How to Become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

Want to know what it takes to become a registered dietitian? This step-by-step guide will walk you through the exact steps to take to become a registered dietitian nutritionist, from didactic and coordinated programs, dietetic internships, and beyond.

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UPDATE: This article was originally posted in July 2018 and updated with new information in January 2021.

So you want to become a registered dietitian? That’s great! It’s amazing profession and there are endless ways to use your registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) credential.

However, the steps to become a dietitian are a bit confusing and can bring up more questions than answers: What exactly is a dietitian? Is it the same as a nutritionist? Why aren’t all nutrition programs the same and which one should I choose?

I had these questions and more when I was still a student, so I pulled together this complete guide of the steps you need to take to become a RDN to cut the confusion and know your exact steps to move forward.

Ready to learn what it takes to become a RDN? Let’s do it!


πŸ‘¨‍🌾 What is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)?

Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) are nutrition experts and are the only legally recognized nutrition professional in the United States. RDNs work in a variety of settings including (but not limited to) hospitals, clinics, public health, food service, business, private practice, sports, universities, and research.

Having a career as a dietitian has consistently been named one of the best (and least stressful, though I’m sure many RDNs would disagree) jobs in the country.

As society becomes increasingly aware of the importance of nutrition in health outcomes, the need for RDNs grows. In fact, the demand for dietitians is expected to grow faster than average, at 21% in the next ten years.


πŸ‘©‍βš•οΈ What is the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?

Registered dietitians must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, complete specific nutrition courses, finish a minimum 1200 hour supervised practice program, and pass a rigorous registration examination before they are allowed to use the title “Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.”

RDNs are bound to professional and ethical standards and base their decisions on evidence based practice. Registered Dietitian Nutritionist are the gold standard in nutrition care in the United States and beyond.

All dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians.

Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, with or without nutrition education or certification. In fact, there are many “nutritionist certifications” online that can be done in less than one day. There is no legal standard on the term, so someone can present themselves as a nutrition expert with minimal education.

However, the registered dietitian credentials — RD and RDN — are legally protected*, so you know when you see them that the person has the proper education and training to provide medical nutrition therapy.

*The titles “Registered Dietitian” and “Registered Dietitian Nutritionist” are interchangeable and each dietitian can choose to use whichever credential they prefer.


πŸ“š The 4 steps to become a dietitian

There are four general steps to becoming a RDN, which are listed below and then explained in more detail:

  1. Complete a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and all required nutrition courses through a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND®).
  2. Complete an accredited supervised practice program (commonly called the dietetics internship), usually lasting from 6-12 months.
  3. Pass a national registration exam.
  4. Complete continuing education requirements to maintain registration throughout your career.

More information about the requirements can be found here.


πŸ‘©‍πŸŽ“ Types of Dietitian Training Program

There are a few different routes to finishing the educational requirement before becoming a RDN.

  1. Complete a coordinated program, in which the bachelor’s/masters degree is combined with the supervised practice. Because of the highly competitive nature of acceptance to dietetics internships, this is the easiest route to becoming an RDN because you are guaranteed acceptance into the supervised practice. However, being accepted into the program may be more competitive than doing the internship separate from the degree and there are far fewer coordinate programs (find all coordinated programs here). As always, thoroughly research all programs before applying.
  2. Complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nutrition/dietetics that is separate from the internship, called a “Didactic Program in Dietetics” or DPD. Accredited DPD programs can be found here. If you already have your bachelor’s degree, you may either complete another bachelor’s degree or do an accredited master’s degree program. Then apply and complete a supervised practice program; a list of internship programs is found here.

🍏 What’s the deal with the Dietetic Internship?

If you are lucky enough to do a coordinated program, then you will not have to experience the dietetic internship application process. I, like the majority of dietetics students, went the DPD program route and had the pleasure (ahem) of applying for internships in my senior year.

The internship application process is intense–students apply through a centralized application portal and are matched to one program, or none.

Each applicant finds out their match at the same time, available to view on the application portal, and words cannot explain the excitement and nervousness among dietetics students on that day. The match rate is currently at 47%, which means that over half of those who apply are not matched to a program and must wait until the next matching round to apply again, usually in six months to one year.

There are many rules, tips, and tricks to applying for and being matched to a dietetics internship, but the most important is to bring the best possible application to the table. A high GPA, excellent work/volunteer experiences, and leadership can be what makes or breaks an application. Find out more about the dietetic internship application here.


πŸ’‘ Resources for future dietitians

My advice to those considering studying to become a RDN? Research, research, research!

I cannot count the hours I spent searching for information about becoming a dietitian over the last six years, they would measure in the thousands. I researched schools, internships, read blogs, reached out to current students and RDNs, and never hesitated to ask questions. I went after every experience I could get my hands on to make sure that becoming a RDN was really for me.

I suggest starting with the resources listed below and going from there. The profession is always growing and dietitians are more than helpful with information for students, because they know what it’s like to be in your shoes!

  • All Access Internships: Hands-down the best resource for dietetics students, including application coaching. Get 20% the Get Matched online course with the code FORKINTHEROAD.
  • RDN Fact Sheet from ACEND®
  • FAQs about Computer Matching for supervised practice internships
  • Nutrition Jobs: A site devoted to careers for nutrition professionals.
  • Dietitian Central: A website for RDNs posting jobs, articles, and career advice. The forums are the place to post and search information and get answers from nutrition professionals and fellow students.
  • Reddit Dietetics: A gathering of students and RDNs on Reddit that post about issues pertaining to the profession. Posting here will give lots of great insight into what it takes to succeed as a dietetic student.
  • Blogs: With more people searching online for information about nutrition and health, it’s no wonder that so many RDNs and students are now online! Try the Nutrition Blog Network for a list of RDNs that blog or a simple search to show blogs written by dietetics students.

