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What is a Nutritionist?
A nutritionist is an expert in understanding the relationship between what we eat and how it impacts our health. Nutritionists work with patients helping them plan meals, monitor nutrition, and make changes to eating habits and lifestyle. Often, nutritionists work one-on-one with patients who have specific goals or health concerns; be it cancer, obesity, or diabetes. Other clients might struggle with food restrictions, have an eating disorder, or come from a low-income background with limited access to healthy food.
Some nutritionists work in educational settings, others in a hospital or small clinic. Where you work has to do with the credentials you earn before entering the field. While most nutritionists earn a bachelor’s degree, others join the profession through a certificate program or non-traditional setting, like a for-profit wellness center.
As such, you might see some nutrition professionals with minimal formal education, using a credential to position themselves as a health expert, differentiate themselves as a fitness trainer, or offer coaching services. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll see registered dietitians. RDs have a similar job description to what we mentioned above; this is a nutrition expert who provides counseling to patients based on individual needs.
The key difference between a nutritionist and an RD is that the RD must complete a relevant bachelor’s degree and obtain licensure and certification. Beyond that, there are additional specializations available for RDs who wish to advance their knowledge, and potentially, their pay.
We should also mention that some states require nutritionists working in a counseling capacity to earn a license. Often, this means getting a master’s degree and 1000 hours of supervised work before they can practice. Requirements vary by state, though in many cases, it’s a similar process to becoming a therapist.
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Steps to Becoming a Licensed Nutritionist
Working as a nutritionist has the potential to be a rewarding career, allowing you to help patients live a healthier life. If this interests you, there are a few options out there for earning the credentials needed to do this job. Below, we’ve outlined the path toward becoming a registered dietitian nutritionist, as this is a regulated, clear path toward finding work in this field.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
Step 2: Gain Work Experience
Step 3: Get Licensed
Step 4: Consider a Master’s Program
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
To work as a nutritionist, you will typically need to earn a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, health, or a related field. Bachelor’s programs usually take four years to complete and cover a range of topics from food science and nutrition to chemistry and microbiology. During their training, students will learn the nutritional composition of different foods, as well as how to plan meals for a range of dietary needs and restrictions. Students may also study courses related to fitness and public health concerns like food, desserts, and nutrition in the school system. It’s important to note that, in order to become a certified nutritionist, you’ll need to attend an accredited nutrition program. Look for schools that meet ACEND’s requirements when you begin your research.
Step 2: Gain Work Experience
To meet licensing requirements, you’ll likely need to gain some work experience. The specifics will vary by state but, in most cases, it’s smart to get a jump on this so you can earn your credentials and start working as a registered dietitian. It also might be smart to check out ACEND’s resources. The accrediting body has an internship matching program, as well as information about getting licensed or furthering your nutrition education by attending graduate school.
Step 3: Get Licensed
Becoming a licensed nutritionist is not a requirement in every state. However, earning your registered dietitian certification is a smart move in setting yourself up for a wide range of opportunities. The most common credential in this field is the registered dietitian or RD, which is administered and regulated by ACEND. You’ll need to have completed a bachelor’s degree before you can take the exam. After passing, you’ll then need to gain supervised work experience.
Pursuing your RD credential isn’t your only option here. You can also become a licensed nutritionist, a clinical dietitian, a holistic nutritionist, or a health coach. Becoming a holistic nutritionist typically involves some form of post-secondary training where you’d learn about natural or traditional ways to improve health.
Training to become a licensed nutritionist, on the other hand, means that you’re still required to complete an ACEND-accredited bachelor’s program before sitting for your exam. Not all states require nutritionists to get a license, but it does signal to your employer that your training meets some minimum quality standard.
We should note that licensed nutritionists and RDs are not interchangeable terms for the same job. Yes, there's a lot of overlap, but some states have different standards that outline what an RD vs. a licensed nutritionist is allowed to do.
A licensed nutritionist has a state-issued license that allows them to offer to counsel. In many cases, this means you’ll need a master’s degree or higher and a passing score on the certified nutrition specialist exam (CNS).
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Step 4: Consider a Master’s Program
Again, ACEND is a great resource for nutritionists considering the next step in their education. Advanced degrees aren’t always required to work as a nutrition professional, but they can prepare students for a range of related roles. Those interested in becoming nutrition researchers, community educators, or specialized nutritionists will benefit from returning to school.
