If you read my post a few weeks ago, you might be wondering, what is a registered dietitian, or RD, and what exactly do they do? The name alone may be pretty self explanatory to you, but you’d be surprised by the number of people who’ve asked me what a dietitian does. A registered dietitian, in short, is someone who gives people advice on what they should be eating (hence the dietitian), with expertises ranging from clinical nutrition, food safety, nutrition and physical activity, nutrition counseling, nutrition policy, and so on. Keep reading to hear a little bit more about the schooling necessary to become an RD and more specific details about what they do!
Registered Dietitian vs. Nutritionist
It is a major pet peeve of dietitians when they are confused with nutritionists (although technically RDs can call themselves RDNs, registered dietitian nutritionists, if they choose – the RD in front makes a big difference). In order to become a registered dietitian, one must complete an undergraduate degree in nutrition, completing all the courses required by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics at an accredited university. Then, as I mentioned in my other post, they have to complete a Dietetic Internship (DI) from an accredited program. There are about 250 around the country. This may sound like a lot, but each program only accepts between 5 and 40 applicants (most of them being on the lower end of that spectrum). Because there are so few internship slots, the application process is extremely competitive. Only about 50% of applicants match with an internship. (You either match with 1 program or you don’t match at all. You can’t be accepted into multiple programs and then pick.)
DI’s range from 8-24 months in length, depending on many different factors. For some programs, graduates come out with a Master’s degree as well as an internship certificate. Starting in the year 2024, registered dietitians will be required to have a Master’s in nutrition in order to become certified. This being the case, many people who are currently in school (myself included) are getting their Master’s degrees as well, so they are competitive with the future generations of RD’s. During your DI, you complete a minimum of 1200 hours of supervised practice in the field. This usually means doing rounds in hospitals, clinics, food service establishments, athletic programs, and more. Essentially, you’re taking all of the things you learned during undergrad and putting them into action. You’re basically a “practice dietitian.”
Once you’ve completed your DI, you have to pass the RD exam. This comprehensive exam covers all of the topics that have been covered throughout undergrad and internship. It typically requires months of studying given the extensive content. Only once you pass this exam are you an official RD. But because the world of nutrition is constantly changing and new research is coming out every year, dietitians are also required to constantly be brushing up their nutrition knowledge. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics requires each RD to do a certain number of specialty practice hours every 5 years to ensure that their knowledge is up-to-date with the newest information.
So what’s a nutritionist? It’s pretty much anyone who calls themself a nutrition expert. There are no certifications or qualifications at all. It could quite literally be anyone off the street. Which is why it’s pretty important to understand the difference between the two. Nutrition advice is not something you want to be getting from any old Joe Shmoe, or someone who decided to take up nutrition as a hobby one day. It really should be coming from someone who has been educated properly and has a really well-rounded understanding of how nutrition interacts with the physiological processes of the body.
Where Do RDs Work?
One of the great things about being a dietitian is that you really can find work in almost any setting, because food and humanity are inherently intertwined.
- Clinical Nutrition:
- This is the field that most RDs go into. They work in places such as hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes, with a specific focus on medical nutrition therapy. These dietitians work alongside other medical professionals to treat various disease states, adding medical nutrition therapy to the mix of treatment modalities.
- Nutrition and Physical Performance:
- These dietitians work with athletes. Professional and collegiate athletic teams have dietitians that plan meals for the athletes and do one-on-one consultations with them.
- Food Service:
- Many restaurants, school lunch programs, and other food service companies hire dietitians to design a well-balanced menu.
- Nutrition Counseling:
- While nutrition counseling is a part of clinical nutrition, it makes up its own category as well. Nutrition counseling includes dietitians who open up a private practice, with open appointments for those seeking nutrition advice. Many times, doctors will require patients with severe health and diet issues to see outpatient dietitians.
- Community Nutrition:
- Community dietitians work in various areas to make changes throughout a whole community. For example, they may work with local businesses to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables, or hold cooking classes.
- Nutrition Policy
- This is a field that is a huge part of our daily lives, though we really never think about it. Dietitians in this area are the ones advocating for nutrition labels and requiring businesses to be transparent about what’s in their products. They are also creating the national nutrition recommendations, like RDA’s (recommended daily allowances), DRIs (daily recommended intakes), and ULs (upper limits) for various nutrients.
While the above are the main areas in which dietitians work, there are of course other niche areas of nutrition that are missing from this list. It really is interesting to see how dietitians fit into all of these different settings. I hope you were able to learn a little something about dietitians from this post! And next time you’re asking someone for nutrition advice, make sure they have the letters RD behind their name! This way, you can be sure that they really know their stuff!