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What is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist?

One of the questions we get asked about frequently is what exactly is a Registered Dietitian and what do we actually do?

If you have been following us for some time, then you know that we are both Registered Dietitians. While we have a post on how to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RD/RDN) that touches briefly on what we do, we thought it would be a good idea to break it down even further. So, let’s get started.

“So… what is a Registered Dietitian?”

Registered Dietitians (RDs), also known as Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (try saying that 3 times fast), are skilled health care professionals who are experts in food and nutrition. They help people develop practical solutions to make positive lifestyle changes to improve their diet and health.

“My sister’s best friend is a “Nutritionist.” That’s what you are right?”

Wrong. Think about it like this: dietitians can call themselves nutritionists, but nutritionists can’t call themselves dietitians. RDs have to undergo extensive training that includes taking courses in food and nutrition, completing 1200 hours of supervised practice, and passing the national RD exam. Practicing RDs must also complete a minimum of 75 hours of continuing education with at least 1 hour of Ethics training every 5 years in order to maintain the credential. The RD/RDN credential is the only accepted dietetic credential for those wanting to practice in clinical settings (think hospitals, clinics, and doctor offices) and is the most widely accepted dietetic credential. Approximately half of all RDs hold graduate degrees and many also have certifications in specialized fields which include nutrition support, sports nutrition, pediatrics, renal nutrition, oncology, or gerontology.

Professionals can call themselves “nutritionists” without being required to have any formal education or certification. They may have studied nutrition in college or have an advanced degree (M.S, MPH, or Ph.D.) in nutrition, taken an online certification course in nutrition, or have no formal education in nutrition at all. The term “nutritionist” is not regulated or protected by law which allows practically anyone to consider themselves one.

“Does an RD just work in hospitals creating meal plans?”

While it seems that many people have no idea what we do, a lot of people think that all RDs do is generate meal plans or work in a kitchen. However, being an RD is so much more than that! This profession is super rewarding and has almost limitless career possibilities. The majority of dietitians work in the treatment and prevention of disease in healthcare settings (hospitals, private practice, other healthcare facilities) providing medical nutrition therapy (MNT) as part of medical teams. Through MNT, RDs review their patients eating habits and lifestyle and provide a thorough assessment of their nutritional status. This allows them to develop a personalized nutrition treatment plan that is unique and specialized to their individual needs.

The cool thing is, dietitians have expanded reach beyond hospital and clinical settings and can be found in community and public health settings, academia, research, private counseling, corporate wellness, culinary nutrition, nutrition & health policy, health journalism, food photography, grocery stores, business, sports nutrition, and MORE. Many dietitians also have their own blogs, websites, and social media channels (like us!). Check out our Dietitian Spotlight to find out more about the exciting things that RDs are doing!

“But I get my nutrition advice from my doctor. They’re the real expert in nutrition…right?”

Registered Dietitian Nutritionists are health professionals that provide the highest level of nutritional counseling through MNT. They undergo extensive training to become credentialed, and those credentials are protected by law. Their qualifications enable them to be able to translate the science of nutrition into practical solutions for healthy living. RDs can achieve this by providing MNT in a preventative manner by promoting overall health (preventative medicine) or as a means of treatment in addressing specific medical concerns like chronic disease, navigating food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances, or working with those suffering from eating disorders.  

Doctors also can legally provide nutritional advice, as well as sign off on dietary orders in clinical settings. However, most doctors do not receive much formal nutrition education in their training – sometimes only receiving one class of nutrition, if at all. Some doctors (and other healthcare providers) who have gone on to complete additional studies in nutrition can practice “clinical nutrition,” sometimes offered as a subset of complementary and alternative medicine.

“So where exactly do all of you RDs work?”

Just as there are limitless possibilities for what an RD can do, where an RD can work includes a whole lot of places. Here are a few common industries:

  • Hospitals, clinics, or other health-care facilities (dialysis centers, diabetes clinics, wellness clinics)
  • Community and public health settings
  • WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) offices
  • Sports Nutrition (gyms, sports facilities, academic athletic programs, professional sports teams)
  • Corporate Wellness
  • Food Service (hospitals, schools, nursing homes, meal-delivery services)
  • Marketing, communications, and public affairs with food and nutrition-related business and industries
  • Private practice, working under contract with health care or food companies, or in their own business
  • Consulting
  • Universities and medical centers
  • Food photography and journalism
  • Research areas in food and pharmaceutical companies

Why are RDs necessary?”

RDs are much more than just food and nutrition experts. We are leaders in the field of nutrition and dietetics. As members of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, RDs play key roles in shaping the food choices of the public, improving the nation’s nutritional status, and in treating persons with illness or injuries. Our qualifications and continuing education allow us to remain up-to-date on the emerging science of nutrition and be able to translate those findings into practical dietary advice for our patients. It is important that if you are going to work with a nutritionist, that you are sure to verify and check their credentials.

When should I consult with a Registered Dietitian?”

RDs can be seen for a wide variety of reasons! Whether you have a specific health concern such as diabetes, kidney disease or cancer, or if you need help achieving your health goals. Here are some reasons to consult with an RD:

  • You want help managing diabetes, high blood pressure or other chronic diseases
  • You have digestive problems
  • You are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or are a new mom
  • You have food allergies, sensitivities, or intolerances
  • You or your child have issues with food and eating healthfully
  • You are caring for an older adult
  • You want practical nutritional advice
  • You want to increase your sports or exercise performance
  • You have an eating disorder
  • You have a history of chronic dieting and want to improve your relationship with food

To find an RD in your area, visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website

Are you interested in doing what we do and becoming an RD yourself? Check out these resources:

Still have more questions or want coaching from Wendy and Jess? Email us at to learn about our programs and packages.

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