Are you a vegan who is interested in pursuing a career in nutrition? Sweet! The best path to take is to become a registered dietitian. RDs are the credentialed nutrition experts who work in hospitals, clinics, schools, health departments, research labs, businesses and more.
If you want to legally practice nutrition, you need to earn your RD credential. The term “nutritionist” is not legally protected and anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.
As an RD, you’ll have the ability to get a license to practice nutrition and even get reimbursement for your services through insurance companies.
Becoming an RD requires some intense schooling and supervised practice, along with a tough exam, but it is so worth it!
At first, it can be scary to think about going through dietetics education as a vegan, given the amount of animal-focused content there may be, along with potential dissections in science classes. Then there’s the internship which includes food service and clinical rotations where animal foods are basically unavoidable.
So how do you become a registered dietitian as an ethical vegan without feeling totally isolated or like you’re compromising your ethics? You pick your battles. You open communication with your professors and preceptors. You remember your goals. And you find support.
Want personalized support? I offer one-on-one professional mentoring!
I’ll share a little bit about my journey as well as tips and strategies from other vegan registered dietitians. Remember that everyone’s experience is unique and only you can decide what is best for you!
Understand the Steps to Becoming a Registered Dietitian
Before you spend too much time worrying about being a vegan dietetics student, first make sure you understand all the steps. I wrote this article for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics summarizing the various pathways to becoming a registered dietitian. (Note that registered dietitian and registered dietitian nutritionist mean the exact same thing).
If you start college as a nutrition student your path is going to look different than if you go back to school to become a dietitian. However you get there, there will definitely be lots of science classes along with a dietetic internship which includes real-world practice in various settings working under dietitians.
Now that you have an idea of the process, let’s talk about specific steps.
Navigating Nutrition and Dietetics Coursework as a Vegan
While each program is going to look a little different, there are core classes that every nutrition and dietetics student must take, such as biology and food science. These were the most “problematic” classes for me as a vegan nutrition student.
The other classes are pretty hardcore science and you’re so deep into studying biochemistry and metabolism that you’re not even thinking about veganism.
“My advice is to go into it knowing you probably aren’t going to graduate from your program a pro on vegan nutrition, but you’ll get the science foundation that’s so important for interpreting and applying nutrition research, no matter what you decide to specialize in,” says Angela Wortley, RDN.
Angela brings up a good point. You’re not going to school to become a vegan dietitian, you’re going to school to become a dietitian. (However, there are some programs that offer content on vegetarian nutrition, such as Loma Linda).
While I wish I had an entire class on vegan nutrition, I didn’t. Almost everything I know about plant-based nutrition I have learned on my own through books, webinars, trainings, research and other vegan dietitians.
“It’s important to remember that the base of nutritional knowledge isn’t vegan or not vegan; it’s science,” says Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD. “Learning that and then applying it is the goal. Soon you can help vegans understand science too, as that’s crucial for our movement.”
Before we launch into specific challenges, I want to reiterate how important it is to have a support network. I was very involved in my university’s and city’s animal rights groups as a nutrition undergrad student. It’s helpful to connect with like-minded people and share frustrations as a vegan living in a non-vegan world. Check to see if your school has an animal rights club, and if they don’t – consider starting one yourself! Volunteering and leadership looks great on a resume.
Now let’s address some of the challenges you’ll run into as a vegan nutrition student.
You absolutely can request an alternate assignment in lieu of a dissection. In my case, I requested a meeting with my professor, and came prepared with research on the cost and educational ineffectiveness of dissections. I even shared information about virtual dissections (computer modeling) and other alternatives.
To my surprise, my professor totally agreed with me and was thankful for the resources I provided. I was able to sit out of dissection without any big issues.
While I chose to stand up about dissections, I do remember a biology lab that involved sea urchins. While we weren’t killing the sea urchins or doing procedures on them, we were keeping them in captivity and observing them.
Veganism isn’t black and white and you’ll have to make decisions about what to protest and what to go along with. This is something I decided not to fight.
My program didn’t have a robust food science program so I was lucky in that I didn’t have too much a fight here. At the beginning of the semester, I met with my professor and let him know that I was vegan and would prefer not to handle any animal-based foods in the lab. He said that was fine – I could use vegan alternatives when possible and when not, I could simply observe what my lab partners were doing.
Obviously it would be great not to have to observe any cooking or handling of animal products but this is where I drew the line. And like I said, I had it pretty easy in food science. I don’t recall having any meat-focused labs. Other programs may have entire sections on meat, seafood, eggs and dairy.
Matt says that his program was quite large and “they were used to objections around food from students who follow Islamic and Judaic rules (and others) around food. Ethics around veganism are just as valid and I pitched them that way to avoid handling dead animals,” he says.
It’s no secret that food policy and regulations in the U.S. are a little messed up. From obligatory dairy in the National School Lunch Program to the government subsidies of animal foods, there is plenty for a vegan to find problematic in a food policy class.
My advice is to pick your battles and to do so respectfully and with research to back up your claims. Also consider the purpose of your comment or message. Is it simply to complain? Is it to ask a genuine question? Is it to garner curiosity among other students?
