Dietitian: Your Food & Nutrition Counselor

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is a dietitian?

A dietitian is a healthcare provider who specializes in promoting optimal health and preventing and treating diseases through the science of nutrition. In fact, some dietitians use ‘registered dietitian nutritionist’ (RDN) as a professional title to reflect their specialty. They use food and nutrition to help people of all ages manage their weight, medical conditions, food allergies, and wellness. Dietitians work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities, food service settings, education, research, and community agencies.

A dietitian typically: 

  • Reviews and evaluates a patient’s health history, current diet, and physical activity practices

  • Teaches and counsels patients and caregivers about healthy eating habits, menu planning, and lifestyle choices

  • Recommends nutrition strategies, monitors your progress, and adjusts your nutrition plan

  • Designs and implements medical nutrition therapy including diet supplementation, feeding tube nutrition, and intravenous (IV) nutrition

  • Orders and interprets nutrition-related laboratory tests

  • Works closely with a patient’s entire medical team, as well as with family members, social workers, and teachers as needed

  • Advises athletes and other exercise-conscious people about the role food and nutrition plays in their fitness, performance, and overall health

  • Oversees food service operations in hospitals and other healthcare facilities, school cafeterias, day care centers, food corporations, and correctional facilities

A dietitian may also be known by the following names: registered dietitian (RD), nutritionist, registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), nutrition counselor, and dietetic counselor.

Who should see a dietitian?

People of all ages, including infants, children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly, can benefit from a dietitian’s expertise. People with diseases and conditions that respond to dietary changes should see a dietitian on a regular basis. This includes people with cardiovascular disease, obesity and overweight, diabetes, kidney disease, eating disorders, and allergies and food intolerances. A dietitian can help monitor and optimize your diet to reduce the risk of complications associated with these conditions and to help ensure ongoing health.

People looking for a healthy diet and nutrition strategy to participate in sports, have a healthy pregnancy, or maintain their weight, should also seek nutrition counseling from a dietitian.

You may also see a dietitian if you are admitted to a hospital or long-term care facility. Dietitians often play an integral role in planning treatment for people with chronic diseases or critical conditions.

When should you see a dietitian?

If your primary care doctor or other specialist believes you could benefit from nutrition counseling, he or she may refer you to a dietitian. You should also consider dietetic and nutrition counseling in the following situations:

  • You have been diagnosed with or are at risk of developing such conditions as diabetes, cancer, gastrointestinal disease, heart disease, allergies, or another chronic or long-term condition.

  • You would like guidance for using diet to boost your immunity, alleviate symptoms, or keep you strong during treatments for cancer or other diseases.

  • You are losing or gaining weight and you do not know how to change your diet to achieve your optimal weight.

  • You are an athlete or avid exerciser and you want to ensure your body is receiving optimal nutrition for sports performance.

  • You have an eating disorder, such as bulimia or anorexia, and you need help learning how to eat healthfully.

  • You are pregnant or breastfeeding and you want to make sure you and your baby are receiving optimal nutrition.

  • You would like to eat a healthier diet, and you do not know what to eat or how to prepare it.

What does a dietitian treat?

A dietitian often works as part of multidisciplinary healthcare team that includes doctors, social workers, nurses, home healthcare providers, and others to help optimize treatment for:

How do I choose an excellent dietitian?

If you are admitted to a hospital or long-term care facility, you will not be able to choose your preferred dietitian. However, if you are choosing a dietitian as an outpatient, review the RD’s education, training and experience. It’s possible for a person to practice dietetics and offer nutritional counseling without formal training or being licensed to practice. Licensure requirements vary by state, but be sure your RD has a license to practice dietetics if your state requires it.

A registered dietitian (RD) has a bachelor’s degree and:

  • Completed the Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND), during or after a bachelor’s degree

  • Completed 1200 hours of supervised dietetics practice in an ACEND-accredited internship program

  • Passed a national registered dietitian certification exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration

To maintain RD certification, a dietitian must regularly complete ACEND’s continuing education requirements. Find an experienced dietitian in your area who can meet your health needs. Consider background information, certification, and patient ratings and reviews to help you narrow the results. Once you find a dietitian, ask yourself if their style of delivering care works with your style, health goals, and expectations.

Dietitians can pursue certification in a dietetic subspecialty, which requires additional training or experience beyond the DPD. Subspecialties of dietetics recognized by the Commission on Dietetic Registration include:

  • Gerontological nutrition for the elderly

  • Oncology nutrition for adults and children who have cancer or who are at risk of contracting cancer

  • Pediatric nutrition for sick as well as healthy infants, children and adolescents

  • Renal nutrition for kidney-related diseases, procedures and complications, such as kidney transplantation, kidney failure, and dialysis

  • Sports dietetics for exercise and organized athletics

Was this helpful?

  1. Career Changers. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

  2. Dietitians and Nutritionists. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  3. Learn More About RDs. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

  4. RD and DTR Exams. Commission on Dietetic Registration.

  5. Registration Eligibility Requirements for Dietitians. Commission on Dietetic Registration.

  6. Specialty Practice Experience. Commission on Dietetic Registration.

  7. What Is a Registered Dietitian? Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

  8. Every Registered Dietitian Is a Nutritionist, but Not Every Nutritionist Is a Registered Dietitian. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jan 22
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