Any nutritionist knows the truth behind the old saying, you are what you eat. Specializing in the relationship between food and how it affects health, nutritionists work with individuals and within organizations to achieve desired health outcomes through ideally tailored diets and nutrition.
Nutritionists work in a variety of settings and can specialize in a range of areas. Nutritionists often work at hospitals. Long term care facilities employ nutritionists who specialize in geriatric diets and diets for diabetics. You’ll find nutritionists who specialize in athletics working with high schools and sports teams. Animal shelters have pet nutritionists. Public health agencies have nutritionists that manage educational campaigns and sponsor public outreach events.
Because the intersection of health and diet can have a strong influence on well being, most states regulate the practice of nutritionists to ensure those in this profession are qualified and that the public is protected. This includes title protection and licensing. Private professional organizations offer several nutritionist certification credentials that you can qualify for with education and experience. Earning one of these credentials typically fulfills state regulations for becoming a nutritionist.
Difference Between a Nutritionist and Dietitian
A nutritionist is a person who offers professional advice regarding nutrition or diet and how those impact health. Dietitians are associated with having higher levels of education and being able to work with serious medical conditions that involve nutrition.
That being said, while there technically is a difference between a nutritionist and dietitian, the two terms are also often used interchangeably.
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For example, some national professional organizations don’t always make a distinction between the two titles. The Commission on Dietetic Registration offers a credential and lets recipients choose what they want to be called –either Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)– even though it’s the same credential. Some states license professionals in this field as nutritionist-dietitians or dietitians/nutritionists.
You’ll also often find that the meaning for “dietitian” and “nutritionist” depends on each state’s individual legal definition, and professional organizations also offer different certifications with “dietitian” or “nutritionist” in the title.
In sum, sometimes states and professional organizations make a distinction between “nutritionist” and “dietitian,” and sometimes they don’t. There’s no national standard.
Step-by-Step Process to Become a Nutritionist
This is what the typical process for becoming a nutritionist looks like in states that require a license to practice. This is a general outline; each state has its own requirements, if any:
- Complete qualifying education. Degrees in nutrition and other health-related fields can be most relevant for aspiring professionals in this field.
- Gain real-world experience. Depending on what professional credential you’re interested in you’ll need to complete a field experience, supervised practice, or an internship.
- Pass an examination sponsored by a national professional organization. Once you pass your exam you’ll gain professional certification.
- Apply for licensure or title protection from your state’s licensing board. Having a certification credential from a national professional organization often fulfills a state’s requirement for nutritionist licensure.
Working as a nutritionist involves making assessments and offering your professional opinion on topics relating to diet and health; potentially life-altering issues. This kind of responsibility must be based on a strong educational foundation.
Not only is a bachelor’s degree in nutrition or a closely related health field advantageous for giving you important theoretical insights into this field, it can also make you more competitive professionally, it potentially fulfills state licensing requirements, and it does fulfill the education requirement for a prominent national certification.
One direct way of qualifying for national nutritionist certifications, and subsequently licensure in some states, is by earning a bachelor’s degree from a program that’s approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).
A bachelor’s degree in nutrition or a closely related health field covers important topics like:
- Fitness and health theory
- Foods and dietetics
- Nutritional science
- Nutrition education and counseling
- Life cycle nutrition
- Nutritional biochemistry
- Medical nutrition therapy
Graduate Degrees in Nutrition
Having a master’s or doctoral degree in nutrition or a closely related health field will prepare you for advanced careers and maximize the power of your CV. This is also a requirement for a prominent certification from a national professional organization, the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential.
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One way to fulfill the CNS education requirement is by having at least a master’s degree from a program that’s approved by the Accreditation Council for Nutrition Professional Education (ACNPE). You can also qualify with a master’s degree that includes specific coursework covering key nutrition topics.
Even if the CNS credential isn’t in your future, a graduate degree in this field provides an advanced depth of knowledge, with programs offering specializations in areas like:
- Clinical nutrition
- Herbal medicine and therapy
- Critical care nutrition
- Sports nutrition
- Community nutrition
- Integrative nutrition therapy
- Professional practice
Field Experience and Internships
Being eligible for the most prominent national certifications sponsored by professional organizations typically involves completing at least one of the following. These are a great way of gaining hands-on experience, and you’ll find these included as part of a degree program in a health-related field or offered independently:
- Dietetic internship
- Supervised dietetic practice
- Supervised clinical nutritionist practice
Graduate programs in nutrition are particularly likely to provide internship and field experience opportunities.