Matt advises nutrition students to tailor their arguments. “People will quickly know where you stand and be ready for obvious comments; I liked to keep them guessing by being less obvious. Or finding some agreement and working from there,” he says.
Vegan Advocacy in the Classroom
Is it ever appropriate to push a vegan agenda as a nutrition and dietetics student? It’s all about the delivery.
“While not every vegan nutrition student will/can be outspoken about these issues, I encourage students to take every opportunity to bring the topic of veganism into the classroom – whether it is via reports, persuasive speeches, senior projects, etc.,” says Anya Todd, MS, RD, LD. “Let your nutrition department know that veg nutrition is a topic to which all future RDs should be exposed, especially with the slew of evidence-based research to support it.”
When you do have projects or assignments in which you get to choose the topic, these are great opportunities to dive into plant-based nutrition. I urge you to do so in as unbiased a manner as possible, in order to be taken as seriously as possible. Dig into the research, analyze the data, present both sides and draw critical conclusions.
I remember having to memorize cuts of meat on animals, parts of an egg and so on. While this was troubling and disgusting to me, I had to do it. I was tested on it. I needed good grades to secure a dietetic internship spot. It’s a part of the system.
When you find yourself feeling triggered by course content, take a deep breath. This is temporary. You have to do this for your degree. Find someone who understands and share with them. Also consider working with a mental health professional.
Surviving the Dietetic Internship as a Vegan
The dietetic internship is very different from the coursework part of the process because you’re in the classroom very little, if at all. Rather than focusing on the nitty gritty science, you’re applying your knowledge to real-world cases and situations.
My dietetic internship was broken into three categories: food service, clinical and community. Each had its unique challenges.
In terms of attire, vegan clothing and shoes were fine for all of my rotations. You’ll need non-slip shoes for food service but there are plenty of vegan options for those. My lab coat was all cotton and everything else was business casual clothes.
This is perhaps the most obvious area where a vegan may struggle in the dietetic internship. I had food service rotations in a hospital as well as public schools. I don’t think I ever disclosed that I was vegan to any of my food service preceptors and I was able to get through the rotation without having to taste any animal foods.
In the hospital the only hands-on food prep I did was with fruits and veggies. I did have to take temps of all foods on the line, including animal foods. I also had to prepare test trays, in which I plated an entire meal (including animal foods). I had food service employees taste the food for me to document as a part of the test tray procedure.
I also had to plan an entire day’s worth of food for the hospital cafeteria, which included plenty of animal foods. I didn’t have to prepare or taste any of it, though.
During my time in the schools, I had to plate animal foods as well as take pictures of them. But again, no tasting.
I felt the level of interaction with animal foods during my food service rotations wasn’t bad at all and I could have had it much worse. It’s OK to let your preceptors know that you’re vegan and to ask about alternatives for any animal-focused activities.
The only tasting that happened in my clinical rotations were of nutritional supplements, in which I did not partake. I disclosed that I was vegan to my clinical preceptors and they were totally fine with it. And I am fine without ever knowing what Ensure tastes like.
You will have to calculate and recommend special diets and tube feedings for patients. These all contain animal products. This is the reality of the American hospital system.
One thing that was an issue for me was one of the hospitals I interned in required all staff and interns to get a flu vaccine. Because the flu vaccine is not vegan (it’s inoculated in eggs or other mammalian cells), I declined and so had to wear a mask while on patient floors for a large portion of my internship. It was annoying and uncomfortable and some of the patients asked me why I was wearing it.
If I were to do it over, I probably would have just gotten the vaccine. I’m not sure it was worth the trouble and it could have made veganism look extreme or difficult.
My community nutrition rotations included outpatient counseling and WIC. Outpatient counseling wasn’t much of a struggle because you’re not there to convince people to be vegan; you’re helping them build healthy habits that fit their lifestyles and preferences. I currently work with plenty of non-vegans in my counseling business and it’s not an issue for me.
WIC is interesting because milk is a huge topic of conversation there, given all the kiddos. Only two brands of soy milk are WIC-approved. But again, WIC is not the time or place to convince food-insecure families to go vegan.
A lot of community nutrition is about the basics of nutrition, such as eating enough vegetables, fruits and whole grains. You could do an in-service about the benefits of plant foods, but in my opinion, it’s not an appropriate space for promoting veganism.
Starting Your Career as a Vegan Registered Dietitian
First, take a moment to celebrate earning your credential! A lot of hard work went into that. And undoubtedly some trialing experiences related to your ethics surrounding animals.
It’s highly unlikely that you will find many jobs that are tailored specifically for a vegan registered dietitian. I think I’ve only come across one full-time position for a vegan dietitian. Which is why I love working for myself because I can specialize in a variety of my interest areas!
Just like you have to pick your battles as a dietetics student and intern, you’ll have to do the same in your job as a dietitian.
Over time you’ll become confident in where you draw the line, when you choose to speak up and how you deliver your message.
If you’re looking for personalized guidance as a nutrition student, dietetic intern or new dietitian, consider professional mentoring! These virtual sessions are your space to open up, share, ask questions and get advice on handling challenging situations and minding your personal ethics in the nutrition field.