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So You Want To Pursue Nutrition As A Career? My Advice.

If you’re passionate about nutrition and want to consider a career in this field, I highly recommend choosing the dietetic pathway over nutrition coaching, and here’s why:


  1. Extensive education and accreditation are required to be a registered dietitian. 

  2. Registered dietitians are allowed to work in various professional settings.

  3. Legally, only dietitians are allowed to prescribe meal plans and practice Medical Nutrition Therapy.

  4. Earning potential for dietitians ranges greatly due to the various options for employment. Due to advanced education and specialized skills, dietitians typically have higher earning potential and these figures are growing as the demand increases. 

  5. Specifically in sports, dietitians can work collaboratively with an athlete’s medical/performance team to help support their goals. 





Dietitian vs. Nutrition Coach


A dietitian is a licensed healthcare professional who has a master’s degree or higher, followed by 1,200 hours of supervised internship, and has successfully passed the national examination to attain proper credentialing. Dietitians can work in various settings including hospitals, out-patient clinics, academic/research fields, sports committees (ex. International Olympic Committee), and government agencies (ex. USPHS Commissioned Corps). They are trained to provide evidence-based nutrition counseling and education to individuals and groups. They can also practice MNT which involves assessing, diagnosing, implementing, and monitoring patient progress as it relates to specific nutrition problems, including eating disorders, Crohn's/IBD, T1DM/T2DM, cancer, etc. 


On the other hand, a nutrition coach is typically not a licensed professional and may have completed a certification program or a short course in nutrition coaching. Nutrition coaches are legally not allowed to do a variety of skills dietitians are trained for BUT they can give generalized nutrition guidance. For example, a nutrition coach can recommend 1-1.2g/kg/d of protein to an athlete wanting to build muscle. They shouldn’t, however, prescribe carbohydrate intake to a type-1 diabetic athlete or protein intake to a hemodialysis patient, for example. 



Pathways to Becoming a Registered Dietitian


As a professional athlete for the last decade, I’ve always put sports over my future career and academic endeavors. This means pursuing an education in dietetics has been a long and unconventional route. Thankfully, there are several pathways to becoming a registered dietitian. 


Future Education Models


The Future Education Model (FEM) is a new pathway to become a registered dietitian set forth by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). This model is a graduate-level program that combines didactic coursework and supervised practice. This route is great for career changers as it takes less time than traditional formats to complete all ACEND requirements.


Coordinated Programs


Coordinated Programs combine didactic coursework with supervised practice concurrently. This pathway is ideal for those who prefer a structured program that leads directly to eligibility for the registration exam and avoids having to find a stand-alone dietetic internship from other programs. 


To fulfill the Master’s and supervised practice requirement, I am applying to coordinate programs that have an emphasis on sports nutrition.


Didactic Programs


Didactic programs provide the required coursework and verification statement needed to then apply to a separate supervised practice program (internship) to be eligible to sit for the registration exam. The coursework can be completed as a bachelor's degree or as its own DPD Certificate Program. This pathway allows for more flexibility in choosing an internship; however, stand-alone internships are diminishing due to the FEM and Coordinate programs. 


This is what I did for my Bachelor’s because there were more DPD options available online so I could still train full-time. Education opportunities in dietetics have already changed a lot since I first started. 


Foreign Dietitian Education


For international students or those with foreign credentials, there are pathways to becoming a registered dietitian in the United States. These pathways may involve additional coursework, exams, or supervised practice hours to meet the requirements set forth by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, CDR.


Additional Experience and Credentials in Sports 

Nutrition


To work as a sports registered dietitian, additional experience and credentials are needed to excel in this specialized field. Continuing education in sports nutrition, obtaining certifications such as Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD), and gaining practical experience working with athletes are recommended. This process usually takes at least two years after becoming a licensed RD. 


For those who know they want to work in sports, there are a few dietetic, graduate-level programs that also emphasize sports nutrition, exercise science, and human performance. This way students can start to build their sport-related knowledge and experience while in school. 


Don’t Cut Corners


There are many ways to share and help others through nutrition. Becoming an RD is certainly more time-consuming, a financial investment, and academically challenging. However, there is nothing more rewarding than being able to help others with the skills and knowledge you’ve cultivated.  


As an elite athlete, I could have solely relied on my own experiences as a foundation for providing nutritional services to others and got away with it. Here’s the thing though, nutrition is not one size fits all, and every person’s experience is vastly different. This directly and indirectly impacts their understanding and relationship with nutrition. So my experience is not enough to qualify me as an expert nutrition professional nor does it qualify me to help you in your journey. Just because an athlete is successful does not make them an expert. 


Resources


Budge, L. (2023, March 30). Your guide to becoming a Registered Dietitian: Exploring the different pathways. The Dietitian Lab. https://www.thedietitianlab.com/blog/becoming-a-registered-dietitian


Westerkamp, J. (2020, June 19). What is a Coordinated Program in Dietetics? All Access Dietetics. https://www.allaccessdietetics.com/coordinated-program-in-dietetics/


Westerkamp, J. (2021, June 3). Future Education Model graduate programs: Student interview. All Access Dietetics. https://www.allaccessdietetics.com/future-education-model-graduate-programs-student-interview/



About the Author

Jourdan Delacruz is a 2X Olympian and represented Team USA in the sport of Weightlifting for both the 2020 and 2024 Olympic Games. Jourdan holds a bachelors in nutrition and dietetics from the University of Northern Colorado. She is pursuing her masters degree in sport nutrition with hopes of becoming a sport registered dietitan. Jourdan is the founder of Herathlete, a brand committed to supporting female athletes through education and community.


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