The path to becoming a nutritionist depends on education, experience and location. Regarding the latter, many states have formal licensing and certification requirements in order to work in the field. Even in states that do not have specific requirements, employers and clients may give preference in hiring to people with these credentials.
This page is designed to help aspiring nutritionists better understand the key issues and questions that arise during the educational process, including: What’s the difference between an RDN and a CNS credential? Do I need a degree? What types of science classes will I need to take? Find answers to these questions below, as well as the primary steps people take when looking to become a nutritionist.
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Nutritionists are experts in food and nutrition. They can help patients choose the right things to eat, help them plan menus, and advise them on the health effects of certain foods. Nutritionists assess a patient’s current dietary habits and needs, educate them on healthy eating habits, follow up to ensure the menus are working, and write reports that document a patient’s progress.
They might also speak to groups, such as schools or businesses, about good nutrition and preventing health problems through proper foods. Nutritionists frequently work closely with individuals who have medical issues, such as those with diabetes or those undergoing chemotherapy, to help them find the right foods to eat for their best possible health.
Nutritionists help their clients stay focused on their goals by providing regular encouragement and motivation. They discuss the pros and cons of specific diets and food trends, and what impact those have on health. Depending on education level or licensure, a nutritionist may test for specific food allergies or autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease (gluten intolerance).
Educating people on health is an important job in today’s society, especially in the United States, where obesity has reached an all-time high. Nutritionists can work as self-employed entrepreneurs, as well as in hospital settings, schools and a variety of holistic and alternative medicine environments. Depending on their level of education, nutritionists can be in high demand in food and health-related businesses.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nutritionists earned a median annual wage of $56,950 in 2014, while the top ten percent of the profession made $79,840 or more. The agency also found that on average, nutritionists earned an hourly rate of $27.38. The states with the highest average salaries for nutritionists in 2014 are as follows:
The map below shows details of the 10th, 50th, and 90th percentile earners for each state.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job opportunities for nutritionists are expected to increase by 21 percent between 2012 and 2022. That growth, the agency reports, is much higher than the average for all occupations. This increase has been attributed to the nationwide concern about rising obesity rates and the illnesses that can be exacerbated by obesity—such as diabetes and heart disease. In addition, as people live longer, there is a need for nutritionists to work with geriatric patients in facilities such as nursing homes. Trends toward eating locally grown, organic and non-genetically modified foods have also opened up opportunities for nutritionists who specialize in those areas.
States that are experiencing the most growth in nutritionist jobs include (BLS):
Select a state below for more information about employment and job growth for nutritionists.
Many entry-level nutritionists have a bachelor’s degree in health, nutrition or a related field, such as dietetics or food service system management. Undergraduate programs that lend themselves to a career as a nutritionist may include the following:
Bachelor’s degree programs can typically be completed in four years. During their training, students may also have to complete an internship, either during their undergraduate program or shortly after graduation.
Licensure and certification requirements differ across the country. Many states require nutritionists to obtain and update special certifications, while others require completion of exams to prove knowledge and skills. Make sure you research your state’s requirements and procedures before moving forward with training.
The Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and Registered Dietitian (RD) credentials, which are administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, meet the requirements for licensing in some states. In order to earn one of these credentials, you need to:
Nutritionists who have graduated from a master’s or doctoral degree program and have completed 1,000 hours of experience may earn the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential administered by the Certification Board of Nutrition Specialists.
Some nutritionists decide to continue their education by completing a master’s or doctorate degree program in nutrition. Although advanced degrees are normally not required to work as a nutritionist, they can prepare students to work as educators and researchers in the nutrition field.
A master’s degree program typically takes an additional two years of full-time schooling, and often includes the following courses:
Doctoral programs in nutrition normally require students to take graduate-level courses in nutrition, chemistry and biology, perform fieldwork, and complete a dissertation. The curriculum may include the following coursework:
All students have their own goals and desires, based on the direction they want their career to go. Whether they pursue an associate degree to get started more quickly, or devote the time to a doctoral degree to advance to the top of the field, students must feel confident that their educational needs are being met and that their schooling has been worth the time and financial investment. The following are examples of how different degree levels can meet students’ various goals.
|Career Goal and/or educational needs||Associate||Bachelor’s||Master's||Doctorate||Online|
|I want to familiarize myself with the nutrition field, and either obtain an entry-level job, possibly pursuing further education later on.|
|I want to gain a strong foundation in nutrition principles and prepare to obtain a nutritionist license.|
|I want a flexible program that will provide a quality education and allow me to manage my other responsibilities.|
|I am a practicing nutritionist and I want to gain expertise in a specialty of the field.|
|I want to become a college professor, researcher, or executive in a healthcare facility.|
In order to become a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS), candidates must obtain an advanced degree, complete 1,000 hours of fieldwork, and pass an exam.
The Associate of Science degree in nutrition gives students a basic overview of the discipline, as well as hands-on training that prepares them to work in the field. Although students cannot become licensed nutritionists by earning this degree alone, they can obtain employment as dietetic technicians, working under the supervision of a registered nutritionist or dietitian. In addition, this degree lays the foundation for students who eventually decide to continue their education with an eye toward becoming licensed.
