Becoming a Nutritionist and Dietitian - Education & Certification

Becoming a nutritionist or dietitian is a great career for those wanting to help individuals achieve specific health goals or address public health issues such as food insecurity.

However, specific requirements must be met to become a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), including a bachelor’s or master’s in nutrition or dietetics degree from an accredited college or university. Starting January 1, 2024, the minimum education requirement for licensed nutritionists will be a master’s degree in nutrition or dietetics, according to the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR).

To help new RDNs meet the master’s degree requirement, colleges and universities offer accelerated programs that result in earning a bachelor of science and a master of science in less time than it takes to complete two separate degrees. Some institutions also offer a dietetic internship program that can lead to registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) licensure.

RDNs receive specialized training in nutrition and aspire to help patients understand food labels, modify menus, and create individualized meal plans that may include grocery shopping assistance. Additionally, RDNs advise about nutrition-related issues such as cancer, diabetes, intolerances, and allergies.

Having an RDN credential is highly recommended and required by several employers and most states. After completing a nutrition or dietetics degree program from a nationally-accredited college or university, individuals must complete an internship of at least 1,000 hours to qualify for the RDN licensure exam. To pass the RDN exam, candidates must earn a minimum score of 25 out of 50. The test is computer adaptive, meaning the questions get progressively more challenging, and must be completed within two and a half hours.

With the right qualifications and determination, becoming a nutritionist or dietitian can lead to a rewarding career in helping others find healthier ways of living. With the new education requirements and different types of titles, many people wonder what it takes to begin this career.

Read on to learn how to become a nutritionist and dietitian, including titles, salary, a step-by-step guide, and accredited programs.

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Nutritionist and Dietitian: What’s the Difference?

Those who work in the field of nutrition are known as nutritionists and dietitians. While these titles may sound similar, there is an important distinction between them.

Nutritionists have some education in nutrition, biochemistry, psychology, and even anthropology. However, nutritionists often need more formal training in the science of food and nutrients. In addition, depending on state licensure requirements, the title “nutritionist” may or may not be a legally protected professional title.

In contrast, dietitians or registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) have undergone rigorous academic training, including an undergraduate, master’s, or doctoral degree program in dietetics. RDNs must pass a national certification examination from the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) and complete continuing education requirements every five years to keep their credentials active. In addition, many states require RDN licensure, giving practitioners, employers, and patients peace of mind.

Ultimately, RDNs are the gold standard for reliable advice regarding strategies for meeting individual health and nutritional needs. This guide will focus on RDN educational and career pathway resources.

What do Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) Do?

Registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) play a crucial role in healthcare. RDNs are trained professionals who:

  • Conduct private lessons on eating healthier
  • Educate about how to prevent or delay chronic diseases
  • Plan nutritious meals and snacks for food services
  • Promote healthy lifestyle habits
  • Provide individual consultations
  • Tailor guidelines to individual dietary needs
  • Teach specialized knowledge about nutrition-related treatments for health conditions
  • Translate scientific research into practical nutrition guidelines

RDNs work with individuals and groups of all ages and demographics and are employed in numerous workplaces, including:

  • Adults
  • Children
  • Large groups in corporate offices
  • People living in institutions
  • Public health organizations
  • Schools

Nutrition & Dietitian Salary & Career Outlook

Registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN) are in high demand given the surging health concerns arising from poor diet and lifestyle and limited access to fresh and affordable food sources. Research from the US Department of Health and Human Services shows that while programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are effective, more research is needed to understand how food insecurity is connected to population health outcomes.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022) shows the job outlook for nutritionists and dietitians is growing steadily and will see a 7 percent employment increase from 2021 to 2031. This equates to 5,100 new openings by 2031, in addition to the 74,700 projected current positions. This estimated growth rate is slightly faster than the national average across all occupations at 5 percent.

As reported by the BLS Occupational Employment and Wages (May 2021), dietitian and nutritionist salaries vary. However, on average, dietitians and nutritionists earn up to $65,620 per year, depending on their experience level, employer type, and the cost of living in a specific area.

Furthermore, wage percentile estimates show that experienced professionals with health literacy promotion or preventative nutrition counseling can expect to earn higher wages than average.

Salary percentiles for dietitians and nutritionists are as follows:

  • 10th percentile: $42,530
  • 25th percentile: $49,490
  • 50th percentile: $61,650 (median)
  • 75th percentile: $77,430
  • 90th percentile: $93,640

Steps to Become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)

In short, it takes five to seven years of college courses and internship experience to pursue a career as a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). Here is a detailed step-by-step guide to pursuing this career.

Step 1: Graduate from high school (four years)

Earning a high school diploma is the first step in pursuing a career as a certified nutritionist. High school students interested in this field should take courses in anatomy and physiology, biology, and chemistry to prepare for college-level work in the subject. Such an education will form a foundation of knowledge required to complete more advanced degrees and the RDN certification.

Step 2: Earn a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, nutrition science, or a related field (four years)

Earning a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, nutrition science, or a related field is essential to becoming an RDN. Depending on the chosen major, this may take up to four years to complete or five in an accelerated BS/MS program.

Students in undergraduate nutrition programs develop a solid nutrition and food science knowledge foundation. It is through their studies that RDNs gain the understanding and skills necessary to serve their patients with high-quality service and care. Coursework completed during the undergraduate program typically includes biochemistry, biology, health education, nutrition counseling, and similar topics with a significant focus on human nutrition and clinical dietetics.

Step 3: Gain experience through an ACEND-accredited supervised internship (timeline varies)

After completing educational and coursework requirements, RDN hopefuls can gain invaluable experience through an ACEND-accredited supervised internship. The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) accredits nutrition programs at the bachelor’s, master’s, and internship levels. The timeline for completing this step will vary depending on the RDN program and the student’s ability to complete the 1,000 required internship hours.

