Looking for a career change? Learn how to become a registered dietitian (RD), even without a bachelor’s degree in nutrition!
How to Become a Registered Dietitian (Without a Nutrition Bachelor’s Degree)
I’m finally sitting down to write this highly requested post! So many of you have asked me how to become a registered dietitian, especially if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree in nutrition.
Well, my friends, the day has come for me to finally spill all the information I have so that you can evaluate whether or not becoming a registered dietitian is something you want to pursue. Check out how I made decision for myself here!
I’m going to break up this lengthy, informational post into a few sections so that it is easy to navigate. Also, please note that I have just recently become an RD in 2021; I do not yet have in-depth experience practicing as an RD. Therefore, this is just an overview of my experience and what I have learned throughout the process and the very beginning of my career as a dietitian. So, please do your own additional research!
Evaluate Why You’re Interested in Becoming a Registered Dietitian (RD)
Before we get into programs, pre-requisites and all the steps on how to become a registered dietitian, we need to talk about why you want to go down this career path. I really had to dig deep to figure out why I wanted to do this. I had just recovered from a long stint of disordered eating and exercise. Did I want to become a dietitian because I was still obsessed with food and wanted to control my own and others’ food?
I see so many individuals working to become a nutritionist, health coach, NTP, etc., who very obviously do not have a healthy relationship with food. Prior to starting your path, get really honest with yourself about why you want to pursue this career.
The Difference Between a Dietitian and Nutritionist
Let’s clear this up first: a Registered Dietitian (RD) is the same thing as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). Dietitians can use either abbreviation!
However, what is absolutely NOT the same thing as an RD/RDN is a nutritionist. For example, your grandma who watches Dr. Oz every day could call herself a nutritionist. It’s an unregulated term that anyone can claim for themselves. Which means there are no educational standards or ethical guidelines you need to follow to call yourself a nutritionist.
There are many other “nutrition certifications” popping up nowadays: health coaches, nutritional therapy practitioners, holistic nutritionist, sports nutritionist… the list goes on. I know it’s tempting to just get one of these certifications instead of going through the rigorous and expensive process of becoming a registered dietitian. But know what you’re getting into if you choose one of those paths. You are NOT legally able to give out personalized nutrition advice or medical nutrition therapy.
Some may think more is better to become a certified nutritionist when it comes to people trying to make others healthy. However, I do not see it as a benefit to the field of nutrition. Consequently, it becomes crowded with people who think they are educated enough to diagnose people and give out advice based on bad science. I absolutely think we should make nutrition education more accessible and affordable for those who want to become RDs. In doing so, hopefully fewer people will fall into a well-intentioned but not-helpful nutrition certification.
If you want to be taken seriously as a nutrition professional, I highly recommend taking the path towards becoming a registered dietitian.
The Basics on How to Become a Registered Dietitian
Here are the basic steps on how to become a dietitian:
- Get a bachelor’s degree. If you already have one in a non-nutrition field, no worries—we’ll chat about that in a minute.
- Take the courses required by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) through an ACEND-accredited program. This can be either an undergraduate nutrition program or a graduate program. However, starting January 1, 2024, all students must have a graduate degree to take the RD exam.
- Complete a dietetic internship through an ACEND-accredited program.
- Pass the RD exam and get licensed in the state in which you will be practicing.
I know those are a lot of words that might not make a ton of sense! Let’s break it down. In this post I’m focusing on how to become a registered dietitian if you already have a non-nutrition bachelor’s degree, so keep that in mind.
1. Get a Bachelor’s Degree
If you already have a bachelor degree’s, even if it’s not in nutrition, congrats! You completed step 1.
2. Take the Courses Required by ACEND
There are quite a few ways to go about becoming a registered dietitian, even if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree in nutrition. If you already have a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, I highly recommend taking courses required by ACEND at the graduate level. Starting in 2024, all students who want to become a registered dietitian will need a graduate degree to sit for the exam. As a result, the job market will be saturated with graduate degrees. So, make sure you’re competitive by getting a graduate degree.
Understand Your Pathway Options for Becoming a Dietitian
Once you decide you’re ready to begin your path towards becoming a dietitian, it’s time to get serious about researching your options. There are two main pathways you can pursue if you already have a bachelor’s degree in a non-nutrition field:
- Didactic program + DICAS. Some graduate programs only cover the required coursework. You will then need to apply to DICAS, which is a matching system for dietetic internships. This option requires two applications: one for the graduate program and one for the internship.