Salary and Career Outlook for Nutritionists
The US Department of Labor keeps national statistics on its combined professional category for dietitians and nutritionists. Its most recent statistics show professionals in this field earn an average yearly salary of $64,150 or $30.84 per hour. That annual amount has risen by 7.5 percent –$4,480– over the past four years, and in the decade leading up to 2029 jobs in this field are projected to increase by eight percent, which the Department reports is much faster than average.
The top-10 states offering the highest average salaries for dietitians and nutritionists are:
- Connecticut – $69,150
- Maryland – $69,860
- New York – $70,070
- Oregon – $71,950
- Massachusetts – $72,070
- New Jersey – $72,750
- Hawaii – $72,810
- Alaska – $78,350
- California – $81,070
Nutritionist State Licensing and Title Protection
Only two states –Arizona and Michigan– do not have licensing requirements or title protections for nutritionists.
The following 19 states and district require a license for nutritionists:
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Dakota
These nine states don’t legally define nutritionists but do require a license for dietitians:
- South Carolina
These seven states offer title protection for nutritionists. Title protection means only people who meet certain qualifications can represent themselves professionally as a “nutritionist” to the public, however non-qualifying people can perform nutritionist services as long as they don’t refer to themselves as a “nutritionist.”
- New York
These 11 states don’t define nutritionists but do offer title protection for dietitians:
- New Hampshire
- West Virginia
These three states offer informal title protection:
The licensing and title protection requirements vary according to each state so you’ll need to check with your local licensing board for details. However states commonly accept certification credentials from national professional organizations as fulfilling the requirements for licensure and title protection.
Nutritionist Certification Credentials from National Professional Organizations
The following are some of the most common credentials offered by national professional organizations in the nutritionist field. Not only is earning one of these good for your résumé; it will commonly fulfill state requirements for licensing and title protection.
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)/Registered Dietitian (RD) – This credential is sponsored by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You’ll need to pass the RDN/RD exam to earn this credential. You can gain eligibility for the exam through one of the following pathways:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree and then complete a didactic program and dietetic internship that are approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).
- Earn a bachelor’s degree and then complete a coordinated program that’s accredited by ACEND.
- Complete an ACEND-accredited competency-based graduate-level nutritionist program that includes 1,000 hours of field experience
Dietitian Technician, Registered (DTR)/Nutrition and Dietetics Technician, Registered (NDTR) – This credential is also sponsored by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. You’ll need to pass the DTR/NDTR exam to earn this credential. You can gain eligibility for this exam through one of the following pathways:
- Earn an associate’s degree and complete an ACEND-accredited dietetic technician program that includes at least 450 supervised practice hours.
- Earn a bachelor’s degree and complete an ACEND-accredited didactic program in dietetics.
- Earn a bachelor’s degree and complete an ACEND-accredited future education model bachelor’s program.
Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) – This credential is offered by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists, a part of the American Nutrition Association (ANA). You’ll need to pass the Certification Examination for Nutrition Specialists to earn this credential. You can be eligible to take this exam by going through one of the following pathways:
- Be a nutritionist, dietitian, or other health professional with at least a master’s degree in nutrition or another field of clinical healthcare. If your degree isn’t from a program that’s approved by the Accreditation Council for Nutrition Professional Education (ACNPE) then it must meet specific coursework requirements. Next you’ll need to gain 1,000 hours of supervised practice experience. If you’re a registered dietitian then you’ll complete a dietetic internship instead of the 1,000 hours.
- Be a medical doctor. Your doctoral degree needs to have included 18 specific credits related to nutrition. Next you’ll need to gain 1,000 hours of clinical nutritionist practice experience.
The ANA also offers the following specialty certifications. Qualifying for these certifications is similar to the process of qualifying for the ANA’s main CNS credential: master’s-level education, training/experience, and an exam:
Certified Ketogenic Nutrition Specialist (CKNS)
Certified Nutritional Genomics Specialist (CNGS)
How to Maintain Your State License and Professional Certification
License renewal requirements vary by state, and typically involve completing continuing education and paying a renewal fee every year or two.
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The RDN/RD and DTR/NDTR credentials need to be renewed every year by paying a renewal fee. Continuing education must be completed every five years: 75 hours for RDNs/RDs and 50 hours for DTRs/NDTRs.
To renew the CNS credential you’ll need to complete 75 hours of continuing education every five years. Renewing the CKNS credential requires 30 hours of continuing education completed every five years.