πŸ‘‰ Read more about the process to become a RDN

I hope this answered any questions about what a RDN does and how to become a dietitian, keep an eye out for future posts on my resources for RDNs section. If you have any further questions, please leave a comment below!

23 Comments

  1. May I ask… you mentioned you were held back to starting this degree due to the science classes. I too am anxious about starting for this reason. Did you find them as difficult as you thought they would be? Thank you for sharing your experience!

    1. Hi there, thanks for reaching out! Yes, I was nervous about the science courses but once I dug in and started the work, I actually really enjoyed them and ended up doing really well. In high school I was never interested in science, but since I knew that nutrition and health was what I wanted to pursue, science took on a new meaning to me. I was able to see science in action and not just as an abstract subject I needed to get through to graduate. That’s not to say that the courses were easy–they were not–but I was much more dedicated and for that reason I ended up doing well.

      Good luck, it’s a long road to become a RDN but it’s worth it!

  2. Hi, Kristin! I graduated in 2004 with a BS in broadcast journalism. After many unfulfilling jobs sitting in a cubicle all day, I’ve decided that I’d like to pursue a career in dietetics and nutrition. I realize that I’ll have to start by taking many science classes. My question for you is, once those are complete, am I able to apply for a master’s program? Or will it depend on my transcripts?

    Thanks!

    1. Hi there! Each program is different, but once you take the necessary prerequisites for the dietetics master’s program you will be able to apply. However, the prerequisites may include more than just the science classes. You’ll likely need to take the general sciences (biology, chemistry, organic chem, anatomy, physiology, etc.) and then will likely also need to take some general nutrition classes and psychology. However, first I would pinpoint the potential master’s programs you’d like to apply to and then chat with their admissions programs to see what exactly they need. Some may want to you to take all prereqs before applying, while others may only need you to take a few and will allow you to also take some while taking your nutrition courses.

      It’s a long road to become a RD, but it’s definitely worth it! I would also recommend getting some type of experience through volunteer work or something similar. Good luck!

  3. This is such a fantastic article! I am in the process of applying for MS in Nutrition DPD programs, but am actually coming from a totally unrelated background. I’ve been taking many pre-reqs and getting all of my recommendations lined up from undergrad and professional, but I need some better volunteer experience in basically any related field to be more competitive. Would you have any recommendations for types of volunteer opportunities to look for? Thanks!

    1. Thanks so much! Great job on getting your coursework and recommendations in line, that’s the hardest part. I would say the best volunteer experiences are those that align with your future goals and things that you love doing. But I will say that many DI directors do value clinical experience of any kind, because it shows you have experience in a hospital or clinical setting. But otherwise do what you enjoy doing to get experience and don’t overwork yourself! Grades definitely come first. Good luck!

  4. Truly grateful I found your page. I can’t count the number of times I’ve searched online for a β€˜straight-to-the-point” article on How to become a RDN. Thank you for providing that here! I want to ask, specifically on experience, for someone with a different background would you suggest earning experience through volunteer work while employed in another field or stepping away from the unrelated field to nutrition in terms of employment? Unfortunately most paid-positions require some experience in nutrition, thus makes it a bit more difficult for an entry-level candidate.

    1. Hi there, thanks so much for commenting and I’m happy you found this article helpful. I wrote it because I myself could not find a to-the-point outline of how to become a dietitian. As far as getting experience, I think you could do a little of both. There’s value in the fact that you have a job and have experience in another field–a lot of students come into dietetics right out of high school and without work experience, so this is a plus. I think you can get nutrition-specific experience in many ways, including leadership in your school’s clubs, volunteering one night a week in a hospital or food bank, etc. If you’re not yet in the dietetic program, I wouldn’t worry too much about experience yet. Just get those prerequisite classes done, get into the dietetics program, and then find a volunteer experience. Work the job in another field to get the bill paid (I worked in restaurants while in school, which actually provided great food service management experience). Good luck!

  5. Hi!!!! Thanks for the information shared.. Am Oluchi from Nigeria. I did my Bsc in Computer Application, graduated 2013…I actually wanted to go for nutrition and dietetics then but did not know how to go about it…. But now I really want to go for this course. Don’t know if I can go for a masters degree direct or still have to do a Bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics before going for masters in order to become a registered dietitian nutritionist…. Pls I need direction on what to do… Am presently in Nigeria now. Thanks

    1. Hi Oluchi, thanks so much for reaching out! You might have to do a little research, but yes with an undergraduate degree you should be able to go into a master’s degree directly. You will likely have to complete some prerequisite classes (mostly sciences like biology and chemistry) and then you’ll be able to apply to master’s degree programs. I would research what master’s programs are available and then reach out to the directors and ask them their thoughts on the next steps you can take. Good luck!

  6. I have passed my graduation in CBZ chemistry botany zoology and now m Pershing in post graduation in food and nutrition ,can I give RD Exam .

    1. Hi there, thanks for reaching out. You will have to complete a degree in an approved nutrition and dietetics program first and then complete a dietetic internship. Check with the official dietetics organization in the country you are in and see what their requirements are to sit for the exam. Good luck!

  7. Hi Kristin it is a wonderful and useful page ,thanks for sharing your experience. I’m from India l have passed B.Sc. in Nutrition and Dietetics, M.Sc in Food Service Management and Dietetics and M.Phil in Food Science and Nutrition now pursuing Ph.D can i get a dietician job in U.S and am l eligible to write RDN there please enlighten me with information thank you.

  8. I would like to know how could I acquire this title of RDN while I am pursuing bachelor’s in Computer Applications …Is there any way ???

  9. What is the best school on line there is do much out there. I have a degree in Culinary. I want to study nutrition please help thanks

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