What It Takes to Become a Dietitian

  • 4+ years of classes in the science of nutrition and dietetics, including organic chemistry, biochemistry and nutrient metabolism
  • 1280 supervised, unpaid, practice hours
  • hours of homework, reading journal articles, and completing case studies
  • studying for (and passing) a registration examination
  • a passion for all things food and nutrition

These are just a few of the things it takes to become a Registered Dietitian, or a nutrition expert. It’s hard work. Seven years ago, I sat down at an info session at Sage College with interest in starting their nutrition science program. I had just lost 80 pounds and was really interested in food and nutrition. I learned then that in order to be a real expert in nutrition, I would have to become an dietitian. I took three years of required science classes at HVCC, followed by three years of full time coursework (while working!) in nutrition and dietetics on campus at Sage. Finally, last August I began my Dietetic Internship, a program of 1280 supervised practice hours required to become a Registered Dietitian. For 10 months, I was to work full-time, for free, under the supervision of  Registered Dietitians, a Food Service Manager, and a Food Access Team. I gave up my job with great benefits to work for free. I completed five rotations: food service management (10 weeks), long-term care (2 weeks), acute care and outpatient clinical (13 weeks) and community (7 weeks). Last Friday was the last day of my internship–it feels so surreal to be done.

The Dietetic Internship has taught me so much more than I could ever learn in the classroom. I went into it with preconceived notions of what I wanted to do once I was done and I’ve completely changed my mind. I thought I wanted to be a sports and weight management dietitian, but realized that’s not the path I want to take, at least not right away! I really enjoyed my clinical rotations–I loved long-term care, critical care, oncology and renal. I loved writing tube feeds and working with patients one-on-one, helping them improve their health through nutrition and working to combat chronic disease with medical nutrition therapy.

I also chose to become a dietitian because quite frankly, I love food. Not only is food needed to sustain life, proper nutrition can greatly improve a person’s quality of life. Being directly involved in a patient’s care is extremely rewarding. I’ve also experienced first-hand how one’s life can completely change with good nutrition. I’ve been working toward this goal for so long, it feels surreal to almost be done.  I am going to celebrate when I can finally write those two letters after my name.

What is the difference between a Nutritionist and a Registered Dietitian?
There’s a huge difference between a dietitian and nutritionist. Dietitians must complete science-heavy coursework in nutrition science, metabolism, food science, organic and biochemistry, as well as counseling and food service management—either earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Nutrition or a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Nutrition (if you have a Bachelor’s in something other than nutrition). To top that off we must compete the 10 month, unpaid dietetic internship. I can call myself a nutritionist now because I’ve completed all of nutrition coursework and internship, but to call myself a dietitian I must pass the Registration Examination. I can’t take the exam until successfully completing the internship along with meeting the set of competencies set by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. Dietitians are nutrition experts! Anyone can take an online class and call themselves a nutritionist—but it takes a lot of hard work,  and dedication to become a Registered Dietitian. Remember, be wary of those handing out nutrition advice without the RD credential.

Dietetic Internship FAQs
What type of internship program were you in?
I got into the distance dietetic internship program at Sage College. They have two tracts-distance and onsite. As a distance intern, I had to find my own rotation placements. The only time this was difficult was when I was looking for a facility for my acute care rotation. Because I was a distance intern, I couldn’t utilize any of the hospitals in the Capital Region. I called about 15 hospitals within a 2 hour radius of Albany because I didn’t want to have to physically move for my clinical rotation. I also tried about 10 hospitals in Florida where my parents are in the winter, as well as hospitals near where my sister lives in New Jersey. Thankfully, my internship director gave me contact information for the Nutrition Director at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield. One of the RDs there decided to take me on as an intern! Pittsfield is only an hour from my apartment and my parents have friends who live in Dalton, MA, about 15 minutes from the hospital. They rented their fully-furnished house to me, while they were in Florida for the winter for three months, while I was interning at the hospital. Even though it sucked to pay rent in two places at once, it was convenient when the weather was bad, which was often as the hospital was in the Berkshires and my rotation was January – March! I came home on the weekends. Other than that rotation, all of my other placements were in the Capital Region and were easy for me to find.

Are you done with school?
The DI program at Sage is also a combined MS program. Since I had taken all but three of the required MS courses previously, I only had to take one online course concurrently with the internship (Advanced Medical Nutrition Therapy, which I took in conjunction with my clinical rotation). I only have two more research courses left until I have my MS in Applied Nutrition and will be graduating in May 2018! Then I can finally say that I’m done with school!

How did you live without an income for 10 months?
It was a struggle. If you are in school and you know you’ll be taking the RD tract then save as much money as you can! I really wish I had saved more to live on during my internship. But thankfully I have a good support system and family that helped me out when I needed it. I also relied on student loans much of the time. I also worked over the winter break, which helped. Working for nothing can be an inconvenience, but it’s worth it to gain the experience you need to become a dietitian.

Other Nutrition FAQs
I want to lose X number of pounds; can you create a meal plan for me?
Achieving your healthy weight requires more than just a meal plan. As soon as I’m an RD, I will consider private consultations—but at this moment I need to focus on studying for my RD exam! But if you have any nutrition-related questions, do not hesitate to send me an email and I will try my best to answer them!

What diet do you follow?
I don’t follow any specific diet. In fact, I don’t believe in diets. I eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, and healthy fats. I also have a sweet tooth and thoroughly enjoy ice cream and cupcakes! These foods can be part of a healthy meal lifestyle. I don’t eliminate anything. You shouldn’t have to restrict foods to be healthy–unless medically necessary due to allergies, intolerances, or a medical condition. There is no good food vs. bad food or clean food vs. dirty food. In fact, I despise the term clean eating because it gives the connotation that certain foods are “dirty”. I try to eat intuitively—paying attention to hunger cues and eating when I’m hungry and stopping when I’m full—but it will always be a work in progress for me as I do have a history of obesity and overeating. If I’ve learned anything these past few years, no diet is perfect, it is not black and white.

Suggested reading materials – Interested in nutrition? Check out these books.
Body Kindness
: Transform Your Health from the Inside Out–and Never Say Diet Again by Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN – I have yet to read this one, but I know it’s going to be good. According to Amazon, “Body Kindness helps you let go of things you can’t control and embrace the things you can by finding the workable, daily steps that fit you best. Think of it as the anti-diet book that leads to a more joyful and meaningful life!”

Intuitive Eating by Ellen Tribole, MS, RD – Ellen Tribole is the pioneer of Intuitive Eating and her book is great–it focuses on how to let go of dieting and achieving a new and safe relationship with food and, ultimately, your body.

Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook by Nancy Clark, MS, RD – I’ve seen Nancy speak a few times and I love her Sports Nutrition Guidebook—it’s easy to understand and is a great resource for any athlete looking to improve performance or just maintain weight while training. I frequently turn to her book for information on sports nutrition.

Suggested Nutrition Blogs
Fannetastic Food
The Real Life RD
Nutrition QED
Summer Tomato
Nourish Nutrition Blog
Mind on Nutrition (a fellow Sage Alum!) 
Heather Caplan, RD
The Educated Plate

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