How to Become a Registered Dietitian
One of the most common questions I get is how I became a dietitian. To be honest, it is a bit of a long and complicated process. I wanted to write a whole post on How To Become a Registered Dietitian and the many steps involved. This post includes information on the undergraduate process, the dietetic internship, the RD exam, and more.
My Journey to Dietetics
This post is about my journey to becoming an RD and the general requirements for anyone interested in pursuing Dietetics. I hope it is helpful!
What you can expect to find in this post:
- Why I chose this profession & what it means to me
- The steps it took to become a Registered Dietitian
- What I’m doing now as an RD (and other positions I have held)
- A little bit about my personal health journey through it all
- How I decided to start a wellness blog & my experience blogging thus far
Why I Wanted To Be A Dietitian: background
My interest in food and nutrition began all the way back in high school. I was a fit, active cheerleader and could’ve eaten whatever I wanted without gaining weight. Despite that fact, I started really paying attention to what I put in my mouth during those years. In hindsight, probably a little too much.
I didn’t really restrict myself or engage in any binge/purge behaviors back then; however, it was around that time that I started tracking my food intake in MyFitnessPal.
Little did I know, this was a habit that I would continue for the next seven years or so. I stopped counting calories once and for all a few years ago, and it has been incredibly freeing. (Read my blog post to learn more about Why I Stopped Counting Calories, and Why I Still Don’t Count Calories.)
choosing a major in college
Fast forward to college. 18-year-old me was a little overwhelmed by the fact that I needed to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, as most freshmen in college are. I went to Kansas State University, which is where my dad went back in the day. Basically I was brainwashed from birth that I would attend KSU as well. ; )
Luckily, I loved everything about small-town Manhattan, KS, and they also happened to have several majors that suited me perfectly.
I started out my college career with a dual-degree; Nutrition and Kinesiology. It seemed like the perfect fit for me. I obviously had this growing interest in food and nutrition, and I really loved exercise, too. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with that yet, but I felt confident that I was on the right path.
It wasn’t long before I heard about Dietetics and all of the different job opportunities for dietitians. Once I learned how much you can do with the RD credentials, I knew that’s what I was meant to do.
I switched Kinesiology to a minor and changed my major to Nutrition and Health, and added a second major, Dietetics. Although I still loved exercise, I didn’t feel that I was meant to be a personal trainer, physical therapist, etc.
school as a dietetics major
I have to admit, school was pretty tough with that workload, especially because I put a lot of pressure on myself to get A’s in every class. I was also very involved in my sorority, Pi Beta Phi, and wanted to have a social life. (Go figure.)
Dietetics, Nutrition and all other health-related majors are very science-heavy, and require a lot of studying and dedication. If you are considering going into any of those things, be prepared for that. You have to get through some boring and difficult classes (i.e. microbiology) before you get to the stuff that actually interests you.
I have to brag for a second and say that I only got one B throughout my whole college career (damn you, Biology). I graduated Summa Cum Laude (twice), only because it helps me lead into my next point. And yes, in case you’re wondering, I was — and still am, and always will be — an overachiever. Most dietitians are. It comes with the territory, apparently.
how my type a tendencies led to health issues
My perfectionist personality has been a blessing and a curse throughout my life. It helped me perform well in school, which is something I’m proud of; however, it also caused me a lot of unnecessary stress in an attempt to be perfect all the time.
This resulted in over-analyzing my food intake, body image issues, exercising obsessively, and even caused GI issues that were ultimately diagnosed as “IBS”, most likely triggered by stress, as well as certain foods in my diet.
My IBS has improved significantly since college, as my stress levels have gone down and I’ve gotten better at giving myself grace, practicing regular self-care and body kindness. I still have good and bad days.
Despite all of the things I’ve been through on my personal health journey (obsessive behaviors, poor body image, GI distress, skin issues), I can say that I have a very healthy relationship with food and my body today.
