This particular post has been a loooooong time coming. If you’re a WordPress user, one of the cooler features (well at least to me, which probably doesn’t say much since I’m not tech savvy at all) is the ability to look at search terms that people have used to come across your blog. While some of them are pretty entertaining (my personal faves include “Can rice make you ugly?”, “seeds that look like rocks”, and “Is is ok for men to drink wine?”), some terms I see pretty frequently. One of these terms is, “how to become a dietitian” (or a variation on that theme). Currently, I don’t have any advice/tips on how to become an RD (that’s registered dietitian to YOU) so I thought I’d give those searchers some actual information instead of my silly little nutrition articles.
(Me and my fellow dietetic internships classmates – we clearly didn’t spend any time at the beach while we were there…)
(If you DON’T want to be a dietitian or aren’t interested in the field of nutrition, my apologies for a boring blog post. I’ll spice up the next post for all the non-dietitian wannabes I promise!)
So let’s begin…
1. If you want to be a dietitian…you need to LOVE the field of nutrition.
Sounds pretty obvious, huh? But it’s true for this career path and pretty much all others: if you’re passionate about the field you’re going into, you’ll never “work” a day in your life. Being an RD takes an undergraduate degree in nutrition or dietetics (at least 4 years) + a dietetic internship (typically 1 year) + any additional graduate school (1+ years). So as you can see, it’s pretty much a minimum of 5 years of nutrition related classes before you can take the registered dietitian exam (or RD exam). I will admit I didn’t always have the best study habits (somehow “Thirsty Thursday” always won the battle between hitting the library…), but I found it much easier to study for my nutrition and physiology related classes because it was something I was genuinely interested in and I found it fascinating. In fact, I still think nutrition is fascinating and read nutrition books FOR FUN. And I think to be a great RD, you need to have that passion because people can tell if you believe in what you do and that makes you a more effective dietitian.
2. If you want to be a dietitian…DON’T do it for the money
This ones pretty simple: dietitians don’t make good money. Period. Sure there are some jobs out there that are better paying than others, but when I say my job is a labor of love, I’m not kidding around. Unfortunately, my nutritional consultations that I do at work don’t get reimbursed by insurance or Medicare/Medicaid like other allied health professions do (i.e. physical therapy) so expect to make much less than them.
3. If you want to be a dietitian…know that it’s a very competitive field
(I miss all the kiddos I used to work with including this cutie who is the son of one of my former coworkers…how adorable is he?)
This kind of goes along with #1. Nutrition is a very trendy topic right now. People are curious about it, research it, and want to know more about it than ever before. Blame it on the media, our country’s obsession with the “perfect body” and weight loss, whatever…the point is, you’re probably not the only one that wants to be an RD so if you’re serious about it, make sure you are making the grade at school. Like I mentioned with #1, RDs have to do a (typically) 10-12 month internship where they accumulate “hours” of practice being an RD under the supervision of other dietitians who are already in the field. These internships are notoriously hard to get into…I knew girls at Michigan State University (where I did my undergraduate degree…go green baby) that had great GPAs (think 3.6 – 3.8) and STILL didn’t get into an internship. Be prepared to go the extra mile to show that you want to be a nutrition professional, whether it’s volunteering, job shadowing, joining nutrition clubs/associations, etc.
4. If you want to be a dietitian…make sure you’re at peace with food
Some people have interests in a certain career that may not necessarily be healthy. For example, take a former drug addict who decides they want to be a pharmacist…you really think it’s healthy to put that person in a room full of narcotics, stimulants, and other highly abused drugs? Why the interest in pharmacy anyway? The same concept can be applied to nutrition and dietetics. I have seen many people enter into the field who have had an eating problem at some point in their life or another. Now, don’t get me wrong: just because you had an eating disorder or were overweight/obese does NOT mean you can’t be an RD. In fact, struggling with food on a personal level might make you more empathetic to your patients’ struggles and a better dietitian overall! Just make sure that when you enter your internship or into the field as a working professional, you have a healthy relationship with food. Because talking and thinking and reading and writing and debating and learning about food all day is NOT natural. I once listened to a prominent psychologist who worked with eating disorder patients tell us that he truly believes that every dietitian out there probably has a warped relationship with food or disordered eating of some sort because again, it’s not normal to spend so much time fixated on food. And food is more than just fuel for our bodies: it’s very personal, emotional, and even cultural to us. Bottom line: it’s ok to have struggled with food, weight, or eating at some point in your life (and really, who hasn’t?). Just make sure you’re going into the field for the right reasons, and not to “cure yourself” or figure out the best way to lose weight. Nutrition is about so much more than that.
