What is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist?

March 11, 2020

In honor of national Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) Day, we asked Ashlee Linares-Gaffer, board member and past president of the Southern Arizona Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, for some details about exactly what an RDN is - and how to become one.

What is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist? How is that different from any other kind of nutritionist?

A popular slogan among dietitians is "All dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians." Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, regardless of their training. Some who refer to themselves as 'nutritionists' truly are experts in the field, while others may have very limited - if any - formal education and training; the term "nutritionist" does not differentiate between the two. [To earn the title of RDN], there is a strong baseline level of education and training that dietitians must receive. A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist is a nutrition professional who has a nationally recognized credential that is only attained after:

  • Earning a bachelor's degree and completing an accredited academic program with food, nutrition, and science coursework;
  • Completing 1200+ hours of supervised practice in a number of food, nutrition, and health-related work settings;
  • Passing a national exam to earn the RDN credential.

What kinds of skills do RDNs have?

Dietitians develop a lot of different categories of skills: communication, counseling, medical nutrition therapy and nutrition-focused physical exams, leadership, food management and safety, and others. Within each category, dietitians get introduced to numerous skills during their academic programs, and they get further developed while practicing in different work settings.

Who might be interested in becoming a dietitian?

Dietitians work in a LOT of industries, so it seems like there is something for everyone. With that said, many of our students are interested in becoming an RDN because:

  • They want to help people achieve a higher quality of life through food and nutrition;
  • They are passionate about their personal health and wellness and want to pursue a career that integrates their personal passion for nutrition and fitness with a career;
  • They are drawn to working with food and want to use food to promote healthy lifestyles;
  • They have personal experience (themselves or with friends/relatives) with chronic diseases or nutrition-related conditions. They want to pursue a career in dietetics to help themselves or their loved ones, or to help keep other people from experiencing their same challenges.

What kinds of careers are open to RDNs?

Dietitians work in so many different jobs, in so many different industries. Here are some that come to mind:

  • Food Service Management - Hospitality, cafeterias, dining halls
  • Culinary - Chef, meal delivery service, recipe development
  • Healthcare Practitioner - Direct inpatient or outpatient care in a clinical environment
  • Healthcare Administrator - Administration or management of clinics, hospitals, services
  • Sports / Athletics - Work one-on-one or in groups with athletes to enhance performance in sport
  • Counseling - Individual or group behavior and lifestyle coaching
  • Community - Food and nutrition education in schools, senior programs, and other community-serving organizations
  • Public Policy - Write grants and reports, attend legislative sessions, organize advocates around a cause
  • Research Coordinator - Carry out daily research activities for a research study that is being overseen by a Principal Investigator (head researcher on a project)
  • Researcher (Principal Investigator) - Lead scientist, identifies research questions and designs research projects. Requires writing grants, delivering presentations, and writing reports and other types of publications
  • Educator - Teacher / instructor in the area of nutrition, food, science, or closely related subject, most likely in a high school or university setting
  • Sales - Representative for pharmaceuticals, food companies, supplements, medical devices, or other specialized equipment
  • Communications - May include marketing or public relations activities such as social media, photography, articles, blog posts, or other methods of engaging consumers with a brand, company, or product that relates to food or nutrition

How does someone become an RDN?

There are multiple pathways:

  • They could complete a Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD program). This is an undergraduate curriculum; courses include a variety of nutrition, food, science, and professional skill-related courses (communications, writing). We offer a DPD program at the University of Arizona in two formats: online and face-to-face. After the DPD, they would then apply to Dietetic Internship Programs, OR apply to a combined master's dietetic internship program. Dietetic Internship programs have a competitive selections process, and if accepted, the internship is a 1200-hour program (usually 7-12 months long). A combined master’s dietetic internship program is like a Dietetic Internship program, but it has a master’s program combined with it. These programs typically take 12-24 months to complete.
  • Someone who already has a degree (who did not complete a DPD) could also consider bypassing the DPD route and applying directly for one of these pathways:
    A Future Practice Model Graduate program. This style of program is relatively new, but there are several around the country. These programs require that applicants have completed a list of prerequisite courses, and many of these programs accept students from many types of undergraduate backgrounds (some only accept students who previously completed a DPD program).
    A Coordinated Master's program in dietetics. These programs also combine a master's degree experience with the professional supervised practice (like an internship). The main difference between this and the combined master's dietetic internship program is that this is for folks who do not have a dietetics undergraduate background, so they make up certain dietetics content in the master's program.
  • They could also check the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website for more information.

What is S-AZAND?

S-AZAND is the Southern District of the Arizona Affiliate of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. To put it simply, S-AZAND is the local group of Academy members. Anyone who meets the membership criteria for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is eligible to become a member of S-AZAND. The Academy offers mentorships at different annual fee rates for students, active Nutrition and Dietetic Technicians, Registered (NDTRs), active Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs), retired dietetics professionals, and affiliated professionals (allied health professions, public health, food and nutrition professionals).