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.
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!
👨🌾 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.
👩⚕️ 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.
📚 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:
- 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®).
- Complete an accredited supervised practice program (commonly called the dietetics internship), usually lasting from 6-12 months.
- Pass a national registration exam.
- Complete continuing education requirements to maintain registration throughout your career.
👩🎓 Types of Dietitian Training Program
There are a few different routes to finishing the educational requirement before becoming a RDN.
- 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.
- 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.
💡 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.
👉 Read more about the process to become a RDN
- What to do as a dietetics student to become a successful dietitian
- The exact steps to the DICAS application, explained
- Don’t make these personal statement mistakes
- How to ace your dietetic internship interview
- Read this before taking your registered dietitian exam
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!