This is definitely the number one question I get from people when I tell them I’m an RD!
To put it simply, all Registered Dietitians (RDs or RDNs) are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are Registered Dietitians.
In a few more words, both Registered Dietitians and nutritionists have an interest or passion in nutrition, and a similar goal of helping people improve their nutrition and lifestyle habits. While a nutritionist doesn’t technically have any national requirements in order to use that title, RDs have a fairly hefty checklist to make sure they have the background, education, and training to provide safe and effective nutrition recommendations. Different states have different requirements on top of the national, but can vary widely.
Specifically, the national requirements to become an RD are:
- Bachelor’s or Master’s degree (or both!) in a US regionally accredited university or college and course work accredited or approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).
- Supervised practice internship with at least 1200 hours covering clinical nutrition, food service management, & community nutrition with an ACEND-accredited facility.
- National exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR).
- Continuing professional education requirements every 5 years, submitted in the Professional Development Portfolio to re-certify.
The course work requirement is no joke. Nutrition programs cover a wide variety of sciences, including anatomy and physiology, chemistry, biology, organic chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, genetics, nutrition science, food science, metabolism, and also professional courses such as nutrition in aging, maternal and child nutrition, clinical nutrition/medical nutrition therapy, public health, nutrition counseling and education, culinary management, institutional foodservice, statistics, critical evaluation of nutrition research, psychology, and economics. Whew!
After completing the degree requirements, getting into a dietetic internship becomes the next bigger meaner hurdle. Fewer than 50% of students who apply each year are matched with an internship, which means that the dietitian you know has successfully balanced coursework, volunteer hours, leadership roles, and nutrition-related jobs to come out on top. It’s become an intensely competitive process. Kudos to all the RDs out there! 🙂
The internship (or supervised practice) itself also includes a good variety of hands-on rotations in different areas of the dietetics field, such as healthcare facilities, hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, dialysis centers, community agencies, school districts, and more. Many internships will have an emphasis on a particular area, but they all have a minimum requirement of hours in nutrition therapy, foodservice management, and community nutrition. This ensures that all RDs have experienced a broad variety of roles, so they can not only know what is right for them so that they have a happier more fulfilling career, but also so that they understand the big picture of the dietetics field and other roles that RDs have that they may work with in the future. Internships are always at least 1200 hours and usually somewhere between 6-12 months (usually full time and unpaid) of hard work!
Studying for the big test is next, which also covers a huge variety of dietetics topics, so that all RDs who pass are qualified to provide that safe and effective nutrition information whether it’s in clinical, community, or foodservice work. According to the official specs, the exam covers principles of dietetics, nutrition care for individuals and groups, management of food and nutrition programs and services, and foodservice systems.
Continuing education units (CEUs) allow RDs to stay up to date in our field. We have to complete 75 hours of continuing professional education every 5 years to maintain our credentials and stay up-to-date on all the current nutrition topics (which are always evolving). New research is always being done and recommendations are forever being updated and improved, so it’s nice to have a specific requirement to give you the nudge to stay up to date, if you weren’t already interested 😉
But what is a Certified Dietitian (CD)?
On top of all of this, the State of Washington further has the title of “Certified Dietitian” in order to protect the public and to ensure that sound nutritional advice is given. This is an extra layer of protection and helps define the RDs scope of practice as a medical professional. Medical Assistance Administration (MAA) guidelines only allow a Certified Dietitian to bill for services and nutritional evaluation to receive medical nutritionals (infant formula, medical formula, and nutritional supplements). Most healthcare facilities (hospitals etc) in this state require RDs to also have the CD title.
For an RD to apply, there are two requirements:
- Current CDR card (meaning current good standing as a Registered Dietitian)
- four hours of HIV/AIDS training
- bonus requirement: super long PAPER application that takes forever to fill out 😛
There is also the protected title of “Certified Nutritionist” in Washington State which requires a master’s or doctorate degree in human nutrition, nutrition education, foods and nutrition, or public health nutrition, as well as seven hours of HIV/AIDS training. There are very few nutritionists in the state of Washington that meet the requirements for the CN title. If you meet a nutritionist in Washington with the CN title, they should also have a master’s or a doctorate degree to be able to use that protected title. These laws say so: 18.138 RCW and 246-822 WAC
All of this is to protect YOU (whether you are the public or another RD) from receiving bad information and advice!
So when you are searching for someone to help you with your nutrition, you know what to look for, and who the most qualified nutrition professional is.
Fun Fact: there are currently 2,172 Registered Dietitians in Washington State! Yowza!
Thanks for reading. Contact me or comment if you have any questions about the requirements or becoming a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist!