How to Become a Dietitian: Your A-Z Guide on This Booming Health Profession

Written by
Rebecca Smith

Dec 3, 2018

Dec 3, 2018 • by Rebecca Smith

With 2.5 million people working in health and wellness jobs, there's still no end to the need for the work of dietitians. If you're wondering how to become a dietitian, it's not as hard as you probably think it is. With a mind for science and medicine and an interested in health, you'll be perfectly suited for this career.

Here are the five steps to take to become a dietitian.

1. Get Your Bachelor's Degree

If you haven't completed your bachelor's degree, now is the time to get it done. For anyone still working on one or who hasn't begun to apply yet, you're in the privileged position of adjusting your course of study. If you have a degree, you consider some additional classes to ensure you meet the prerequisites required for a master's.

Dietitians need to have a background in food science or biology as a bare minimum. There are specialized undergraduate programs that can train you in dietetics and nutrition that may be helpful.

These course paths ensure you have an understanding of the basics of diet, how the body works, building muscle, and how food is processed by the body. It also expedites your later coursework.

The path that you take academically requires approval from ACEND or the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics. Every school has a different path for their nutrition degree, but there are some basics. Expect to take culinary and nutrition courses, biochemistry, business, physiology, and psychology courses as you study.

If you've gained your preliminary degree in a field related to one of these course types, consider applying for a Master's or a Ph.D. Your path should be expedited because of previous work

2. Complete An Internship

Regardless of your path, you need to complete an internship to prove you're ready to work as a dietitian. During your internship, you receive supervised training from an accredited ACEND professional. There are hourly requirements set out as national standards.

You'll need to work 1200 hours during your internship, which equals around 30 work weeks of 40 hours a week. This internship can be done at a hospital, foodservice company, or at a local community or city agency. If you want a special type of training, like working with people with certain disabilities or disorders, then ask about this while applying for your internship.

Across the country, there are hundreds of accredited programs. The list is available online and through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

These internships can be selective and extremely competitive. If you don't take your application process seriously and don't get strong references, expect the hill to be a steep climb. You'll do a lot of writing and even be required to do practical projects just to apply to some of these programs.

3. Take The National Exam

After you've completed coursework and taken your internship, you still need to take an exam. The national exam from the Commission of Dietetic Registration requires an undergraduate degree and an internship.

During your internship, the director that you work under should tell you everything you need to know about the test. They'll outline how your internship should prepare you for the test and the later application process.

There are study aids available online and through test prep agencies that can ensure that you know everything you need to know. If you're not comfortable taking tests, take a few practice tests to ensure that you're comfortable on the day of the exam. Look online for a study group in your city or region that can help ensure that you're prepared on the day of the test.

If you fail the exam, don't panic. However, you won't be able to take the test again for another 45 days. If this happens, make sure you hit the books even harder the next time.

4. Get Yourself a Job

Once you've passed the exam you have to figure out what you want to do with your degree. The studying, interning, and testing periods are so intense that you might lose sight of your goal. Be wary of that potential and keep your eye on the types of jobs that you want once you're finished.

There are jobs that are in hospitals and there are jobs working for companies and research groups. Beyond that, you can start your own practice to help people independently. That's not ideal in those first years after you get certified, but it's a possibility if you've made a career shift from a related medical field. 

Food service management positions, government agencies, and the private sector all have needs for dietitians. Any company that has any relationship to food has a use for the experience and expertise of a dietitian. You could even become a specialist in workplace wellness.

School districts and residential facilities also have needs for people who understand food and health. As schools are starting to focus more on providing healthy choices to students and families dietitians are in demand.

If you decide to work independently, you should still consider where you want your career path to lead. If you work as a consultant, you have the opportunity to help work on projects as varied as developing a restaurant concept or building a menu for a summer camp.

5. Maintain Your Credentials

Once you've been made a registered dietitian, you need to do some additional work to stay certified. There are continuing education requirements that most health fields have and a set that are particular to dietitians.

Don't look at this work as homework. With the help of continuing education, you can ensure that you're always on top of the latest news and trends in your field. New research will be within your grasp during these courses of study.

Dietitians need to finish 75 hours of education every five years. Broken down, this is just 15 hours a year. You can take workshops, continuing education classes, or sign up for research studies to build your skills and knowledge.

Learning How To Become a Dietitian is Easy

Figuring out how to become a dietitian is easy. It's the work ahead of you that takes the most time and effort. If you have your heart set on this field, you'll find that each day is rewarding enough to keep you going.

If you're perusing different careers in medicine, check out our guide for more info.