Do You Need a Master’s in Nutrition to Become a Dietitian?

Amanda Push picture
Amanda Push
Updated June 2, 2021

Looking for how to become a dietitian? It’s hard to know the best master’s or bachelor’s degree to pursue when considering a career in this field.

You may be surprised to learn that studying how to become a nutritionist is not always the best path for this career. So, what degree do you need to be a nutritionist and dietitian? The academy that oversees registration for dietitians would prefer you studied dietetics instead — though that’s not the only path you can take. The employment opportunities you have will also vary depending on the part of the field you choose and whether you want to work in the public or private sector. You can find work at private practices, specialty clinics,  or sports management firms.

Want to learn more about the requirements for this field? Keep reading to find out the difference between nutritionists and dietitians, how that affects your career plans, and how to become a registered dietitian if you already have a degree. We’ve also included The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ recommendation of five steps for becoming a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, or RDN, in order to help prepare you for your future career in this field as much as possible.

Resource: Top 30 Affordable Online Master's in Dietetics

How to Become a Registered Dietitian

There are several steps you can take to become a registered dietitian. These steps include:

1. Earn a degree or or continue your education with a post-baccalaureate program.

To start, you’ll need to earn at least a bachelor’s degree at an accredited school of dietetics. If you already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject, you can complete a post-baccalaureate program. Doing this will give a prospective dietitian the opportunity to get their master’s degree, which is required to become a registered dietitian or specialize in a particular area. You can also complete a master’s or doctoral degree in dietetics if the option is available.

2. Complete an internship in the field.

You’ll also need to complete an internship in this field — which may even be required to graduate from the program you’re enrolled in. Many programs offer placement in a qualifying internship role as part of your degree. Internship options will typically include hospitals and healthcare facilities or clinics — or a wide range of other healthcare-related facilities that provide sport nutrition, eating disorder support, or corporate wellness programs to clients. 

Your opportunities won’t stop there, either, as the growing landscape of dietetics has been in demand across the globe. Food industries, public health commissions, advocacy summits, universities, and research medical centers are career pathways you can follow as part of the path during your dietetics career.

3. Pass your licensing exams.

If you want to become a licensed dietitian, you’ll need to pass your licensing exam. This requirement is typically the first prerequisite you’ll need to meet in order to obtain any licensure in your state. Most states won’t limit the number of times you can retake the exam, though some states may increase the price for any subsequent testing. 

To prepare, you’ll need to do research and study for the exam so you can avoid retaking it if possible. Once you complete the requirements for licensing, you’ll simply need to maintain your dietitian certification according to the state requirements.

Types of Nutritionists and Dietitians

The field of dietetics has expanded considerably over the last decade. Some of the career options for registered dietitians include:

  • Nutritionist
    • A nutritionist provides dietary support and treatment to their patients in order to encourage healthy lifestyles that fulfill clients’ goals. In some states, this title includes a less clinical role. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average wage for a nutritionist was about $63,090 per year as of 2020.
  • Holistic nutritionist
    • Holistic nutritionists help their clients fulfill health-oriented dietary plans by circumventing conventional medical treatments with natural, yet scientifically proven, methods. Aside from helping clients with adjusting to healthier eating habits, holistic nutritionists will also help your stress management that can become undermined by foods with a high glycemic index. The average wage for a nutritionist was about $63,090 per year as of 2020.
  • Registered dietitian
    • A registered dietitian is a diet professional who is certified to treat clinical conditions related to nutrition. Registered dietitians must meet strict requirements set by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
  • Certified nutrition specialist
    • Certified nutrition specialists are similar to registered dietitians in certain states, cities, and counties. They are advanced nutrition professionals who create and oversee public health programs. The pay and career description falls in line with a registered dietitian.

Do You Need an Internship to Become a Dietitian?

The work of a dietary expert involves hands-on practice and important clinical skills. That's why you must complete a supervised internship of at least 1,200 hours. This experience lets you practice preparing meals and menus, educating patients and conducting classroom presentations. You can work with your school to find an internship and earn college credit for your work. Some students wait until they've finished studying so they can pursue a full-time internship. You may be able to find a paid internship, particularly at senior living facilities.

Explore these promoted online degree programs.

These top, accredited schools offer a variety of online graduate degree programs. Figuring out where to apply? Consider one of these online Master’s or PhD programs.

What's the Difference Between a Nutritionist and a Dietitian?

There are no certification or educational requirements for becoming a nutritionist. That means anyone can give themselves this label, even a high school drop-out with no formal training in dietary science. Some students become a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) to show that they've studied the field; you must have a master's or doctoral degree and 1,000 hours of supervision to earn this certification. The public typically doesn't understand the difference between registered dietitians and nutritionists, but formal employers will. If you want to open a private consulting practice, you could complete a bachelor's degree in dietary science, skip the internship that's required to become registered and label yourself a nutritionist. If you plan to work for a healthcare facility, you'll need to earn your RD recognition.

Do You Need Medical Knowledge to Work as an RD?

As a registered dietitian, you'll work with patients with a variety of dietary restrictions. You might help diabetics follow meal plans to lower their blood sugar, work with cardiac patients to limit sodium intake or help anorexic patients eat healthy meals. This requires an understanding of the body's nutritional needs and how minerals can affect physical health. Working as an RD requires much more than simply preparing meal plans; you must also consider how each food item will impact the body's overall functioning.

Helping clients navigate their complex relationship with food can be emotionally rewarding. With an undergraduate or master's degree in dietary sciences, you can find a great career as a dietitian or nutritionist.

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