As an RD, I love helping people discover what they can do to not only improve their health, but also boost their self-confidence and quality of life. Being a dietitian has given me the opportunity to teach others how food and exercise can improve their overall well-being. More importantly, I love showing people that they don’t have to give up everything they love to achieve better health.
As I have grown personally and professionally, I recognize the importance of rest and self-care, which can look different from person to person. For me, that might mean getting a manicure, baking, going to the dog park, or having a lazy day to binge-watch Netflix. For others, it could mean something completely different.
Either way, it’s important to identify stress-management strategies, because stress can have a hugely negative impact on our health otherwise.
The dietetics Education & Internship Process
To those of you who are seriously considering Dietetics, I would recommend reading this part so you know what it entails.
I had a double major + minor in college and it took me five years total to complete both undergraduate degrees. The entire fifth year consisted of my Dietetic internship (considered undergrad still).
I still completed the internship at the same time as everyone else in my class. You can most likely expect five years total regardless, unless you earned a lot of college credit in high school. The program I did at K-State did not include a Masters degree; however, programs at some other universities do, and in the future, it will be a requirement for everyone.
Dietetic internships traditionally consist of three different rotations for a total of 1200 hours of supervised practice:
- Clinical rotation
- Management rotation
- Community rotation
Some internships are less traditional and may also include shadowing in private practice, integrative medicine, or other areas of Dietetics. Back in my day, it was just the first three. It also depends which program you choose and the university you’re completing it through.
The Coordinated Program Route:
I chose the Coordinated Program (CP) path through Kansas State University. That meant that I had a lot of support from the faculty at KSU during the internship placement process. I also got to stay fairly close to home for all of my rotations.
Alternately, there is the Didactic Program, in which the student has to find their own preceptors and internship rotations. They are typically farther away (for example, on the coast somewhere). Some people want to go away from home, so they prefer the Didactic path. I personally liked being close to my family, friends and boyfriend (now husband) during that year.
My Internship Rotations:
The summer before my fifth year, I completed my community rotation at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Olathe, KS (near my home) for a total of 6-8 weeks.
During the fall semester, I did my management rotation at one of the student dining facilities at K-State. In case you’re wondering, yes, it involved wearing a hairnet and working in a kitchen with a variety of management-type responsibilities.
Second semester I completed my clinical rotation at Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, so I got to live at home during the end of my final year.
workload during the dietetic internship
Throughout the internship on the CP path, you are also taking a few classes, so not only are you working basically full-time (for free), you are also still completing assignments, and taking exams, etc.
I will be totally honest; it is an extremely busy and stressful year, but like I said, I had a lot of support from my classmates, advisors and teachers at K-State since I did the Coordinated Program, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It is such a valuable time because you get real work experience in a variety of settings and really get a feel for what you like, as well as what you don’t like as much.
You learn and grow so much during that year, and that is why being a Registered Dietitian is much different than a nutritionist, or health coach, or any other “health expert” you may see on the internet.
Dietitians go through extensive education and nutrition training, and we are also required to complete 75 hours of continuing education every five years, so we are constantly learning and staying up-to-date on the latest evidence-based nutrition research.
the registered dietitian exam
After you complete the internship and earn your Dietetics degree, you are eligible to sit for the national RD exam. I personally spent about 4-5 weeks studying for this, and used Jean Inman to do so.
Thankfully, I passed the exam on my first attempt, but do not take this process lightly. It is very challenging, and I treated studying as a full-time job during that month!
With all of that being said, if you have any health-related issues you need addressed, I would highly recommend visiting with a Registered Dietitian who has been highly trained to counsel patients and clients for a variety of health concerns. Many RDs are specialized in specific areas, i.e. gastrointestinal issues, thyroid health, women’s health, etc.
Ideally, you should do this while also consulting your physician, and your practitioners can work together to form an individualized care plan that works for you.
