It’s hard to know the best master’s or bachelor’s degree for becoming a dietitian. You may be surprised to learn that studying nutrition is not always the best path for this career. That’s because the academy that oversees registration for dietitians would prefer you studied dietetics. Keep reading to find out the difference between nutritionists and dietitians and how that affects your career plans.

Resource: Top 30 Affordable Online Master’s in Dietetics

How to Become a Registered Dietician

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends five steps in becoming a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, or RDN. First, you’ll need to finish at least a bachelor’s degree at an accredited school of dietetics. If you already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject, you can complete a post-baccalaureate program. You can also complete a master’s or doctoral degree in dietetics. Second, you’ll need to complete a supervised internship; many programs offer placement in a qualifying internship as part of your degree. Next, you’ll have to pass the registration exam, meet any licensure requirements in your state and maintain your certification with continuing education.

Do You Need an Internship to Become a Dietician?

The work of a dietary expert involves hands-on practice and important clinical skills. That’s why you must complete a supervised internship of at least 1,200 hours. This experience lets you practice preparing meals and menus, educating patients and conducting classroom presentations. You can work with your school to find an internship and earn college credit for your work. Some students wait until they’ve finished studying so they can pursue a full-time internship. You may be able to find a paid internship, particularly at senior living facilities.

What’s the Difference Between a Nutritionist and a Dietitian?

There are no certification or educational requirements for becoming a nutritionist. That means anyone can give themselves this label, even a high school drop-out with no formal training in dietary science. Some students become a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) to show that they’ve studied the field; you must have a master’s or doctoral degree and 1,000 hours of supervision to earn this certification. The public typically doesn’t understand the difference between registered dietitians and nutritionists, but formal employers will. If you want to open a private consulting practice, you could complete a bachelor’s degree in dietary science, skip the internship that’s required to become registered and label yourself a nutritionist. If you plan to work for a health care facility, you’ll need to earn your RD recognition.

Do You Need Medical Knowledge to Work as an RD?

As a registered dietitian, you’ll work with patients with a variety of dietary restrictions. You might help diabetics follow meal plans to lower their blood sugar, work with cardiac patients to limit sodium intake or help anorexic patients eat healthy meals. This requires an understanding of the body’s nutritional needs and how minerals can affect physical health. Working as an RD requires much more than simply preparing meal plans; you must also consider how each food item will impact the body’s overall functioning.

Helping clients navigate their complex relationship with food can be emotionally rewarding. With an undergraduate or master’s degree in dietary sciences, you can find a great career as a dietitian or nutritionist.