Careers in Dietetics
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- Dietitians are experts in healthy eating and nutrition.
- You may need a state license to practice as a dietitian.
- There are on-campus, hybrid, or online dietetics degrees at all degree levels.
- Dietitians work in community health, food service, healthcare, and other settings.
If you are interested in both food and healthcare, a career as a dietitian might be the right match. Dietitians specialize in nutrition and health and work in a variety of settings. These include private practice, food services, and nonprofits that provide food and nutrition services.
Learn more below about degrees and careers in dietetics and how to earn an online dietetics degree.
Why Pursue a Career in Dietetics?
Dietitians are professionals in health and nutrition who are credentialed to provide food and nutrition counseling. Nutritionists are not authorized to provide counseling without additional certification in some states.
Dietitians work in a variety of settings, including organizational food services (hospitals and military food services), community health, government agencies and nonprofits, and in private practice.
If you are interested in food and nutrition and in healthcare or public health, a career as a dietitian or a registered dietitian can let you pursue both interests. Learn more about dietitian careers, online dietetics degrees, certification, and licensing below.
Salary for Dietitians and Nutritionists
Average Annual Salary for Dietitians and Nutritionists
$69,350 per year
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for dietitians and nutritionists is $66,450. Nationally, 80% of dietitians and nutritionists earn between $44,140 and $95,130 annually.
Your pay will vary based on your education, experience, work setting, and geographic location. Dietitians and nutritionists earn the most in:
- The District of Columbia ($83,550)
- Maine ($82,480)
- California ($80,160)
- New York ($79,910)
- New Jersey ($79,630)
However, many of these states, especially in the major urban areas, have a high cost of living, so be sure to consider that when comparing salary offers when you graduate from your on-campus or online dietetics degree.
Job Outlook for Dietitians and Nutritionists
7% from 2022-2032, above the average for all occupations
Soft Skills You Need for a Career in Dietetics
- Interpersonal communication
- Reading and writing
- Service attitude
- Responding effectively to feedback
- Continual learning to keep up with changes in food and nutrition science
Hard Skills You'll Build with a Dietetics Degree
- Sciences, especially human anatomy, biology, and chemistry
- Counseling about diet and nutrition
- Customer service
- Adult and/or youth education
- Food services leadership
Featured Online Master's Programs
Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.
Careers Paths in Dietetics
Dietitians work in a number of settings, anywhere there is a need for support for good nutrition. Some provide their expertise and skills to improve nutrition for a community as a whole, while others work with a very specific population, such as the residents in a nursing home or hospital.
Some of these roles have more extensive educational or licensing requirements, so please check your state to see any applicable regulations. Check the curriculum for the on-campus or online dietetics degrees you are considering to see if the courses fit your desired career path.
Health Education Specialists
Dietitians who work as health education specialists provide advice and education on how to improve nutrition. They might help clients learn how to prepare healthy meals for themselves and their families, teach healthy cooking skills, or explain how to read and understand nutritional labels.They must be able to deliver information and advice in a supportive and nonjudgmental way, and know the latest health and nutrition research.
Registered Dietitians (RD)
Registered dietitians use their expertise in a variety of health roles, including education, supervision of food services, management of nutritional aspects of corporate wellness programs, research and product development with food suppliers, and more. They may assess nutritional needs, educate individual or organizational clients, develop menus for food services in organizations, or create content as nutrition and diet experts.
Certified Nutritionist Specialist (CNS)
Nutritionists are not as autonomous as dietitians in most states, but certified nutritionist specialists need an advanced degree in the discipline and to pass the certification examination. As a CNS, you may work in a number of roles, including private practice, community and public health, food research, or working for an organization with food services, such as a hospital, college, or military base.
Food Safety Auditors
Food safety auditors are professionals who specialize in food safety and risk management related to food. They analyze food supply chains or food production systems to identify potential risks and recommend changes. This specialty requires a strong understanding of how food can become contaminated as well as testing techniques and systems thinking.
Food Scientists and Technologists
Food scientists and technologists identify ways to improve the nutritional content, taste, or production of food. They may work to develop new foods, such as new varieties of fruits or vegetables, study how to make soils more fertile and the food grown in them more nutritious, or find ways to keep foods from going bad.
Nutrition content creators and writers create material about nutrition for the public or for specific audiences. They may be informal influencers who have a nutrition website or social media channel, or may produce materials for specific publications or audiences. Nutrition writers must understand their audience and communicate effectively about nutrition and eating.
