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What is a Dietician?

A dietitian is a professional who works with clients and patients to help them recover from various illnesses through the use of nutrition. Dietitians have obtained degrees in nutritional science and its impact on specific areas of health as well as overall wellness. Dietitians frequently consult with diabetic patients, people suffering from intestinal distress, celiac disease, and obesity, among other ailments. Given the increased attention on diet and the impact of our food on health, this field is growing at a rapid pace.

While dietitians are most commonly thought of as consultants who work with individuals, they can serve a more institutional function. They might advise institutional cafeterias to help maximize patient nutrition. Dietitians also work to educate sports teams, patients in drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities, prisoners, and even children. After all, diet and nutrition are a big part of everyone's daily routine.

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Steps to Becoming a Dietician

In order to become a registered dietitian nutritionist, you should first seek out an accredited program that provides the precise training you desire. Take a close look at how schools organize their curriculum and compare them to see which is the best fit for your career goals. You might also consider what other complimentary programs are offered. For instance, a degree in nutrition might compliment well with a minor focus in sports medicine, counseling, or public health.

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As you study, you should start preparing for licensure by taking internship courses or other experiential learning programs. Some states have requirements for supervised hours prior to licensure, so discuss this with your academic adviser, who will be able to help you prepare an academic pathway to state credentials.

  • Step 1: Is this for me?

  • Step 2: Bachelor's Degree

  • Step 3: Seek professional credentials

  • Step 4: Graduate school


Step 1: Is this for me?

A registered dietitian nutritionist will have a great career. However, it's important to assess whether this is the career for you. This is a great career if you have personal experience with the healing power of food and various nutritional delivery methods, such as supplements. A registered dietitian nutritionist have either recovered from ailments by way of diet or seen close friends or family members find relief from learning more about their diet and how it affects them. For instance, many are reporting great results from eliminating or reducing gluten in their diet.

Since nutrition professionals spend a great deal of time working with others, you need to be sure that you are both a natural and effective communicator. If communication is not your forte, but you have a passion for the healing power of nutrition, you could decide that research is where you'd rather be. If you combine your training in nutrition with coursework in culinary science, you could work to develop new, healthful foods.

Step 2: Bachelor's Degree

Once you have determined that your true passion lies in the field of nutrition, you need to find an bachelor's degree in nutrition that will prepare you for success. Not just any program will do, however. If your state requires licensure, the licensing board will likely only accept degrees from schools with top accreditation. State boards often require accreditation from a national agency such as the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) or the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). However, your state guidelines may accept regional accreditation.

As you pursue your bachelor's degree as a dietician, seek out the courses and internships that will support your long-term goals. Those could involve working as a registered dietitian nutritionist with athletes, cancer patients, diabetics, or even working in a research setting in hopes of informing the fields with science-based knowledge. This experience could set you up for success as a registered dietitian.

Step 3: Seek Professional Credentials

Note that there is not much consistency in the way states regulate clinical dietitians and nutritionists. In some states, licensed professionals are called registered dietitians, while other states confer the title, nutritionist. Note that you may also be able to work in your field without a license, but you will be legally barred from using certain titles or making certain claims. On the other hand, some states don’t regulate nutrition professionals whatsoever.

To solve this seeming confusion, you can always seek certification from a national agency such as the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB) or the American Association of Nutritional Consultants (AANC.) Your credentials could be that of licensed nutritionist, board certified holistic nutritionist, or certified nutrition specialist.

Step 4: Graduate School and Beyond

After you have been in the field for a few years, you may wish to add more academic credentials to your resume. A master's degree in nutrition will not only look great on you resume, but you will have at least two years to dedicate to your passion. You will thus graduate with heightened knowledge and skills that will only benefit your clients. You will also see your pay rate increase to match your academic accomplishments.

Graduate school is also a great time to hone your passions into a specialty that you can directly apply upon graduation. For instance, you might find that your clinical work could benefit from more research. There are many graduate programs that will allow you to pursue your research ideas. On the other hand, you can always us a master's degree to deepen and broaden your clinical skills.

Keep in mind that if you have a state licensure you will probably need to take continuing education courses to maintain your credentials. This coursework can include graduate courses as well as non-credit seminars or online classes. Regardless, you should always strive to be a lifelong learner. After all, we are still learning about the impact of our food on health.

