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How to Become a Dietitian

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With obesity continuing to be a major health problem among both adults and children, it's clear that many of us need to learn to eat better. Overeating isn't the only thing that compromises our well-being. So does eating the wrong foods. Dietitians plan food and nutrition programs. They work in schools, community agencies, colleges, health care facilities, company cafeterias and private practices.

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Dietitian?

As a student studying to be a dietitian you will learn a lot through your professional training. There are things, however, your training won't teach you. These are the traits you either are born with or develop as you mature and if you don't have them, it will be difficult to work as a dietitian. For example, dietitians must be excellent communicators. If you can't understand what your clients are telling you or you are unable to convey information to them, you won't be able to do your job. Since keeping up with the literature in your field is important, you must have good reading comprehension skills. Dietitians must also be sensitive to their clients' needs. Should you become a dietitian?

Required Education

What degree do you need to earn in order to become a dietitian? The short answer is a bachelor's degree in dietetics, foods and nutrition, food service systems management or a related area. It gets a bit more complicated, however, as you have to decide whether or not to become a registered dietitian (RD).

RD is a credential the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics grants to graduates of programs approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) who have completed an ACEND-accredited six to 12 month supervised internship and passed an exam. RDs maintain their status by completing continuing professional education requirements. This designation indicates to prospective employers that one has met certain requirements and while not all of them specify that you must be a registered dietitian, many do. A quick perusal of job announcements revealed that all are seeking either RDs or RD-eligible candidates. However, you can opt not to become an RD and enroll in an unaccredited program.

ACEND accredits two types of programs: Didactic Programs in Dietetics (DPD) and Coordinated Programs in Dietetics (CP). Some result in a bachelor's degree and others in a master's degree. In a DPD, students 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. Students who are enrolled in a coordinated program will both learn the foundations of dietetic practice and complete the practical training needed to become an RD.

While in college, you should expect to fulfill your school's basic academic requirements by taking science, social science and humanities classes. Then you will take classes that are specific to your major, whether it's culinary nutrition, dietetics or foods and nutrition. While accredited programs must meet the standards for dietetics education set forth by ACEND, there is no other requirement regarding specifically what courses they must offer. For example at a program in culinary nutrition like the one offered by Johnson & Wales University you will take culinary arts classes in addition to nutrition courses, while the dietetics curriculum at Georgia State University's Division of Nutrition puts more of an emphasis on community health and nutrition. Here are some examples that illustrate the wide variety of classes that all may result in one 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 instead. This option would appeal to a student who is already an RD, but would like advanced training, or one who earned a bachelor's degree in another area of study and would like to become a registered dietitian. The student who is not already an RD should enroll in a graduate level program that is accredited by ACEND.

Getting Into College

Admission requirements vary by program. Most undergraduate programs seem to accept students directly out of high school and often require that one's transcript include classes in math, chemistry and biology. Check with the programs in which you are interested to learn how to apply. Graduate programs are geared toward career changers or dietetic professionals who seek advanced training.

What You'll Have to Do After Graduation

As discussed above, students who wish to become RDs must complete an ACEND-approved practice program and sit for a written examination. In addition, 46 states require dietitians, whether or not they are RDs, to be licensed or certified. Without this license or certification you will not be able to work as a dietitian. You are advised to check with the state in which you want to work to find out whether 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 individual states: State Licensure Agency Contact List.

You may have heard the job title "nutritionist." Some RDs use it, as do others. Before you decide to call yourself a nutritionist, you should be aware that the state in which you want to practice may regulate the use of that term.

Getting Your First Job As a Dietitian?

After graduating from college and fulfilling all the requirements needed to become an RD if that is the route you decided to take, you are now ready to look for work. The following specifications have been culled from job announcements found in various sources:
  • "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."

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