dietitian Education Requirements
The following bachelors and Master’s programs offer career-focused instruction delivered by trained nutrition experts with experience in the field. Find out more about what each individual course of study offers through the locations below.
To become a registered dietitian, one must earn a bachelor’s degree or higher in dietetics or a related field. But to qualify for registered dietitian status, the degree must usually come from a college program approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). Founded in 1917, ACEND is the national organization responsible for ensuring all RD-related college programs prepare students for careers in the field.
According to ACEND, a registered dietitian program should contain courses on:
- Food and nutrition science
- Life cycle nutrition
- Culinary arts
- Food systems management
- Clinical and client services
Along with studying these topics, ACEND also requires students to complete a Dietetic Internship. This hands-on experience can be completed through an ACEND-approved internship program, or in conjunction with an undergraduate or graduate degree accredited by ACEND. Typically, fieldwork requirements hover around 1,200 hours and can take anywhere from six to 12 months to complete.
While settings vary depending on students’ interests, ACEND states that students can fulfill this requirement by working with community-based organizations, healthcare facilities, and food service businesses.
Important Note for Degree Levels
On January 1, 2024, all new registered dietitians will be required to have a graduate degree instead of bachelor’s degree. If you’re planning on becoming an RD, check with the Commission on Dietetic Registration, your state’s regulatory board, and/or your academic advisor to see how this change might affect your plans.
Registered Dietitian Licensure/Certification Qualifications
Like other healthcare professions, the role of registered dietitian is highly regulated. Education is only the first step. The next step is pursuing RD certification and passing the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s national exam.
This exam tests students’ knowledge of the four areas entry-level registered dietitians should be familiar with:
- Principles of Dietetics
- Nutrition Care for Individuals and Groups
- Food and Nutrition Program Management
- Foodservice Systems
To qualify for the exam, students must have earned their ACEND-approved degree and completed their internship. In most states, passing the CDR exam means students can apply for a license to practice as an RD in their state.
However, regulations imposed upon registered dietitians vary from state-to-state so it’s important to stay current on licensing laws. If you have questions about your own state’s laws, learn more from your state’s regulatory board.
Find Out How To Become a Registered Dietitian in Each State
Maintaining Your Registered Dietitian Credential
Nutrition is constantly evolving. To help professionals stay current on dietary best practices, the CDR requires all registered dietitians to complete a certain number of continuing professional education units (CPEUs) to maintain their certification.
Though the CDR constantly reviews its standards, as of March 2023, the organization states that all registered dietitians must complete 75 CPEUs within a five-year renewal cycle.
One CPEU must be dedicated to ethics and can be obtained through the methods below:
- Lectures, seminars, and webinars
- Skill development workshops
- Case presentations
- Journal clubs and study groups
All CPEU activities must be approved by the CDR or one of their many partner organizations.
Earning Specialist Credentials
The CDR exam is only meant to test entry-level knowledge. As dietitians build their careers, they can pursue a number of specialty certifications that can expand their base of knowledge and open new and exciting job opportunities.
Through the CDR, practicing registered dietitians can pursue advanced certifications in:
- Renal nutrition
- Pediatric nutrition
- Pediatric critical care nutrition
- Sports nutrition
- Gerontological nutrition
- Oncology nutrition
- Weight management and obesity
Each of these certifications has its own requirements and exam procedures. But typically, applicants must have 2,000 hours of practice experience and an RD license in good standing.
Registered Dietitian Salary – Average Income
Proper nutrition is becoming more important and more accessible to larger numbers of the American population. Fortunately, salaries for registered dietitians seem to be keeping pace.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) May 2021 employment survey, the median annual salary for registered dietitians is $65,620. The top 10% of earners often bring home $93,640 or more, indicating a positive career trajectory for experienced RDs.
However, this number can fluctuate with location, industry, and experience. For instance, the BLS reports that nutrition professionals in California have the highest mean income at $82,380. Similarly, pharmaceutical and medicine production companies report the highest mean salary at $93,920.
Registered Dietitian Job Outlook and Demand
High salary potential is only one reason to pursue a career in nutrition. Job security in a sometimes unsure market could very well be another.
The BLS projects that between 2021 and 2031, job growth in the nutrition and dietary industry will grow by 7%. While that outpaces the average growth rate for all industries by only 2%, it equates to about 5,600 new job openings every year.
So for budding registered dietitians, there could be ample opportunities to grow and explore new corners of the industry. Will you find a new calling helping the country’s aging population? Or maybe you’ll tap into youth nutrition by combining the power of social media with your dietary research knowledge. Whatever path you choose, your career in nutrition could take you and the world around you to a happier and much healthier place.
*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.