So, You're Thinking of Becoming a Registered Dietitian

by Jack Norris, RD



I have been contacted by so many animal and vegetarian advocates who are considering becoming a dietitian that I decided to put together some general points to consider.

Becoming an RD will give you expertise and authority when discussing nutrition with people. If you know you will be working in government or institutional food policy, then having an RD next to your name can be beneficial.

Let me explain why I became an RD, because my circumstances were rather unique. I am co-founder of Vegan Outreach (VO). After 4 years of running Vegan Outreach, I realized that nutrition questions were creating a large barrier to our goal of promoting veganism. I decided I needed some formal education in the science of nutrition to understand these issues. I also thought I would counsel patients and not work for VO full time. But, I found it hard to find any patients who would follow through with counseling and then my job with VO became more and more time-consuming and I stopped having time to focus on a counseling practice.

I am very glad I became an RD because I played a major part in making the vegan community aware of the need to consistently supplement our diets with vitamin B12 which will prevent many long-term negative effects for vegan advocacy and vegan health. We always need some RDs and MDs to pay attention to the nutrition research that comes out and pass it on to the vegan community, but those bases are currently covered.

Background on Schooling

To become an RD you must get an undergraduate degree in nutrition and dietetics. After that, you must do a dietetic internship of anywhere from 6 to 24 months, normally in a hospital setting. With rare exceptions, you must pay the institution to do this internship. Finally, you have to take the RD exam with the American Dietetic Association. There are also combined RD/masters programs which are a bit different. For more information, see the American Dietetic Association's site on Careers and Students.

Will the Schooling Compromise My Values?

The trend in dietetics is to encourage people to eat more plant foods. However, in food science you might be asked to work with animal products and there will be times when you are asked to taste non-vegan foods. Most professors I encountered were open-minded about not forcing people to violate their ethics or religion when it came to tasting or working with animal products. You should probably find out before you enter a program what the policy will be and perhaps get it in writing. I personally would not taste any animal products, but I did work with dairy in food science, blood agar in microbiology classes, and had to calculate dairy-based tube-feedings during my internship in the hospital. I had to encourage some patients with kidney failure to eat more protein and the only protein foods provided as options were animal products. I had to take vaccines to get into the dietetic internship.

Jobs in the Movement

Jobs in vegetarian advocacy tend to be geared towards working for organizations that use RDs, such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Vegetarian Resource Group. There are a number of programs that are similar to the Ornish program of putting people with heart disease on a near-vegan diet. Such programs might hire RDs. Of course, there is a finite number of jobs and the pay is not high at many of them.

Writing Books and Articles

Some vegetarian RDs write books. A few have told me that it is very, very time consuming and does not pay a lot. Most topics seem to be covered with existing books (whose authors update them every few years). As for magazines, movement magazines either do not pay or do not pay much. I am not sure about Vegetarian Times. I have not tried to write articles for more mainstream publications.

Private Practice Counseling Patients

It is difficult to build a busy private practice of counseling patients to eat a vegetarian diet. Most people want their nutrition information for free and, frankly, most people don't want to have to make anything but very minor lifestyle changes. You will end up telling a lot of people about your rates, etc., who will then not follow through with wanting your services. Usually asking someone to write down what they eat for 3 days in a row is enough for them to say, "Never mind."

In my experience, if you want to be counseling patients or creating programs that promote vegetarianism, an MD is the degree to get. MD's have a lot more knowledge about illness in general and a lot more power to help someone by integrating drugs and diet, rather than just using diet. And people are more willing to pay for their services.

Traditional RD Jobs

Many registered dietitians (RD) work in a hospital setting counseling patients with heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disease. After doing this for a few weeks, it becomes repetitive. The RD does not have a lot of leeway in what they can counsel the patient to eat. And most patients aren't interested in becoming vegetarian anyway. Other RDs calculate formulas for tube-feedings or intravenous feedings for patients. There will be no room for incorporating vegetarian advocacy in such jobs.

Institutional menu-preparation is another area in which many RDs work. You will not be able to deviate much from the general menus that have always been used.

That said, there are many jobs in the field of dietetics and nutrition and if you are ambitious you might be limited only by your imagination. Many RDs get MBAs. These RDs tend to make much higher incomes and it might be possible to land a job marketing vegetarian products with such a degree combination. Or perhaps you don't even need the MBA to market vegetarian products. I don't know much about the field.

Test Your Tolerance for Reading Nutrition

I encourage anyone who wants to become an RD to promote vegetarianism to read all the articles on VeganHealth.org. If you find them boring, then you will hate reading papers which are many times more boring and harder to understand. On the other hand, if you enjoy reading these articles and are interested in biochemistry and statistics, then a job in nutrition research might be your thing. If you want to do nutrition research, you will need at least a masters or PhD. If you want to teach at a college level, you will need a masters.

How Else Can I Help Animals?

If your goal is to help animals, there are many other professions that could facilitate this better than becoming an RD. For one thing, RDs are mostly going to deal with people who are sick. In my opinion, society is going to change its attitudes towards animals through reaching younger generations rather than working with older people with illnesses that might be helped by a vegetarian diet.

So, how do we reach these younger generations? Quite frankly, our movement needs money at this time. Having a well-paying job that allows you to donate money will probably help more animals than getting a career that incorporates animal rights. For every $35,000 Vegan Outreach raises, we can reach 100,000 college students with a Why Vegan.

Having a job that allows you time off during the week to do advocacy is also a way to help animals. Humane education is needed in many areas and is a way to reach grade school or middle school kids.

For more ideas about how to incorporate animal rights into your career, read Vegan Outreach's FAQ, How can I get a job with Vegan Outreach?

Vegetarian Nutritition Dietetic Practice Group

There is a Vegetarian Nutrition dietetic practice group in the American Dietetic Association which any RD can join. Information is here.

See also this article about various types of nutrition degrees from Vegan Nutrition with Dina Aronson, MS, RD.

Update: May 22, 2009

I was contacted by an RD from Princeton University who had the following to say:

It's just my thought, but we have come a long, long way and the field is so much more wide open than it ever was. I ran a successful private practice, have seen a lot of creativity with regards to institutional menu writing, see a definite appreciation for the environment and vegetarian eating amongst RD's and a real opportunity for vegetarian RD's caring for patients who not only wish to eat animal product free, but who have severe allergies, celiac disease, metabolic syndrome, renal disease etc.