Nutritionist Education, Schools, and Career Overview
Nutritionists are experts in food, nutrition, diets and healthy lifestyles. The day-to-day life of a nutritionist might include working with clients to meet their health goals, selecting menu plans for patients, regularly evaluating the outcome of nutrition plans, and writing reports to document patient progress. They might work with those who simply want to live healthier, or they might work with patients who have significant health issues, such as diabetes or kidney failure. They might also speak to groups or individuals about the importance of healthy nutrition.
Nutritionist vs. Dietitian: What's the Difference?
It is easy to confuse the two terms. Even the U.S. Department of Labor's comprehensive Bureau of Labor Statistics lumps the two together as a single category. These are different, though related fields, and most states (as well as the professionals themselves) recognize the difference.
Both a dietitian and a nutritionist may have similar educational backgrounds and perform similar functions, but a dietitian must be licensed in almost every state. The term "nutritionist" on its own is generally does not refer to a licensed or registered profession, although some registered dietitians are also called certified clinical nutritionists (CCN) or clinical nutritionists.
How to Become a Nutritionist
Whether students choose to pursue a career as a clinical nutritionist, community nutritionist, retail dietitian or management dietitian or any other specialty within the profession, understanding how to become a nutritionist can be an important step in the process.
Those who choose to become a nutritionist typically earn at least a bachelor's degree. This degree can be in nutrition or in a closely related field, such as:
- Food service systems management
- Food and nutrition
- Nutrition and dietetics
- Clinical nutrition
Those who have earned their associate degree in a related field might be able to transfer those credits to a four-year institution in order to complete a bachelor's degree program in nutrition or a related field.
Courses for bachelor's degree programs in nutrition typically focus on nutrition, chemistry, biology, anatomy, physiology, and psychology, and may include classes similar to the following:
- Food and culture
- Principles of food science
- Applied community nutrition
- Medical nutritional therapy
- Micronutrients and macronutrients
It is very common for nutritionists to take their education further, earning advanced degrees in the field. These might include a master's degree program or doctoral studies in nutrition and related degrees.
Courses in advanced degree programs may include the following:
- Research methods
- Clinical behavior and change
- The role of food in society
- Communications in health care
- Finances of nutrition and wellness
Most states require nutritionists or dieticians to be licensed. And in most states, the requirements for certification are the same as licensing. Requirements for licensure typically include graduating from an accredited bachelor's degree program in nutrition or a related field, several hundred hours of supervised training, and passing a comprehensive exam.
The most common certifications include the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS).
- Requirements for the RDN include a minimum of a bachelor's degree and completion of a six- to twelve-month dietetic internship program at a community agency, healthcare facility or corporation focused on food service. This internship is typically done while going to school. In some cases, the internship can be completed through a coordinate program, which is accredited through the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers RDN certification.
- Requirements for the CNS include a master's degree or doctoral degree, as well as completion of 1,000 hours of experience in order to qualify for the CNS examination. The Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists administers the credential.
Additional certifications can be sought by those who want to work in a specific area of nutrition. For instance, the pediatric certification might be helpful for those who intend to work in schools, while the sports nutrition credential might be suitable for those who work with athletes. Among the most common specialty credentials are:
- Pediatric Nutrition
- Renal Nutrition
- Sports Dietetics
- Gerontological Nutrition
- Oncology Nutrition
In most cases, credentials must be kept current with continuing education.
Some states require only registration and certification, in which case either the RDN or CNS is likely to suffice. Regardless of state requirements, some employers prefer or require a minimum of the RDN certification in order to consider an applicant at hiring time.
Nutritionist Skills and Qualities
Nutritionists work with a variety of clients and juggle many menus and recommendations, so they must have impeccable organizational skills and the ability to solve problems quickly as they arise. They must also stay up to date on the latest research and analyze it for information they can use in their own practices. Since they work closely with patients, they must be able to listen effectively, communicate clearly and have compassion for the struggles that others face with their nutrition, food intake, weight gain or loss, and other aspects of health.
Career Outlook and Salary Information
As understanding of the role food plays in health has increased, so have the employment options for nutritionists. Much of this growth can be attributed to the fact that one-third of U.S. adults are now considered obese, and many of those may seek help with diet and nutrition. In addition, an aging baby boomer population that wants to stay healthy as they age is also likely to be contributing to the need for more dietitians and nutritionists.
Most nutritionists work full-time, and one in every five is self-employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nutritionists might work for clients one-on-one, or they might be contracted to work for a particular institution, such as a hospital system. Those who work directly with clients might have weekend and evening hours.
Nutritionists and dietitians can work in:
- State, local and private hospitals
- Private health practitioners’ offices
- Residential care facilities
- Outpatient care centers
- Company cafeterias
- Colorado, May 2014 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Occupational Employment Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_co.htm
- Dietitians and Nutritionists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dietitians-and-nutritionists.htm
- Dietitians and Nutritionists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291031.htm
- Description of Degrees/Credentials, American Nutrition Association, http://americannutritionassociation.org/toolsandresources/descriptiondegreescredentials
- Hawaii, May 2014 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Occupational Employment Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_hi.htm
- Massachusetts, May 2014 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Occupational Employment Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_ma.htm
- National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates United States, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm#00-0000
- Nutrition, Bachelor's Degree Programs, University of Nevada Reno, http://www.unr.edu/degrees/nutrition/bs
- Retail Dietitians Business Alliance Releases Results of First Salary Survey for Retail RDs, Today's Dietitian. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/enewsletter/enews_0315_02.shtml
- Student Center, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, http://www.eatright.org/BecomeanRDorDTR/content.aspx?id=8142
- The State of Obesity, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Sept. 2014. http://www.rwjf.org/en/library/research/2014/09/the-state-of-obesity.html