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What is a Dietetic Intern?

If you know me, you know that I'm currently in the process of completing my dietetic internship, which is the second step to becoming a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Since most people aren't totally sure what that entails, I'd love to walk through the process. There are 4 steps to becoming and remaining a credentialed RDN.

1. Complete at least a Bachelor's degree and an ACEND* accredited Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD). *Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics

I completed my B.S. in Dietetics at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. ACEND accredited programs include coursework in: biology, chemistry, statistics, anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, food safety, lifecycle nutrition, sociocultural aspects of food and nutrition, nutrition education and counseling, community nutrition, advanced human nutrition, experimental nutrition, nutrition and metabolism, food service operations and management, food and nutrition management, and medical nutrition therapy. In addition to that, many dietetic students take courses in areas such as eating disorders, sports nutrition, public health and nutritional genomics. Starting in 2024, it will be required that prospective RDNs hold a Master's degree in order to sit for the registration exam, which means anyone entering from this point on will have to go on to get their Master's.

Personally, I chose to take electives in eating disorders and sports nutrition. I graduated in May of 2017 with my B.S. in Nutrition Studies, and worked as a NASM certified personal trainer right out of school for a bit before deciding to go back to complete the 4 courses I needed to finish the DPD. I returned to school in the fall of 2018 and snagged a job at The Emily Program, an eating disorder clinic based in the Twin Cities. Part of being in the field of dietetics is building up your resume to be competitive for internship matching, so most students end up working as a diet aide in a hospital, volunteering at the VA, or something along those lines. Luckily, having already completed a 4 year degree, I was able to have a lot of autonomy within my position and gained valuable experience in both food service and community nutrition, with bits and pieces of clinical work thrown in there.

2. Complete a minimum of 1200 hours of supervised practice through an ACEND accredited dietetic internship

Let me just start this off by saying a dietetic internship is not what most people think of when they hear the word internship. Dietetic internships are anywhere between 6 months to 2 years in length, unpaid, and you're paying tuition. You gain experience in the 3 main areas in dietetics, community, clinical and food service, and most internships have a concentration. The application process is not fun, and most programs have an entire class dedicated to helping students get through the application. Students must write a personal statement, obtain references, upload all of their transcripts and resume, and then rank their preferred programs. Once applications are submitted, programs conduct interviews, review student applications, and rank the students they want in their program. Your ranking and the program's ranking must match up to get placed in a program, and you either match with one program or none. Match day is about 2 months after applications are due, and all you get is an email at 6pm on a Sunday night telling you to log into your online account to see if you've matched. Overall, it's not a fun process, and match day is pretty somber. This year's spring match had a 60% match rate, which is up from last year's 57% and 2017's 53%, but still not great.

While all internships require you to gain experience in community, clinical and food service, most dietetic internships are completely designed by the program. This means that as an intern you mostly just follow marching orders and go where the program director places you. Additionally, and this is the route I went, there are distance programs. Distance programs allow you to pick your own preceptors and rotation sites, which ultimately helps you tailor your internship more to your interests. My program is based in Hingham, MA through a business called Wellness Workdays, which specializes in corporate worksite wellness. Through my program, I chose to have a concentration in Nutrition Communications and Marketing, and I'll get the opportunity to complete that rotation at Wellness Workdays next spring. My other rotations include a grocery store, school district, eating disorder clinic, nursing home and hospital settings.

3. Pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration exam

Once you finish your internship, the program sends on a verification statement of completion to the CDR, and you'll be contacted to schedule your exam. The computer exam takes place at a verified testing center and consists of a minimum of 125 questions up to a maximum of 145. Of these, 25 questions are pilot questions and won't count towards your overall score, which makes the test all the more mentally draining. The test pulls questions from four domains: principles of dietetics, nutrition care for individuals and groups, management of food and nutrition programs and services and food service systems. The exam has a 70% pass rate, which is better than the internship match, but still intimidating.

4. Complete 75 hours of continuing professional education every 5 years

Once you're an RDN, you're required to keep learning. In my opinion, this is the most important aspect of being a dietitian. Nutrition is always changing, new research is constantly underway, and everyone's body is so different that in almost every case you can learn something new. You can get CPEs through precepting students, attending conferences, participating in your state chapter of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, joining and participating in Nutrition Practice Groups and much more. The best part about CPEs is that you can take advantage of every opportunity to assist you in becoming a specialist in a certain aspect of nutrition and dietetics that interests you.

The process to becoming a dietitian is not for the faint of heart. It's a long road, and you really need to have an interest in the field. Dietitians don't make nearly as much money as the rest of the medical field, but rather we're in it because we want to help people feel better. We aren't here selling you quick-fixes, promoting an MLM's 30 day cleanse, or making money off our physical appearance on social media. We're here providing evidence-based guidelines to help heal and prevent illness. That's why it's so frustrating these days when everyone is trying to be the expert and suggest the latest buzz word cure all for your problems. Our science gets drowned by the hearsay that does more harm than good. Not everyone benefits from more fruits and vegetables--yep, I said it. "Clean eating" doesn't solve all of the worlds nutrition problems. Becoming a vegan because of a Netflix documentary won't necessarily make you a healthier or better athlete. These things aren't rooted in science, but the true field of dietetics is. And we pride ourselves on the long road that taught us to be that way.

Anyway, I hope you learned something new today about what my life's been like the last few years, and if you have any questions about the field or what I'm doing, let me know! Whether it's a specific diet you have questions on or just generally want more info on nutrition and dietetics, I'd love to provide you with evidence-based answers. Or we can just talk about food. I do love food.


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