How to Start Your Career in Dietetics
Many states regulate dietitians and who can call themselves a dietitian, though nutritionists are generally less regulated. Be sure to check your state regulations to see if there are any licensing or other requirements for your chosen career or title.
The typical entry-level on-campus or online dietetics degree is a bachelor's degree, but you may need an advanced degree for leadership roles and some certifications. Some teaching roles or advanced food science positions may require a doctorate. Some certifications require supervised experience and passing an examination after earning your degree.
Bachelor's Degree in Dietetics
A typical bachelor's degree in dietetics takes four years of full-time study and approximately 120 credits. The curriculum includes general studies requirements, specific dietetics courses, and lab courses, as well as electives. The dietetics component of the curriculum includes biology, chemistry, sociology, psychology, food science, clinical nutrition, and conducting research in foods and nutrition.
The accrediting organization for dietetics programs is the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). ACEND offers two accreditations, Coordinated Programs in Dietetics (CP) and Didactic Programs in Dietetics (DPD).
After you earn your degree and complete required experience hours or participate in an accredited dietetic internship, you may be eligible to take the certification examination and become a registered dietitian nutritionist.
Master's Degree in Dietetics
As of January 1, 2024, certification as a registered dietitian requires earning a master's degree, which requires two years of study and 30-40 credits.
You don't need a bachelor's degree in dietetics to apply for a master's degree in dietetics, but a bachelor's in a related field like biology might help; master's programs in dietetics build on what you learn during a bachelor's degree. Most programs also require a research project during the second year.
A master of dietetics can prepare you for a leadership role or to earn a doctorate in dietetics. You can also advance your career with specialized certifications, such as gerontological, sports, oncology, or pediatric critical care nutrition.
Doctoral Degree in Dietetics
A doctoral degree, such as a Ph.D. in dietetics or a doctor of clinical nutrition (DCN) is the terminal degree in dietetics. It can prepare you to teach or perform high-level research. A doctorate can require between 40 and 80 credit hours and take three to five years.
While both the DCN and Ph.D. programs include research, the Ph.D. program focuses on conducting research, while the DCN focuses on advanced practice and applying research. Both options require a capstone or research project, with the Ph.D. requiring a doctoral thesis.
Steps to Become a Registered Dietitian (RD) After You Earn Your Dietetics Degree
Please note that as of January 1, 2024, you need a master's degree to become a registered dietitian. After you earn your master's degree in dietetics, you'll need to complete a few more steps to qualify for your registered dietitian certification and find a job.
Complete supervised practice
After you finish your on-campus or online master’s in dietetics, you must work in the field of dietetics and complete at least 1,000 hours (approximately six months of full-time work) of supervised experience, under an RD.
Pass the exam for registered dietitians
When you have completed your supervised practice, you must register for the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) credentialing examination. You will confirm your education, sign a nondisclosure agreement about the contents, and pay a $200 exam fee. About a week after registration and credentials have been reviewed, you will receive authorization to take the examination. After you register, you have one year to take the exam, which includes questions about topics such as nutrition care for individuals and groups and food service systems. The examination is offered year-round through Pearson VUE.
Meet your state's requirements for licensure
States have different licensing requirements and scopes of practice. Check with your state to see what you must do to apply for a license. In many states, the RDN credential is enough for a license, but states vary. The American Nutrition Association provides a broad summary of requirements by state and links to a more detailed description and to the state legislature or regulating body.
Earn continuing education
You must renew your certification every five years through completing at least 75 continuing professional education units. These hours must include at least one hour of ethics education. You can earn these hours by taking formal classes, such as college or university courses, attending professional conferences or webinars, or completing other education that has been approved by the CDR.
Where Can You Work With a Degree in Dietetics?
Dietetics graduates work in a variety of settings, especially healthcare and public health agencies and organizations. Some workplaces, especially food service in healthcare settings, may require hours outside the traditional work hours. These are some of the most common settings for graduates with an on-campus or online dietetics degree.
Healthcare Work Settings
- Hospitals: In hospitals, dietitians must ensure that all patients receive nutrition appropriate for their specific needs, such as low sodium, as well as for cultural or religious needs.
- Outpatient care: In outpatient settings, dietitians may concentrate on teaching patients or their families how to plan and prepare appropriate meals.
- Nursing and residential care facilities: Like hospital inpatient units, nursing and residential care facilities provide patients with food designed for their specific needs. Especially in nursing care settings, dietitians might work with pharmacies to prepare intravenous feeding regimens and tube feeding guidelines.
