What is a Dietitian?

A dietitian is not a nutritionist, and a nutritionist is not a dietitian. Although they may sound similar, each profession carries its own unique aspects, privileges and responsibilities. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the credentialing agency for dietitians, under the new optional RDN (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist) credential, every registered dietitian is also considered to be a nutritionist. However, every nutritionist is not considered to be a registered dietitian. This article will explain what makes a dietitian a dietitian.

Dietitian Job Description

Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs), also known as Registered Dietitians (RDs), must be certified by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in order to practice. They are authorized to treat specific health conditions, such as diabetes and eating disorders, by recommending foods to clients.

Why did the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics decide to include the word “nutritionists” in the RD credentials? The Academy says that it was designed to enhance the RD credential, accurately reflecting a broader concept of wellness that includes the fact that dietitians can prevent health conditions, not just provide medical nutrition therapy and treat health conditions.

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.

Featured Nutritionist Programs

Job Duties of a Dietitian

Insurance often covers clients’ visits to a dietitian (RDN) if those visits are intended to treat a specific health condition. In fact, the Medical Nutrition Therapy Act of 2020 provides Medicare Part B coverage for medical nutrition therapy provided by a dietitian for clients with:

  • Obesity
  • Cancer
  • Prediabetes
  • Celiac disease
  • Malnutrition
  • Dyslipidemia
  • Hypertension
  • Eating disorders
  • Other diseases or conditions that cause unintentional weight loss

In addition to medical nutrition therapy, dietitians focus on prevention of health conditions through proper nutrition and education. Other conditions they may address in clients include bariatric surgery, kidney issues, and working with sports nutrition/optimal nutrition for athletes.

Types of Dietitians

There is a wide variety of types of dietitians, based upon where a dietitian works, the clients with whom they work, and their specialization. Generally, there are four accepted main domains of practice for dietitians, each of which carries its own specialized job duties and responsibilities:

  • Clinical dietitian – usually work in an inpatient hospital/long-term-care facility or outpatient clinic. Duties include:
    • Detailing a client’s medical history and current status, including getting lab work and weight history
    • Assessing acute needs of clients and prioritizing life-threatening conditions
    • Providing nutrition education and counseling to people with special needs (i.e., cancer, recent surgery, chronic illness)
  • Food service management dietitian – oversees production of nutritionally valued food meeting food safety guidelines for a large organization. May work in:
    • Schools
    • Military bases
  • Community dietitian-designs/implements programs aimed at populations, like those trying to prevent diabetes or learning to cook more healthily. Other duties include advocating for public policies with a special focus on nutrition, health and food issues.
  • Research dietitian- these dietitians work in research hospitals, institutions or organizations. They usually work as part of a research team carrying out nutrition-focused interventions.

Others Who Work Closely with a Dietitian

Other healthcare professionals who work closely with a dietitian include primary care practitioners, who may refer clients to dietitians; health coaches; nutrition coaches; fitness instructors; and nutritionists.

Skills Necessary for Dietitians

In order to perform their jobs well, dietitians should be able to:

  • Communicate well, in writing and orally
  • Have excellent listening skills
  • Analyze ideas and use logic to determine strengths and weaknesses
  • Effectively problem-solve
  • Motivate others
  • Manage time
  • Change behavior in relation to others’ actions
  • Persuade others to try new approaches
  • Analyze needs and requirements

Work Hours for Dietitians

Dietitians typically work 40 hours per week, and mainly Monday through Friday, during regular daytime business hours. Depending upon where a dietitian works, however, they may also need to work evenings and weekends.

Work Settings for Dietitians

A few of the settings in which dietitians may work are hospitals, private practice, outpatient clinics, research institutions, community education, or public health offices.

Average Salary for Dietitians

As of May 2021, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an average salary of $65,620 for dietitians.California came out on top for its average pay of dietitians, at $82,380, while the pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing industry ranked as the highest-paying industry for dietitians, at $93,920.*

Education, Experience, Certification and Licensure Required for Dietitians

Registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs), the proper name for Registered Dietitians in the United States, must be certified by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This certification requires them to:

  • Have a bachelor’s degree or higher from an accredited college or university (as of Jan. 1, 2024, all students must have at least a master’s degree in order to sit for the CDR national exam)
  • Have the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) approve their coursework
  • Complete 1200 hours of supervised practice
  • Pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration national examination
  • Complete continuing education to maintain registration

National certification is achieved through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and allows a dietitian to call themselves a RD or RDN. Most states require that dietitians also be licensed or certified within the state in which they intend to practice. The only states as of July 1, 2020 that do not require licensure or certification in order to practice in the state are: Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, and Virginia. Check with your state’s dietetic board for its licensure/certification procedures.

Areas in Which Dietitians May Specialize

The Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) offers the following specialist certifications for dietitians who wish to practice in a specialized area:

  • Gerontological Nutrition
  • Sports Dietetics
  • Renal Nutrition
  • Pediatric Critical Care Nutrition
  • Pediatric Nutrition
  • Oncology Nutrition
  • Obesity and Weight Management

Each specialty certification requires that the RD has been certified for at least two years, has 2000 hours of practice experience in the specialty area they seek, and can pass an examination. Maintaining certification requires 2000 more hours of specialty practice experience and passing a recertification exam every five years.

Job Outlook for Dietitians

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that the job outlook for registered dietitians is quite promising in the coming years. Between 2020 and 2030, the number of jobs for dietitians is projected to increase by 11 percent – that’s much faster than the growth rate among all occupations during this time.*

*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.