Career Opportunities for Registered Dietitians
I started my career working part-time as an inpatient clinical dietitian in a hospital, as well as a part-time wellness coordinator for the employees of a school district.
These were two completely opposite ends of the spectrum in the dietetics world; treatment vs. prevention. Both are extremely important, and in both environments, there is so much room for education.
I tried to motivate my school district clients to adopt healthy habits so they would never make it to that hospital bed. On the other hand, in the hospital I had the opportunity to educate newly diagnosed diabetics, teach patients who just had a heart attack how to make heart-healthy choices, administer nutrition support for patients who were intubated, or didn’t have a properly functioning GI tract at the time, etc.
I currently work as a Wellness Coach / Corporate Wellness Dietitian for a large corporation in the Kansas City Area. Most of my time is spent visiting with individuals for one-on-one nutrition consultations. I also get to create nutrition/health-related materials and videos to provide education and motivation to my population.
Working in a clinical setting was a great learning experience, but I have always been most passionate about wellness and prevention. I want to educate people on how to be well now so they can live a happier and healthier life well into the future, avoid developing chronic diseases, and most importantly, set a positive example for the next generation.
Other Career Opportunities:
As you can see, there are a wide variety of career opportunities for dietitians, so if you are passionate about food & nutrition, there is likely a perfect place for you.
You can work in clinical settings, grocery stores, government agencies (WIC), school districts, corporations, fitness facilities and so much more. There are also a lot of opportunities for RDs in media and journalism these days. Someday I would love to write a book or contribute articles to magazines or online publications, or do nutrition/cooking videos.
why i love being a registered dietitian
The best thing about this profession is seeing people get excited about living a healthier life and taking better care of themselves. W
hen I see that light bulb go off, and they realize, “Wow, I can do this”, or I get an email from a client who can’t wait to report back to me that they have: worked out four times that week, started eating a healthy breakfast every morning, started drinking more water, increased their fruit/veggie intake, etc. — those are the moments that make it all worth it.
Like most professions, there are always going to be frustrating and difficult times. Some people simply don’t want to change or listen to what you have to say, and that’s okay. It takes patience, persistence and great counseling skills to help people make positive lifestyle changes.
Everyone goes at a difference pace, but once they get there and they are so thankful for your guidance and support through it all, it’s an amazing feeling.
On Having a wellness/lifestyle Blog
I started Wellness For The Win soon after I completed my Dietetic internship, and right before I started studying for the RD exam. (Ironically, it was the day before I had a colonoscopy/EGD for the GI issues I discussed earlier.)
I truly didn’t have any idea what I was doing when I started my blog. I just knew that I wanted to create a space where I could motivate and inspire others to live a healthy lifestyle by eating well, exercising often and simply taking better care of their bodies. It is amazing to look back at the past few years and see how much I have learned and grown during that time.
I’m still not an expert on food photography, Instagram or blogging in general. Obviously I am very passionate about my blog, but it’s not my entire life. I have a family, a husband, a dog, a full-time job and many other things that I care about too! I’ve had a lot of fun sharing my life with you all, and I continue to learn so much as I go.
tips on starting a blog
If you want to start a blog or Instagram account, go for it! Don’t overthink it; have fun with it. If you wait until you’re “ready” to start, you never will.
Follow accounts in your niche (as well as accounts that you enjoy/make you feel good), engage with them, learn from them, but always stay true to who you are and don’t compare yourself to others. Those are my biggest pieces of advice.
A lot of people feel pressured to post certain things based on what others are doing, but don’t let that get to you. If you are primarily a food blogger, but want to share something fashion or beauty-related, do it! And vice versa. There truly are NO rules. We are all allowed to care about a variety of things. My life consists of a lot more than just what I eat, believe it or not. You do you, friends. 😉
You Learn So Much As You Go!
Just for fun, wanted to show you a little comparison of a photo from when I first started, and a more recent photo. I am by NO means a food photography pro, and I still have a lot to learn, but I think my skills have improved quite a bit!