What Does a Dietician Do?

Clinical dietitians and nutritionists can pursue their careers in a variety of ways. You might work in private practice, a hospital or clinic, with the wider community, or in an institutional food service organization. This sort of flexibility is very appealing to many who relish the idea of a career comprised of distinct, yet equally satisfying, chapters. It's vital to take a look at the variety of paths available so that you can attain other long-term goals such as raising a family.

In a private practice, you can operate under many titles. You could be a life coach, nutritional adviser, or a wellness consultant, among many other possibilities. If you have a state issued credential, you should probably highlight that accomplishment for all its benefits. One key issue with being in private practice is that much of your time will be filled with networking, marketing, and other business-related tasks.

If you work in a hospital or other clinical environment, the existing administration will provide clients for you. Your days will be filled with nutritional assessments, diagnostics, and consultations. Ultimately, you will devise a diet for patients to follow upon release. You might even help the hospital staff provide meals that adhere to the specific dietary needs of individual patients.

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Another possibility is to work with either a governmental agency or non-profit that seeks to bolster public health through nutrition. You might need a background in public health education, but you can always work your way into this position. If you have the right sort of personality, and a devotion to the material, most any organization will train you to educate people on diet and nutrition.

Finally, you could work in an institutional food service organization. This could be a cafeteria in a hospital, college campus, or even a corporation's commissary. Your goal will be to design meals that are both appealing but that also encourage maximum health.

Skills to Acquire

While nutritionists don't necessarily need any specific technical skills, such as computer skills or medical acumen, you will gain a healthy toolkit specific to your career. Thus, to be the best registered dietitian nutritionist possible, you should master a wide range of skills that include, but are not limited to:

  • Diagnostic Assessment:
    When you meet a client, you will need to assess their situation and arrive at some sort of conclusion regarding their condition. From this diagnostic assessment you can establish a plan for achieving health.
  • Dietary and Lifestyle Analysis:
    You will need to understand the patient's lifestyle and other factors that impact their overall health and wellness. For instance, if they are taking medications that impact how they metabolize foods, or which deplete certain nutrients, you will need to understand these factors and have a strategy for working with them.
  • Meal Planning:
    In your training, you will need to master the art of meal planning. Not only should the meals address nutritional needs, but they should be appealing to the patient. You may need strategies to overcome the idea that nutrition is equated with bland flavors.
  • Quantitative Assessment:
    To show the efficacy of your plan, you should take measurements or collect other hard data so that you have a baseline to work with. You could measure the patient's weight, blood pressure, and medication schedule and chart those variables over time.

Alternative Paths

If you find that you wish to change careers into the field of health and wellness, but you don't have a degree in the field, there are options. Since clinical dietitians and nutritionists are loosely regulated at best, you don't often need to have a license to practice and satisfy your passion. You might not be able to use certain titles, which are the exclusive domain of licensed professionals, but you can work under other banners.

For instance, you can work as a health coach and help to facilitate wellness without a specific academic degree or state licensure. There are professional certifications you can attain which will provide needed credentials, but these aren't a necessity. In fact, other healthcare and fitness professionals dispense dietary advice without that specific credential. Yoga instructors, personal trainers, massage therapists, occupational therapists, and acupuncturists, to name a few, are frequently consulted regarding their thoughts on diet and nutrition.

If you have attained a wide body of knowledge but have no formal training, you can always gain credibility by conducting seminars. In this way you can start to build a reputation as an expert on diet and nutrition. From these seminars you might start to attract individuals who wish to hire you to help them overcome their nutritional difficulties. You can also augment your reputation and experience by publishing articles on nutrition in wellness magazines, or even writing books that can reach a wider audience.

Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


Nutrition professionals can work in a variety of environments. Where you work will depend on the particular specialty area you desire. If you are more independently minded, you can pursue a private dietary consultancy. You will need to spend a lot of time and energy marketing yourself and networking with other wellness practitioners, but you will have complete autonomy.

You could also work in a hospital or clinic with the patients there. You can even specialize within this area. Some work primarily with cancer patients, where others might consult with nursing mothers on how to best support the health of themselves and their children. There are even career opportunities in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, as many addicts suffer from poor nutrition, among other issues.

