What Is a Dietitian and What Do They Do?

Updated June 8, 2021

Registered Dietitian (RDs) — also called registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) — are food and nutrition experts who address today’s complex issues surrounding food and nutrition science.

They use the best available scientific evidence to advise people on what to eat to prevent and manage disease, lead a healthy lifestyle, or achieve a specific health-related goal.

The RD credential is the most widely recognized credential for a food and nutrition expert. As such, 47 states currently require the credential to practice dietetics.

This article explains how to become a dietitian, where they work, and how much they make, so you can determine whether becoming a dietitian is right for you.

registered dietitian nutritionist

How to become a dietitian

To obtain the RD credential, one must (1):

  • Complete a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. The degree must be completed at an accredited university or college with coursework that is approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
  • Complete a dietetic internship. The internship requires a minimum of 1,200 hours of supervised practice in the three areas of dietetics: clinical dietetics, community dietetics, and foodservice management. Most internships require tuition but some offer stipends.
  • Pass a national exam. Completing the internship allows one to sit for the national RD exam.
  • Complete continuing education. Dietitians must complete 75 hours of continuing education units every five years to maintain registration.

Beginning in 2024, a minimum of a graduate degree, which includes a master’s degree, practice doctorate, or doctoral degree, will be required to become a dietitian.

Where do dietitians work?

Dietitians work in a variety of settings and areas including:

  • Healthcare facilities, providing medical nutrition therapy to help speed patients’ recovery and lay the groundwork for long-term health.
  • Sports nutrition and wellness programs, educating athletes and clients about the relationship between nutrition, athletic performance, and health.
  • The food industry, working in public relations, consumer affairs, and product development.
  • Community and public health, coordinating and implementing nutrition policy programs and carrying out programs in the general community to promote healthy eating habits.
  • University and research, directing or conducting scientific research to answer critical nutrition questions and make dietary recommendations for the public.
  •  Private practice, consulting in healthcare facilities, working with major food and supply vendors, writing, and content development.

How much do dietitians make?

According to the Compensation and Benefits Survey of the Dietetics Profession by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the 2019 median full-time salary for registered dietitians was $68,600 per year.

This breaks down to an hourly wage of $32.97, an 8.3% increase from the 2017 reported median hourly wage of $30.45.

Like most careers, compensation for dietitians depends on a number of factors, including years of experience, responsibility level, practice area, employment sector, and location.

Dietitians in the 10th percentile earned $24.04 per hour or $50,900 annually, while dietitians in the 90th percentile earned $51.28 per hour or $104,800 annually.

The bottom line

Dietitians are food and nutrition professionals.

They work in a variety of settings and areas, including health care facilities, academia, sports nutrition, community, and public health, and private practice.

The annual salary for dietitians depends on factors such as experience, responsibility, practice area, and sector.

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