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Proper diet is the foundation of good health, from conception through old age.  While an understanding of nutrition is a key element of many health careers, dietitians focus exclusively on the impact of food on health. Dietitians are experts in designing nutrition programs to protect health, prevent allergic reactions and alleviate the symptoms of many types of disease.

Clinical dietitians provide medical nutrition therapy for patients in institutions such as hospitals and nursing care facilities. They assess patients' nutritional needs, develop and implement nutrition programs, and evaluate and report the results. They confer with doctors and other healthcare professionals in order to coordinate medical and dietary needs. Some clinical dietitians specialize in the management of overweight and criticially ill patients, such as those with renal (kidney) disease and diabetes. In addition, clinical dietitians in nursing care facilities, small hospitals, or correctional facilities may manage the food service department.

Community dietitians develop nutrition programs designed to prevent disease and promote health, targeting particular groups of people. RDs in this practice area may work in settings such as public health clinics, fitness centers, corporate wellness programs or home health agencies. Dietitians working in home health agencies provide instruction on grocery shopping and food preparation to elderly individuals with special needs, and children.

Increased public interest in nutrition has led to job opportunities in food manufacturing, advertising, and marketing. In these areas, dietitians analyze foods, prepare literature for distribution, or report on issues such as the nutritional content of recipes, dietary fiber, or vitamin supplements.

Management dietitians oversee large-scale meal planning and preparation in healthcare facilities, company cafeterias, prisons, and schools. They hire, train, and direct other dietitians and food service workers; budget for and purchase food, equipment, and supplies; enforce sanitary and safety regulations; and prepare records and reports.

Consultant dietitians work under contract with healthcare facilities or in their own private practice. They perform nutrition assessments for their clients and advise them about diet-related concerns, such as weight loss or cholesterol reduction. Some work for wellness programs, sports teams, supermarkets, and other nutrition-related businesses. They consult with food service managers, providing expertise in sanitation, safety procedures, menu development, budgeting, and planning.

To learn more, watch a video profile about dietitians and nutritionists (n the Health Science category).

Working Conditions

Dietitians work in a variety of settings, overseeing food planning and preparation. They manage nutrition programs in health care facilities, schools, prisons and company cafeterias. They work in public health agencies, influencing policies related to nutrition and health, and in universities, educating students about nutrition and health.

Most work a typical 40-hour week, usually based in an office with frequent time spent in institutional kitchens and meetings.

Salary and Outlook

A dietitian working in a hospital can expect to earn $42,000 to $55,000. Salaries are higher for professionals who manage staff, work as consultants to business or conduct research.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of RDs is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2015. Employment in hospitals is expected to show little change, but faster growth is anticipated in such settings as nursing homes, residential care facilities, and clinics.

Academic Requirements

To become a registered dietitian (RD), you must complete a four-year college degree with a major in dietetics.

You can choose from two types of programs. A didactic program provides only classroom learning during college, followed by a one-year internship in the field. A “coordinated program in dietetics” includes both classroom study and the required 900 hours of supervised practice.

Once you graduate, you can take the Registration Examination for Dietitians to become a registered dietitian. Continuing education is required to maintain registration.

Preparation Timeline

The typical RD curriculum includes food and nutrition sciences, foodservice systems management, business, economics, computer science, culinary arts, sociology, communications, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, anatomy and physiology, and chemistry.

In order to become an RD, you must:

  • Receive a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited U.S. university/college and coursework approved by the American Dietetics Association's (ADA) Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education(CADE).
  • Complete a CADE-accredited, supervised practice program at a health-care facility, community agency, or foodservice corporation -- by itself or in combination with undergraduate or graduate studies. Practice programs typically last 6 to 12 months.
  • Pass a national examination administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration.
  • Complete continuing professional educational requirements to maintain registration.

Some RDs obtain additional certifications in specialized areas of practice, such as pediatric or renal nutrition, nutrition support, and diabetes education. These certifications are awarded through CDR, the credentialing agency for ADA as well as other medical and nutrition organizations. Such certifications are recognized within the profession, but are not required.