If you wish to branch into the culinary field, there are also openings for clinical dietitians and nutritionists in institutional food service venues, as well as with food processing companies. In a food service role, you will create meals on a large scale that are both tasty and brimming with nutrients. In a food processing company, you can research new food products or devise healthful twists on existing products.

Potential Career Paths

As you work towards becoming a registered dietitian, you might consider other related career paths, too. When you start work as a registered dietitian, you might work alongside these professionals. You could even educate them so that you are on the same page and can best impact patient outcomes.

Personal Trainer:
Your primary job might be to attain certain fitness or athletic goals, but along the way you will surely need to address nutrition. Since many people begin work with a trainer to address a weight or other health issue, you should have some knowledge of nutrition.

Occupational Therapist:
These healthcare professionals assist a wide range of clients who need assistance mastering skills for daily life. Whether you are working with geriatric patients who are battling dementia, teenagers with mental illness, or accident victims who are re-learning basic motor skills, food preparation and consumption are vital elements to include in treatment.

Health Educator:
These educators work in schools, hospitals, jails, and many other environments. They might train their clients on a variety of issues including sexually transmitted diseases, the dangers of drugs and alcohol, or nutrition.

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Rehabilitation Counselor:
These healthcare professionals work to help others recover from a wide range of diseases and injuries. You could work with stroke victims, automobile accident victims, and anyone who needs to regain a sense of health and wellness.

Personal Chef:
If you have a culinary background and some good experience, you might be hired to prepare meals for clients in their homes. You can tailor meals specific to their tastes and health goals. Primarily, personal chefs are hired for the convenience they offer, but your professional knowledge and skill can make the position much more.

Career Outlook

Clinical dietitians and nutritionists are seeing great growth in their field. Since they are part of the healthcare industry, this is no real surprise. As a result of a rise in insured patients and our rapidly aging population, occupations in healthcare are growing at a very fast clip. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the field of clinical dietitians and nutritionists is slated to grow by 15% through 2026. This growth is characterized as much faster than average.

Thus, if you have a passion for health, wellness, and the impact of nutrition, now is a great time to start working in this field. Given how our society is gaining new passions for food, on top of our obsession with health, the field is bound to become increasingly competitive.

Currently, the national median salary for clinical dietitians and nutritionists is $59,400. This number is bound to be higher or where you live. However, it is sure to only rise as demand for dietetic services continue to rise.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Advancing From Here

Your career as a registered dietitian nutritionist can remain at whatever level you are comfortable with. If you develop a healthy private practice, you could maintain there for a lifetime. If you work in a hospital, you could be a staff registered dietitian nutritionist for years. However, if you have a desire to advance, you can always pursue more education. You could advance into graduate school and even attain a doctoral degree and pursue clinical or research work at the highest levels. With so many options available to clinical dietitians and nutritionists, what might look like a lateral move could offer a whole new set of challenges and rewards. Take a look at the menu, nearly every choice offers satisfaction.

What can you do with a degree in nutrition?

With a degree in nutrition you can work in pediatric nutrition, oncology nutrition, sports nutrition, nutrition counseling, and nutrition research. Registered dietitians and nutritionists can work as community dietitians and food service managers.

What is medical nutrition therapy?

Medical nutrition therapy is used to help people manage chronic diseases including diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, liver cirrhosis, osteoporosis, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders, chronic kidney disease, eating disorders, and malnutrition. Medical nutrition therapy uses a combination of food, fluids, herbs, medications, minerals, vitamins, supplements, and lifestyle changes to help promote optimal health. Registered dietitians and nutritionists perform nutrition assessments throughout treatment.

What are management dietitians?

Management dietitians work in food service settings and plan food programs for hospitals, cafeterias, schools, and prisons. Management dietitians might be responsible for overseeing other dietitians and kitchen staff. Management dietitians might also be responsible for budgeting and buying.

What is pediatric nutrition?

Pediatric nutrition focuses on creating nutritional plans for infants and young children nutrition assessments. Pediatric nutrition helps families develop healthy eating habits through nutrition assessments. The goal of pediatric nutrition is to decrease the likelihood of developing diseases that can develop in adulthood like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.

Where do registered dietitians and nutritionists work?

Registered dietitians and nutritionists work in hospitals, public health clinics, cafeterias, nursing homes, and for state and local governments.

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