Nutritionists who graduate from an accredited program may earn the certified nutrition specialist (CNS) credential, which is administered by the Certification Board of Nutrition Specialists. This credential signifies advanced knowledge in the field.
What Does a Nutritionist Do?
A nutritionist is a professional that studies diets and makes recommendations to clients based on their unique set of health needs. Often, nutritionists work in a one-on-one setting, providing counseling to clients who need help planning meals or figuring out which foods can help them achieve better health outcomes. Nutritionists work in a range of settings with all kinds of clients. Some might work exclusively with athletes in training, others as part of a cancer patient’s healthcare team. In other cases, a nutritionist works in a school or for a large company, providing group and individual counseling to students or workers.
What is the difference between a Nutritionist and a Dietician?
People often mix up nutritionists and dieticians. It’s true that the two are quite closely related, but they have distinct differences. The term nutritionist is broad; it refers to nutrition professionals with varying levels of educational achievement. In some states, nutritionists must obtain an occupational license, but often, they can begin working after earning a bachelor’s degree or certificate in the field.
Dietitians or registered dietitians are nutritionists that have achieved a certain standard of education and licensure. To become a dietitian, you must first earn a degree from a program accredited by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). That program needs to cover the basics of nutrition science, biology, chemistry, and sociology, among other subjects. After completing a bachelor’s degree and obtaining a certain amount of supervised work experience, aspiring dietitians may sit for the registered dietitian (RD) exam.
Skills to Acquire
A nutritionist or dietitian is equal parts counselor and healthcare professional. So, on the one hand, you’ll need to develop your soft skills like developing empathy, communication skills, and curiosity. You should have a genuine interest in helping people achieve their goals, as food and diet can be quite personal for many people. Nutritionists also should have a deep understanding of nutrition science and how certain foods affect peoples’ overall health. So, you might need to develop a formula that helps an athlete maximize their performance or helps an obese patient lose weight without feeling starved throughout the day.
A quick rundown of the skills needed to become an effective nutritionist:
- Research skills
- Ability to make informed decisions in a clinical setting
- Understanding of allergies and dietary restrictions
- Ability to simplify health concepts in a way that allows patients to make positive changes
- Knowledge of how nutrient absorption factors into physical and mental health
Finally, nutritionists need to be open to learning new skills and keeping up with the latest research in the space. As such, this person should be actively keeping updated on trends and potential hazards that emerge with the latest fad diets.
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Alternative Paths to Become a Nutritionist
Becoming a nutritionist generally starts with a bachelor’s degree in a related field. However, if you’re coming at it from a different background (say, you’re a fitness instructor or work in a different part of the healthcare industry), there are a few ways you can break into this career. In some states, all you need is an associate degree or a certificate to become a nutritionist. Others require a master’s degree, so definitely check this out before signing up for classes.
There are also some professional certifications, a vocational school model designed to teach nutrition counseling skills and nutrition basics. Not all of these types of programs are accredited by ACEND, which is the authority in this space. Now, that’s not to say that a less traditional program won’t help you learn about the consulting industry, but it likely won’t help you find work in a traditional healthcare setting. Instead, you’d maybe have more knowledge under your belt that you could spin into a career writing about nutrition or working as a health coach.
If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you might be able to enroll in a post-baccalaureate program and from there, pursue your RD after completing coursework. Or, you might earn a master’s in nutrition. The point is, there are several ways to work in this field, but you’ll need to figure out what you want to do. Working in the healthcare system demands a more formal education than using nutritional knowledge in an entrepreneurial or alternative medicine setting. So, keep that in mind as you explore different options.
Nutritionist Career & Salary
Where Might You Work?
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for dietitians and nutritionists is $59,400 per year, while the top 10% earns over $83,000 annually. Salaries vary based on where you work. Outpatient facilities pay about $65,600 per year, while government agencies and nursing homes pay about $57,000 per year.
However, this profession is gaining a lot of traction. With the rise of social media, remote work, and a growing interest in health across all kinds of companies, there are a lot more options out there than working at a hospital. For example, a nutritionist might work as a corporate wellness consultant or a private coach that sets their rates. Health and nutrition are huge on social media and online publications, as well. So, if you have an interest in sharing your expertise online, your experience may land you gigs as health writer or a virtual consultant.
Potential Career Paths
As we mentioned, this career can take several different forms from starting your own business to working in a more traditional setting like a hospital or nursing home. Below, we’ve rounded up a few things you can do as a nutritionist.