5. If you want to be a dietitian…be prepared to deal with a LOT of misinformation from other so called “nutrition experts”
LIke I said before, it seems like everyone has an interest in nutrition. Which for the most part, I LOVE. My goal in life is to empower others to make better nutrition choices and knowledge is power! However, there are also a lot of well meaning individuals who do NOT have any academic background in food and nutrition who seek out an online certification or other less credible designation and call themselves “nutritionists”, “health coaches/nutrition coaches”, etc. As someone who has spent years researching and studying the field of nutrition (and STILL continues to!), this is extremely frustrating as most of these so called “nutrition experts” are basing their expertise off of a few nutrition books they read or an online course or two. Look, I don’t read a book about surgery or take an online course about the body and then pretend to be a surgeon, so why do people think it’s ok to do that for nutrition? Nutrition is an ever-changing, complex, and dynamic field, and the advice I give is EVIDENCED BASED (which means there are years of research and multiple studies involved to back my recommendations up). While I think it’s great to keep abreast of new information and keep an open mind about nutrition (i.e. just because I learned one thing in graduate school doesn’t mean that it can’t be disproven), by far the most frustrating thing I do is correct misinformation from these “experts” that my patients or clients saw on TV, the internet, at the gym, etc. In other words, just because your personal trainer/friend/internet “eating coach” tells you to eat one way, doesn’t mean that they know what they’re talking about.
6. If you want to be a dietitian…know that you will be judged by your appearance.
I’ve touched on this a little before, but whether I like it or not, how I look is part of my job. Is this always fair? Of course not. Do all people that appear fit and healthy (because they are at an appropriate weight) actually ARE fit and healthy? Hell no! Do all people that look slightly (or more) overweight actually out of shape and unhealthy? Of course not. BUT I’ve heard more than once that I “look like a dietitian – you’re sooooo skinny/thin/tiny/etc.” and for that reasons, I am instantly credible in the eyes of that person. As it turns out, I do actually love (and do) eat super healthy and take my fitness seriously, but I’ve known many a thin and slender girl that may look to be eating healthy, but actually aren’t and subsist off of a fast food diet or go on the opposite spectrum and are thin due to starvation. It’s harsh, but it’s reality, and it’s good to understand and accept that some people may not accept a thing you say if you don’t look “skinny enough” to them. It’s a perception I hope that will change, but unfortunately, I don’t think society is there yet.
7. If you want to be a dietitian…job shadow or intern for another RD
This is something that I didn’t do enough in college, but I think for some, it’s really important. To understand what the field is all about and to see if you’ll like the RD life, I would strongly suggest interning or job shadowing a dietitian. Many RDs like myself LOVE having interns/volunteers because I personally feel so strongly about what I do that I want to nurture and mentor others who would make a great addition to the field and help them become nutrition rock stars. Because while you may think nutrition is cool, you may not like the application of nutrition in a clinical, community, or business setting. But you won’t know until you try it out and learn more about it.
8. If you want to be a dietitian…be prepared to fall in love with one of the most rewarding careers you could have
(I LOVE this note one of my patients wrote to me when I worked in pediatrics)
Ok so obviously I’m biased, but I truly love what I do. Helping people improve their lives is extremely satisfying to me, and I love watching someone undergo positive personal transformation. I feel fulfilled when I’m able to help someone, and as an RD, that’s exactly what you do. I’ve had children tell me they want to grow up and be just like me. I’ve had their parents tell me that they view me as a wonderful role model and that their kids look up to me. Just yesterday I had a woman come up to me crying after a presentation I gave about preventing diabetes and said that she was deeply moved by my message and thanked me for taking the time to talk to her and the rest of the group. I’ve seen children who were bullied in school because of their weight successfully change some of their eating habits and tell me they feel better about themselves. And I could go on and on. Now it’s important to note that you can’t (and won’t) be able to inspire change in everyone. That’s ok. People are only ready to change when THEY are ready to, not when the doctor wants them to or when you want them to. But when you get a patient that’s ready to change and could use your guidance, everything just falls into place.
9. If you want to be a dietitian…ask me and other RDs lots of questions :)
(Taking in the local cuisine at The Salt Lick – big slabs o’ meat anyone?)
If you are a future dietitian in training and have any questions, feel free to leave a comment with your email and I promise I will get back to you ASAP. And if you don’t feel comfortable asking me (and it’s not like I’m an expert!), seek out advice from those already in the field…they’re your best resource. When I was considering becoming a dietitian, I got up the nerve to email a few RDs that I looked up to and it meant a lot that they would share their experiences with me.
Best of luck to all my future RDs and to my current ones: thank you for all that you do :)
Lots of love,