- Private practice: In private practice, dietitians might work with a variety of patients, such as athletes and competitive sports participants, people with eating disorders, or or people who want to follow a healthier diet.
Work Settings Outside of Healthcare
- Government: In government, dietitians might oversee school food programs, manage the nutrition and food access components of public health programs, or work for agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.
- Individual and family services: Dietitians working for individual and family services may help recipients of food aid or social services programs such as Women, Infants and Children (WIC) by teaching nutrition and food budget management.
- Food manufacturing: Within the food manufacturing industry, dietitians and food scientists provide expertise on topics such as increasing the nutritional value of food, increasing shelf life, and quality control.
- Non-profit organizations: Dietitians work in nonprofit organizations to provide nutrition education, oversee food programs such as food banks or free meals, develop menus for youth programs that serve meals, or provide specialized advice and consulting for specific conditions.
Interview with a Registered Dietitian: Johna Burdeos
Johna Burdeos is a registered dietitian with over 20 years of experience in various healthcare settings. She has managed the nutrition care plans for patients at two general acute care hospitals and five long-term acute-care hospitals, all of which include ICU, telemetry, and general medical floors. She has also participated in regular meetings with interdisciplinary care teams and mentored dietetic interns.
In addition, Burdeos has experience in long-term acute care (LTC), providing nutrition consultation to residents, kitchen auditing services, and assistance in preparation for Department of Health surveys to over 20 LTC facilities. She also has experience in outpatient nutrition counseling, providing counseling to patients with various conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and obesity.
Burdeos is now a freelance health writer and dietitian reviewer for various media outlets. She enjoys sharing simple healthy eating tips and recipes on her blog, dietitianjohna.com.
You have experience working in acute care, long-term care, and outpatient care. How did your role as a dietitian differ between each of those settings?
In the acute-care setting, the dietitian is part of the hospital's medical team, whose chief goal is to stabilize and treat a patient with an acute condition. As an acute-care or inpatient dietitian, my job is to conduct nutritional assessments, determine a patient's individual nutrition needs, and develop and implement a nutrition care plan to meet those needs in collaboration with other medical team members.
In this role, I was expected to attend weekly, sometimes biweekly interdisciplinary care team meetings. Something the dietitian does more in the hospital setting compared to the other healthcare setting is manage enteral (tube feeding) and parenteral (IV nutrition) feedings. This is not just limited to the ICU or critical care units of the hospital.
In the long-term care (LTC) setting, the dietitian's basic job duties are the same as that in the hospital setting. The difference is that the patients or residents in this setting are not as acutely sick as you would see in the hospital setting.
The LTC facility is basically the patient's home and the RD and other care team members develop a long-term relationship with the patients. You may know the patients for months to years. They have chronic medical conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease that need to be treated and managed and the dietitian plays a role in this.
In my experience as a LTC dietitian, I was much more involved in the kitchen compared to my role as a hospital dietitian. My duties included regular audits of the kitchen, food tasting, and in-servicing the kitchen staff. I was also much more involved in preparing the LTC's nutrition department for the state's Department of Health surveys.
The outpatient dietitian also assesses patients' nutrition status and provides nutrition care. The difference: this is done in an outpatient setting for patients who are not hospitalized. They're often referred by their doctor for nutrition counseling. The work involves more time conducting one-on-one nutrition counseling sessions for patients. Unlike in the hospital and LTC setting where a dietitian may be juggling multiple tasks and meetings and therefore has less time with the patient, the outpatient dietitian has more time to meet with a patient.
You've worked a lot of different roles in various settings. Which role did you enjoy the most?
My favorite role as a patient-facing dietitian was my job in the long-term acute-care hospital (LTACH). These types of hospitals are different from general acute-care hospitals in that they specialize in the care of patients who need an extended stay, typically about a month or more.
They are a bridge between the general acute-care hospital and the patient's home (which may be a home or an LTC facility). They're smaller hospitals and therefore I was responsible for managing the nutrition care for all the patients in the hospital as opposed to just one or two units in a typical larger general hospital. Many of the patients in this setting are not only recovering from acute illnesses but usually have multiple chronic conditions.
In my experience, I saw a variety of patients, from those in critical condition to those with recent long-term feeding tubes placed, malnutrition, and wounds. This increased the challenge of the job a bit and made it more engaging.