Nutritionists generally focus on holistic nutrition and care. A nutritionist helps clients find a diet that works for their unique health needs and provides counseling as it relates to diet and lifestyle choices.
These professionals work with a variety of nutrition tools to improve the health of their clients, though backgrounds can vary considerably. Some nutritionists have a formal education background, while others might receive their training from a certificate program or natural healing center.
In general, dietitians differ from nutritionists in that they have a standardized credential and are required to complete a formal education before they can sit for the RD exam. Their job is to advise clients and come up with meal plans designed around individual health needs. Job descriptions vary based on where the dietitian works, and in some cases, based on specialties. RDs often work in a healthcare setting like a hospital, rehab center, or long-term care facility. But others work in corporate nutrition programs, in schools, or with athletes.
Corporate Wellness Consultant
A growing number of private companies are hiring consultants or in-house nutrition professionals to create a healthy corporate culture. Often, consultants lead workshops, offer tips on exercise and nutrition, and guide workers on all matters concerning diet and health.
Nutrition educators develop programs to promote healthy habits and better food choices. Often, this person works in communities lacking nutritional resources, like low-income neighborhoods where access to healthy foods are scarce. They might work with new mothers or students and help people understand how to design meal plans, find affordable healthy choices, and provide counseling related to fitness and general wellness. Additionally, this person might screen candidates for food services and help applicants complete their paperwork.
A nutrition writer might channel their expertise into web content, a social media channel, eBooks, articles, and more. While anyone can technically start writing about food and diet, professional training adds some credibility to the mix. Most of this work is freelance but writing about nutrition could be an excellent way to grow a private practice, connect with clients, and educate the public. Or, you could do this full time. Additionally, though it’s not required, if you’re interested in this path it’s smart to take some classes in journalism, writing, or marketing as well.
Public Health Nutritionist
Public health nutritionists are people who work to improve the health of an overall community. They don’t necessarily work with individual clients. This type of nutritionist may have RDN credentials, as well as a background in public health. Their job is to identify nutrition problems as they affect larger groups and come up with big picture solutions.
Nutrition Salaries by Occupation
|Occupation||Entry-Level Salary Range||Mid-Career Salary Range||Late-Career Salary Range|
|Registered Dietitian Nutritionist||$42,000||$53,000||$69,000|
|Corporate Wellness Consultant||$50,000||$56,000||$60,000|
|Public Health Worker||$40,000||$52,000||$62,000|
**Salary info provided by PayScale
The BLS reports that the field is growing at a 15% rate, predicted to rise through 2026. Also, it’s worth pointing out that the growing interest in the profession has allowed for a lot of flexibility for people with this background. Still, the BLS says that those nutritionists that pursue licensure and graduate education stand to have better outcomes than those who enter the field with a bachelor’s degree or less. Because the US is dealing with an aging population and an uncertain healthcare landscape, people see more value in wellness, overall. As such, there are no signs that nutritionist demand will fall anytime soon.
Advancing From Here
If you go for traditional education, you’ll want to become a registered dietitian, and work in the field, you can earn more credentials or go for a master’s degree after working for a few years. Advancing might mean you start your own business in the business management industry working independently as a nutritional counselor. Many nutritionists are self-employed with a private practice, though you may need to learn more about the business management industry and spend some time working under more experienced nutrition professionals before you’re ready to be on your own.
Additionally, you could choose to dive deeper into the realm of public policy. If your passion falls more on the advocacy side, it might be smart to earn a master’s degree in public health or nutrition, as the higher-level roles often demand a graduate degree.
In a healthcare setting, nutritionists and dietitians might work their way up to becoming a clinical nutrition manager or become a hospital director of food services. As you level up, work may become more administrative and strategic – so consider whether you like working with clients or doing significant picture work.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What does a nutritionist do?
Dietitians and nutritionists help clients develop healthy eating habits and make healthy lifestyle choices. Registered dietitians perform nutrition counseling by helping establish good eating habits through healthy food choices.
Where do nutritionists work?
Nutritionists can work in a private practice or in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and for local and state governments.
What is the job outlook for nutritionists?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected growth rate for nutritionists is 11% from 2020 to 2030.
How long does it take to become a nutritionist?
Most nutritionist jobs require a bachelor's degree. Some states will requite a license in addition to your degree.
What qualities should nutritionist specialists have?
Nutritionist specialists need good interpersonal skills, good communication, teamwork skills, and the ability to motivate others. They also need a good understanding of science and enjoy nutrition research.
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