- Coordinated program. Other graduate programs combine the coursework and the internship in one nutrition program. Typically you complete the internship after you’ve finished the required courses. Since this option only requires one application, these programs are highly competitive.
Start by researching graduate programs. Click here to search for didactic programs in different states (option 1); make sure to click the box “only programs that result in a graduate degree.” Click here to search for coordinated programs (option 2); make sure to click the box “only programs that result in a graduate degree.”
Identify the Prerequisite Courses You May Need to Take
Know that different programs will have different pre-requisite requirements. Once you’ve chosen a few nutrition programs that you’re interested in applying for, plan out the required prerequisites you may still need to take for each program. Identify course equivalencies at your local universities where you can begin taking classes and see if there is overlap or perhaps differences between the courses each program requires.
My program (Colorado State University) required general chemistry with lab, organic chemistry with lab, biology with lab, biochemistry, physiology with lab OR anatomy and physiology, psychology and microbiology with lab. My bachelor’s degree is in mass communication, so I did not take most of these courses for my major. Thankfully I had decided early enough in my undergraduate degree to go to graduate school to become a registered dietitian, so I was able to complete the required prerequisites while I was completing my unrelated degree.
If you’ve been out of school for awhile, I recommend considering taking classes at your community college or state school. It may take you up to a year to complete the prerequisites you need before you can apply to a master’s program. Don’t assume that any class at any institution will transfer to your targeted university. I highly recommend reaching out to program directors of the programs you’re interested in to ensure that the prerequisite courses you plan to take will be accepted by the program you hope to apply for.
Take the GRE and Apply for Programs
Something else you should be thinking about is taking the GRE! Not all programs require that you take the GRE, so do your research and reach out to program directors to understand what your targeted program requires. GRE scores last 5 years. I recommend taking it before you start your prerequisites since you’ll want to focus on those. I highly recommend purchasing this Manhattan Prep book of practice problems!
So you’ve taken the GRE, you’re taking prerequisites… now it’s time to apply for nutrition programs you’re interested in! Most application deadlines are in early spring (January—March). I highly recommend keeping a spreadsheet of the programs you’re applying to to keep everything in one place. You can track their required prerequisites, application deadlines, and other requirements (personal statements, letters of recommendations, GRE scores, GPA, etc.).
A few months later, you’ll get your acceptance letter! You’re on your way to becoming a registered dietitian! Time to PARTY! 🥦🍎🥑🍇🥕🥔
3. Complete a dietetic internship
Fast forward a couple years—now you’ve finished all of the required courses in your graduate program. Time for the internship!
Dietetic internships range in length. The shortest can be around 8 months and the longest can be around 18 months. Internships are generally unpaid and are to be treated as full-time jobs. They have multiple weeks-long rotations so that you can gain exposure to the many types of jobs that registered dietitians can hold. Most internship programs will offer clinical, community and food service rotations, but every program is a little different and may place emphasis on certain disciplines in the field.
If you’re enrolled in a coordinated program (option 2), your dietetic internship will be set up through your graduate program.
If you’re not enrolled in a coordinated program (option 1), you will need to apply to a dietetic internship through the DICAS matching system. Click here to search for dietetic internships. There is a fall deadline and a spring deadline for applying to DICAS, depending on when you want to start the internship.
4. Pass the RD exam and get licensed
It’s go time, baby! The last thing standing in between you and your new career as a dietitian is the RD exam. By this point, you’ve completed your coursework and your internship, so now it’s time to put everything you’ve learned to the test – literally. There are so many great resources out there to help you prepare for the exam. Get involved with study groups, consider buying exam study guides and books, and look into test preparation courses. Give yourself plenty of time to study and take it day by day! Before you know it, you’ll be taking (and passing!) your RD exam!
- Fannetastic Food
- Food Heaven Made Easy
- Diversity Dietetics (a great resource for people of color who want to enter the field of nutrition)
I hope this post was helpful for those of you hoping to learn how to become a registered dietitian and potentially begin your path towards continuing your education. Please leave questions below, and I will be happy to answer them best I can!