Some of my favorite resources:
- Food photography backgrounds/tips: @replicasurfaces
- @bromabakery – lots of tips as well as food photography courses
It’s Not About Followers Or Money
Yes, it’s fun and exciting to get more followers, but that’s not what it’s all about for me. It’s the messages that I get from complete strangers down the street or across the country letting me know that I have inspired them in some way.
Whether they’re recovering from an eating disorder and DM me to let me know that I encouraged them to fuel their bodies, or a young mom who is learning to be kinder to her body because of my account.
Messages like that matter the most to me. Knowing that I am making an impact on the health of others, no matter how big or small, is the most rewarding part of it all.
registered dietitians are just like you
I want to show my followers that people like us (RDs, “healthy food bloggers”, and people who appear to eat perfectly all the time) like to let loose and eat pizza and cake and drink margaritas, too.
In the end, it’s all about balance and enjoying life. It’s about respecting our bodies. Sometimes that means eating veggies and exercising, and sometimes that means resting and eating ice cream. You have to figure out what “balance” looks like for you, and stop comparing yourself to random strangers on the internet.
As someone who has been on the other end of the spectrum, I recognize that it takes time to get to that place of balance, self-acceptance and eating more intuitively.
I just want to show people that eating healthy can be fun, delicious, satisfying and most importantly, simple. Yes, it requires a little bit of effort on your part, but trust me, it is so worth it. You can’t put a price on feeling good on the inside and the outside.
the long journey to “RD” is worth it!
I feel so lucky to have a career that I am so passionate about and to have the opportunity to help others get excited about their own health as well. I plan to continue to share my love for nutrition and health with anyone who will listen, and hope to inspire many more along the way. If there is anyone in your life who you think could benefit from following me, please feel free to share my information with them. : )
Thank you so much for reading! As always, feel free to reach out with any questions or comments you may have if you are also interested in becoming a dietitian or starting your own blog!
Until next time,
Shanna Hutcheson, RD LD
Shanna – I so appreciate this post and your blog in general. I wish I knew more about being a registered dietitian when I was in school because I definitely would have picked that path (I could always go back and get another degree but I definitely need to mentally prepare for that). Your blog is one of my favorites because you are so easy to relate to. You mentioned it in this post but I love that you focus on balance. I appreciate that you aren’t afraid to show that you had one or two drinks with dinner or that you decided to eat ice cream (and not the “healthy” kind) because that is real life. Thank you for being real with your followers and for showing us that there is no perfect definition of “healthy”. I look forward to your future posts!
Thank you SO much for all of your kind words! That just made my entire day, and it’s exactly why I do what I do! So glad to be an inspiration to others. And hey- it’s never too late to be an RD 😉
Wow I am so happy you shared this. I have actually spent the last year looking into KSU’s DPD program in conjunction with completing a masters in Sports Nutrition and trying to figure how to make it work for me. I have a bachelors in Nutrition, health and wellness w/ minor in Kinesiology and unlike you I didn’t find out the benefits of being an RD until half way through my junior year. My passion is to help people from getting sick/unhealthy so I focus a lot on preventative as well. I would LOVE to chat with you more about the program at KSU if you have a chance. I am struggling with the amount of prerequisites I still would need to complete in order to get into the program so I am constantly battling with myself about it being worth it or not.
Thank you so much for sharing it really gives me the positive boost of encouragement I needed!
Hi Kelsey! I’m so glad this post was helpful for you! It sounds like we have a lot in common based on the majors you’ve chosen, and love that you’re at KSU too! It sounds like Dietetics would be a perfect fit for you since you are passionate about being on the prevention side of things as well. I know it may seem like a lot of extra work right now, but it’s what you’ll be doing for the rest of your life, so you obviously want to choose a career that you will love! I would be happy to chat with you more and answer any questions you have. Feel free to DM me on Instagram @wellnessforthewin or email me at [email protected]. Thank you! 🙂