ACEND-accredited internships provide unique experiences at facilities such as research centers, medical offices, community health organizations, and a host of other settings that provide RDN trainees with real-world exposure to their future fields.

Step 4: Earn a master’s degree in dietetics or nutrition science (1-2 years)

Starting January 1, 2024, earning a master’s degree in dietetics or nutrition science is required to become an RDN. Depending on the school and program, this could take one to two years and may involve other prerequisites before enrollment.

The coursework will focus heavily on food science and nutrition, advanced research methods, and data analysis. In addition, students will likely be exposed to public health, medical nutrition therapy, and business education. In some cases, hands-on fieldwork may also be included in the program.

Step 5: Take the RDN exam (timeline varies)

The RDN credential, offered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), is recognized by several employers and is required in some states for licensure. In addition, it is available to those who have completed a bachelor’s degree (before January 1, 2024) or a master’s degree (after January 1, 2024) from a college or university recognized by the US Department of Education and completed an ACEND-accredited dietetic internship program.

For a complete list of states that require RDNs to be licensed, please see the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)’s state licensure map.

Step 6: Maintain RDN Credential (every five years)

As part of their continuing education requirements, RDNs must earn 75 continuing professional education credits every five years to maintain their RDN status. The renewal fee is $350 every five years or $70 annually.

Accredited Dietitian Degree Programs

Here are five ACEND-accredited dietitian programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. While aspiring RDNs are encouraged to earn a master’s degree to fulfill the minimum education requirement that takes effect on January 1, 2024, some programs combine a bachelor of science (BS), a master of science (MS), and a dietetic internship (DI) program.

Arizona State University – BS in dietetics, MS in nutritional science, dietetic internship (DI)

Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions offers a 120-credit bachelor of science in dietetics program, which can be completed as an accelerated program resulting in a BS and an MS degree. These include courses on subjects such as human anatomy and physiology, elementary organic chemistry, medical nutrition therapy, food service purchasing, and more.

In addition, the dual degree accelerated program is connected to the master of science in nutritional sciences course; this track enables RDNs to meet licensure requirements when combined with the RDN dietetic internship experience and allows students to complete two degrees in five years.

  • Location: Phoenix, AZ
  • Duration: Five years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACNED)
  • Tuition: $1,000 per credit (residents); $1,464 per credit (non-residents)

University of Texas Austin – BS/MS in nutritional sciences & supervised dietetic internship (DI)

The College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin offers two accredited dietetics programs: the bachelor of science didactic program in dietetics (DPD) and the integrated coordinated program in dietetics (ICPD). The DPD program helps students meet the coursework requirements to apply for a dietetic internship so that they may pursue the RDN credential. Furthermore, completing the didactic program qualifies graduates to apply for a dietetic internship.

The ICPD, on the other hand, allows learners to pursue their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nutrition simultaneously in addition to the supervised practice program, which provides a pathway to RDN certification. The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) accredits the integrated program.

  • Location: Austin, TX
  • Duration: Four to five years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
  • Tuition: $1,770 per credit (residents); $6,137 per credit (non-residents)

University of Delaware – MS in nutrition & dietetic internship (DI)

The University of Delaware’s MS/DI program offers an integrated learning experience combining graduate-level nutrition and dietetic education with a highly structured internship experience. This combination gives students an in-depth understanding of the field, research methods, and critical thinking skills needed to excel in their profession.

The 27 graduate credits that comprise the program’s first year are administered over four individual sessions, culminating in completing an evidence-based project before the summer session. Upon successfully completing this portion, RDN aspirants will receive a certificate and be eligible to apply for the RDN credential after passing the necessary exam.

  • Location: Newark, DE
  • Duration: 19 months
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
  • Tuition: $979 per credit

Ball State University – MS in nutrition and dietetics & dietetic internship (DI)

For students looking to pursue a master of science in nutrition and dietetics, Ball State University offers an ACEND-accredited program suited to their needs. Students can choose to study either on-campus or online, taking 36 credits worth of courses that include research or clinical approaches and an internship component.

The ACEND-accredited dietetic internship focuses on medical nutrition therapy, helping RDNs create custom plans for patients with specific conditions, and sites are available throughout Indiana. Upon completion of this program, graduates are well-equipped to pursue RDN credentials.

  • Location: Muncie, IN
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
  • Tuition: $573 per credit (residents); $791 per credit (non-residents)

Rush University – MS in clinical nutrition and dietetic internship (DI)

Rush University’s combined master of science/dietetic internship (MS/DI) program offers students a rigorous but rewarding experience. Since it meets the core competencies for registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN) established by ACEND, students who complete the program will be well-equipped to pursue careers in clinical nutrition.

The 21-month program provides a comprehensive education, concentrating in clinical nutrition and rotations in food service management, community hours, and clinical rotations at Rush University Medical Center (RUMC). Students in this program have multiple opportunities to blend their dietetic endeavors with the didactic and research components of the MS degree.

  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Duration: 21 months
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
  • Tuition: $38,000 per year
Rachel Drummond, MEd
Rachel Drummond, MEd Writer

Rachel Drummond has contributed insightful articles to since 2019, where she offers valuable advice and guidance for those pursuing careers in the healthcare field, combining her passion for education with her understanding of the critical role that healthcare professionals play in promoting physical and mental well-being.

Rachel is a writer, educator, and coach from Oregon. She has a master’s degree in education (MEd) and has over 15 years of experience teaching English, public speaking, and mindfulness to international audiences in the United States, Japan, and Spain. She writes about the mind-body benefits of contemplative movement practices like yoga on her blog, inviting people to prioritize their unique version of well-being and empowering everyone to live healthier and more balanced lives.