The field of dietetics involves the combination of nutrition, food science, and medicine (among others).
I decided to write this post because I think many people are confused about whether to see a nutritionist or a registered dietitian when it comes to their diets. When I tell people that I’m studying nutrition, I always add that I want to eventually become a registered dietitian (or an RD for short). Registered Dietitians are often confused with people who call themselves “nutritionists” and this is something that many RDs take issue with because the process of becoming an RD is extremely competitive, expensive, and time consuming. The process of becoming a nutritionist is a little different. In fact, right now I am a nutritionist, but the title is essentially meaningless because anyone (regardless of whether they’ve even taken a single course on nutrition) can call themselves a nutritionist.
So, what does it take to become an RD? First you must complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nutrition and dietetics. The required coursework is laid out by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and is called a Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD). The coursework includes general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, introductory nutrition classes, clinical nutrition classes, medical nutrition therapy, food science, food service management, community nutrition, nutrition education and counseling, and research. These courses are essential because RDs work in areas where they’re directly responsible for the health and well-being of their patients or clients. Many RDs also work in food service management where knowledge of food science and food safety come into play.
After completing the DPD, aspiring RDs must apply for a residency, called a dietetic internship, at specific, accredited hospitals, long-term care facilities, universities, or food service management corporations. The internship is probably the most competitive part of the process, because a majority of people do not get into an internship on the first try. The internship is also unpaid and typically lasts 6-12 months, depending on whether it is full-time or not. Students must pay for their internships, so working and saving money is a top priority for many aspiring RDs. Having a high GPA and having over one hundred hours of volunteer service in an area related to nutrition and food are some things that are expected to even be considered for an internship. After completion of the internship, aspiring RDs must take the registered dietitian exam and if they pass, they become registered dietitians.
You might be asking: why is the process so competitive?. The process is competitive because of a few reasons. One, there’s only a limited number of accredited internship positions. It takes a lot of time and effort for experienced RDs to train interns and it can be costly to hospitals and food service facilities. Another reason is that as more people realize how important diet is to health, more people are interested in becoming an RD, so it’s just a matter of the number of applicants vs. the number of spots available.
Another reason why the process is set up to be this way is because RDs need to have a knowledge of science and apply this to different populations whom they’ll be working with. When you see a nutritionist, you never know what their formal training is, what their education is in terms of applying science and research to real people, and whether or not they know how to properly assess your nutrient needs and concerns. RDs also specialize in counseling and treating certain populations and are trained to do so in their internships and/or master’s degree classes. For example, many RDs specialize in treating eating disorders, some work with the geriatric population, while others help many members of a single community. There are many knowledgeable nutritionists without the RD title, but the problem is the nutritionist title is unregulated, and that leads many unqualified individuals to give advice which may not have a client’s best interest at hand. One thing I’ve noticed about some nutritionists who aren’t RDs is that some tend to have a holistic approach to nutrition, which I can appreciate because food is so much more than what we eat! It’s what we’re made of and what directly influences our health on a physical, mental, and emotional level.
Hopefully this post has shed some light on the process of becoming an RD. I still have some time before I apply for my internship, but it’s definitely always on my mind! Have you ever had a consultation with a registered dietitian or a nutritionist? What was the experience like? I like getting feedback, so feel free to comment or write me an email on this topic (see my “contact” page).