Additionally, I also liked that I had order-writing privileges in this setting. This simply means that a qualified professional, such as a registered dietitian, can write orders for patient care. This includes orders for oral diet, nutritional supplements, and enteral and parenteral feedings. This allowed me to play a more active role in the nutrition care of patients. It also expedites the delivery of appropriate nutrition care and therefore helps to improve patients' health outcomes and shorten their hospital stay.
What makes your career in dietetics worthwhile for you?
A career in dietetics has been worthwhile for me for the following reasons:
Making a difference in people's lives. I've had the opportunity to help people improve their health through nutrition. This includes nutrition therapy for the prevention and treatment of a condition.
I've helped people achieve their goals, whether it's gaining weight, losing weight, improving blood sugar or cholesterol levels, or having a healthier relationship with food.
Dietitians, unlike other healthcare professionals, typically have a better life-work balance and more flexibility in their work schedule. The job is also less stressful compared to other healthcare team members, as dietitians don't have to deal with life-and death-issues in the same way that physicians and nurses do.
What should students consider before getting a dietetics degree or becoming a registered dietitian?
There are several things a student should consider before going into this field, such as the following:
- Be sure you have a passion for nutrition, health, teaching, and learning. You should have a desire to constantly learn about new research and trends in nutrition, as it's ever-evolving. Additionally, you need to be able to communicate effectively (in writing and verbally) with patients or clients and other healthcare professionals when you're educating and discussing nutrition care.
- Be open to working with a variety of people and personalities. You need to be able to work with other healthcare professionals and patients from all walks of life. Building rapport with others is key to the successful implementation of nutrition care and your professional development. Understand that sometimes, you may have to compromise or meet people halfway when you're developing a nutrition care plan.
- Consider the time commitment to education. Becoming a dietitian requires a significant amount of education and training. You'll need to earn a bachelor's degree in dietetics and complete a dietetic internship involving supervised practice experience before you take the RD exam. And starting in 2024, those who want to take the RD exam must also have a master's degree, though it doesn't have to be in dietetics.
- Manage your salary expectations. There's a range in salary in the dietetics field, with the median salary being $66,450 in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This may be lower than some other healthcare professionals. Those who earn a higher salary are typically in management roles, private practice, and/or hold a specialty certificate and practice in a specialized setting.
What advice would you give someone who wants to start a career in dietetics?
If you are considering a career in dietetics, I recommend you talk to dietitians who work in different settings. This will give you a better understanding of what the job entails and whether or not the career is a good fit for you. You'll also learn about the different settings that dietitians work in. This includes hospitals, LTC, outpatient, private practice, and schools.
Dietitians also work in other areas like communications, telehealth, developing nutrition programs for organizations, food product development, nutrition research, nutrition policy, and more.
You should also consider where the jobs are and if you're willing to relocate to secure a job. As mentioned, ongoing education is important to stay up to date with research and trends in the field. Once you find a niche in dietetics that interests you, it's a good idea to learn more about that area and obtain specialty certification.
Frequently Asked Questions About Careers in Dietetics
Is an online nutrition degree worth it?
An online nutrition degree, such as an online dietetics degree, provides graduates similar earning power and job opportunities as a traditional degree. The median salary for dietitians and nutritionists is $66,450.
Is becoming a registered dietitian worth it?
Becoming a registered dietitian can be worth it if you are looking for a widely-recognized credential in dietetics and nutrition. As of August 2023, there are 110,554 registered dietitians in the U.S as of September 2023.
What is the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian?
The difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian is that nutritionists are not regulated, while in most states, dietitians are regulated. Dietitians are educated to be able to provide clinical advice on health and nutrition.
What are the pros and cons of being a dietitian?
The pros and cons of being a dietitian will vary based on your preferences, but some common pros include making a difference and a versatile degree that you can apply in different settings. Cons vary based on workplaces, but may include a high level of responsibility in managing food services or the emotional impact of caring for seriously ill or terminal patients.
Dietitians and nutritionists: Occupational Outlook Handbook. (2022). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Professional developmental guide. (2018.). Commission on Dietetic Registration
RD exam overview. (n.d.). Commission on Dietetic Registration
Registered dietitian nutritionist fact sheet. (n.d.). Eat RIght Pro Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Registry statistics. (n.d.). Commission on Dietetic Registration
What's the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist? (2023). Grand Canyon University
Why become a certified food safety and quality auditor? (n.d.). CFSAQ
Page last reviewed August 29, 2023