Students in this program complete a well-rounded curriculum, including general studies courses in topics such as mathematics, writing and public speaking. Core nutrition courses in this program include weight management theory, herbal sciences, community nutrition, sports nutrition, sustainable food systems and cultural foods.
These degrees typically take two years to complete, and depending on the program, students may be able to receive on-the-job training through an internship. Following are examples of courses offered at this level:
Provides an overview of the nutrition field and the principles of nutrition science.
Focuses on the relationship between nutrients and body functions, particularly for those who are suffering from health and medical conditions.
Familiarizes students with the relationship between diet and energy, as well as physical performance.
Describes how eating habits contribute to a healthy lifestyle.
Bachelor of Science degrees in nutrition, which commonly take four years to complete, are required for those who want to become registered dietitians. In addition to taking general education courses, students will study nutrition at a more in-depth level than they would in an associate degree program. Students in this program gain a solid foundation of nutrition theory, along with a hands-on look at how it works in practice when dealing with patients. This program also provides an understanding of how to educate a community about the importance of good eating habits, as well as the ever-changing relationship between nutrition and societal factors such as culture and socioeconomic status.
The following is an example of courses that bachelor’s degree students may take during their tenure in this program.
Provides an overview of the relationship between culture and eating habits.
Focuses on the physical and chemical properties of food.
Gives students an understanding of the nutritional benefits of breastfeeding.
Emphasizes how to conduct nutrition counseling for individual patients and groups.
After graduating from a baccalaureate program, some students may want to broaden their knowledge and advance their skills by enrolling in a Master of Science nutrition degree program, which generally takes about two years of full-time study to complete. These programs are designed for practicing nutritionists and, unlike many bachelor’s degree programs, allow students to focus on a specialty area. In many cases, there is also a heavy emphasis on understanding nutrition research.
Following are examples of coursework offered in nutrition master’s degree programs:
Provides information on how nutritional research is conducted.
Examines different kinds of communicable diseases around the world and how to prevent them.
Investigates the behaviors and problems associated with disordered eating in adults and children.
Explores the use of statistics in understanding public health problems.
Nutritionist degree programs at the doctoral level are more focused on research, training students to contribute to the field by conceiving and conducting original nutrition studies. They also emphasize teaching, particularly at the postsecondary level. A doctoral degree can be ideal for professionals who want to become experts and advance in their careers, taking on managerial roles in either the public or private sector. After five to seven years of intensive study, depending on the program, students can expect to gain the following skills by the time they complete a doctorate in nutrition:
Students learn an array of qualitative and quantitative research methods that are necessary to conduct studies on a variety of clinical nutrition topics. By the time they graduate, they will be able to design studies and carry out evidence-based research, as well as present their findings to the scientific community. In addition, these programs give students an understanding of research ethics, an issue that is especially important when dealing with human subjects.
In order to provide care to patients, nutritionists must be able to make dietary assessments. Doctoral degree programs provide in-depth knowledge of how to assess a patient’s existing dietary behaviors and habits, as well as identify current and future needs.
Nutritionists must make informed decisions about the treatment their patients should receive. This may involve several factors, including not only their patients’ physical health but also their mental attitudes. They use their understanding of nutrients, physiology and disease to craft an appropriate diet and implement an overall nutrition plan, as well as make adjustments as a patient’s condition changes.
It’s important for nutritionists to hone their verbal and written communication skills, since they may find themselves in roles where they are called on to educate the public about the importance of good nutrition. This entails taking complicated concepts and making them understandable and relevant to the general public, using a combination of scientific information and persuasion to convince a community of the importance of eating right.
Nutritionists should also:
The requirements to become a nutritionist vary from state to state. However, in most locations, nutritionists must complete a bachelor’s degree, perform a certain amount of supervised, hands-on training, and pass a licensing examination. Although not required, many employers favor job candidates who have earned a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) credential.
Some nutritionists also opt to earn a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential, which allows them to demonstrate advanced knowledge of the field. In addition, there are a number of voluntary certifications that nutritionists can earn, which are awarded by organizations like The American Council on Exercise, the Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board, the American Association of Nutrition Consultants, and the American Fitness Professionals & Associates.
Academic knowledge and hands-on training provide the foundation for a successful nutritionist career, while various tools and technologies allow these professionals to perform their job duties in the most effective ways. Some of the tools that nutritionists use in their practice include:
In addition, nutritionists also use scientific and medical software, such as:
These programs are designed to help nutritionists process client data to come up with a comprehensive and appropriate nutritional plan.
The following are some career options for those who want to help patients achieve positive health outcomes and live a healthy lifestyle.
There are many rewarding careers in the health care industry, and individuals with an interest in how food and diet affects diseases or general health may also want to consider occupations related to nutrition careers. The following are some examples of these jobs.
There are many options when it comes to nutritionist degrees. The following tool can help students narrow down their search.