Dietitian Career Guide

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What Is a Dietitian?

A dietitian is a licensed and registered medical professional who provides nutritional counseling and medical nutrition therapy to their patients. The food choices we make can drastically impact our health and overall well-being! Dietitians are expert healthcare providers who offer their patients a wide range of invaluable advice, treatment, and resources.

A professional dietitian is also called a registered dietitian (RD), or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). Are you interested in an engaging and rewarding career as a dietitian? This profession is expected to grow faster than average! Keep reading for a closer look at what life is like as a registered dietitian and what steps you need to take to get there.

What Does a Dietitian Do?

The daily general job description of a dietitian includes:

  • Assessing patients’ health and nutritional needs
  • Making recommendations for food choices and meal plans
  • Counseling patients on healthy and recommended eating habits
  • Monitoring and documenting progress and results
  • Providing nutrition and dietary education

In addition to the above, dietitians specialize in how food choices impact current or future health conditions. Diet has a significant effect on the management and development of certain diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and more.

While dietitians often lead the nutrition care process, dietetic technicians provide vital support, applying their knowledge of food and nutrition to assist in developing and implementing dietary plans and evaluations. Working closely under the supervision of registered dietitians, dietetic technicians contribute by gathering patient information, preparing and serving meals according to dietary plans, and providing basic nutrition education under the guidance of dietitians.

Both dietitians and dietetic technicians can help people make impactful and sustainable changes to their lifestyles that allow them to stay off prescription medications and live happier and healthier lives!

How Do You Become a Dietitian?

To become a dietitian, you must start with a high school diploma. After that, here are your next steps:

  • Complete a bachelor's or master’s degree from an accredited program. Be sure to find a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). A degree from an accredited program is a requirement to be able to sit for the national dietitian registration exam.
  • After obtaining your degree, you will need to complete a dietetic internship. 1,200 hours of practice under the supervision of an experienced licensed dietitian are required before you can take the national exam.
  • Take and pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam. You can use the Registered Dietitian (RD) and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) credentials upon passing this exam.
  • Upon successfully passing the CDR exam, you can apply for dietitian licensure in the state you wish to practice in, and then begin applying for dietitian career opportunities! Each state varies in its requirements for dietitian licensure, so be sure to research any state-specific requirements.

To become a dietetic technician, you must also begin with a high school diploma. Here’s what to do next:

  • Complete an accredited DTR (Dietetic Technician Registered), or NDTR (Nutrition and Dietetic Technician Registered) program. These programs typically offer an associate’s degree and include 450 hours of supervised dietitian technician training.
  • Following your dietitian technician program, you must pass the national examination for DTRs and NDTRs before you can begin working as a dietitian technician. Once you pass your exam, you can use the NDTR credential and begin seeking employment!

FAQs about Dietitians

What skills does a Dietitian need?

Dietitians and dietetic technicians each require a unique set of skills tailored to their roles.

For Dietitians:

  • Scientific Knowledge: A profound understanding of nutrition, food science, and biochemistry to assess, diagnose, and treat dietary and nutritional problems.
  • Communication Skills: The ability to translate complex nutritional science into practical eating advice, making it accessible to clients and patients of diverse backgrounds.
  • Empathy and Compassion: These personal qualities are essential for understanding patients' situations and providing supportive and motivational guidance.
  • Teamwork: Dietitians must collaborate effectively with other healthcare professionals to deliver comprehensive care.

For Dietetic Technicians:

  • Technical Skills: Knowledge of food preparation and safety, understanding dietary needs, and the ability to apply nutrition plans under the guidance of a dietitian.
  • Detail Orientation: Precise measurement and monitoring of food intake, nutritional care, and adherence to dietary protocols.
  • Interpersonal Skills: Strong communication abilities for interacting with patients, healthcare staff, and dietitians, including listening to patient needs and explaining dietary recommendations.
  • Adaptability: The capacity to work in various settings and adapt to the changing needs of patients and the healthcare environment.

Both roles require dedication to continuous learning and professional development to stay abreast of the latest in nutrition science and healthcare practices. By fostering these skills, dietitians and dietetic technicians significantly contribute to the health and well-being of their patients, promoting healthier lifestyles and nutritional understanding.

Work Settings For a Dietitian

Dietitians and dietetic technicians can choose from various work settings, hours, and locations. They are needed in all 50 states and cities large and small! Some dietitians can even work remotely from the comfort of their own homes. Some common dietitian work settings are:

  • Hospitals
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Private medical practices
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Public health offices
  • Educational facilities
  • Food service environments, such as school cafeterias, prisons, nursing homes, and more.

Some dietitians even open up their own private dietary practices or consulting businesses. Dietitians and dietetic technicians tend to enjoy traditional working hours, but evening or weekend hours may be needed depending on your work settings.

Common Cases a Dietitian Encounters

People need the expertise and recommendations of a professional dietitian for a wide range of reasons. Here are some of the most common cases you will see as a dietitian:

  • Weight management
  • Food sensitivities and allergies
  • Athletic and sports performance
  • Vegan and vegetarian diet optimization
  • Healthy eating guidance
  • Children with sensory challenges or developmental disabilities
  • Chronic disease management, including diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, and more.

The dietary counseling you do will vary drastically depending on the environment in which you choose to work. Outpatient dietitians and dietetic technicians tend to focus on a wide range of education and lifestyle modifications. In contrast, hospital dietitians and dietetic technicians provide nutritional therapy recommendations to premature infants and patients of all ages recovering from surgery, burns, trauma, or other critical or life-threatening conditions.

How To Advance Your Career as a Dietitian?

While it is not necessary to have a master’s degree to become a dietitian or advance within the field, many choose to obtain a master’s to broaden their options. Here are some options:

  • Become a dietitian supervisor, manager, or director
  • Mentor or train new dietitians
  • Teach nutrition and dietary science at the university level
  • Specialize in a specific area or population
  • Open your own private practice

Dietitian technicians have plenty of opportunities for advancement, too! Many dietitians begin their careers and gain valuable work experience as technicians before continuing their education to become dietitians. Dietitian technicians can also train new technicians, become lead technicians, specialize in a specific area, and supervise other dietetic technicians.

Education Requirements & Helpful Certifications for a Dietitian

To become a dietitian, you need either a bachelor’s or master’s degree from an accredited program. After that, you must take and pass the national CDR exam to begin using the titles of RD or RDN. Additional state licensure may be required depending on where you wish to practice.

Dietetic technicians must complete an accredited NDTR program, which often includes an associate degree. Following that, you must take and pass the national NDTR exam to begin working as a dietetic technician.

For most dietitian and dietetic technician jobs, you must also achieve and maintain your Basic Life Support (BLS) CPR certification.

After obtaining their RD or RDN credential, dietitians can specialize further and become board-certified in a specific dietary and nutrition practice area. Here are some additional certification options available through the Commission on Dietetic Registration or CDR:

Board Certification in Advanced Practice

Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics

Board Certified Specialist in Pediatric Nutrition

Board Certified Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management

Board Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition

Board Certified Specialist in Gerontological Nutrition

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