Nutritionist Schools and Programs

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Wellness is a $4.2 trillion industry, according to a 2018 report from the Global Wellness Institute. So it shouldn't be surprising that nutritionists are in demand. What do nutritionists do? They encourage healthy living in all the following ways:

  • Assessing a person's current nutrition and health needs.
  • Counseling clients on healthy eating habits.
  • Developing meal plans that meet an individual's specific nutritional needs.
  • Evaluating a client's progress toward nutritional goals.
  • Promoting good nutrition through educational programs such as seminars, workshops and public events.

What is the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist? Both provide similar services, but the title dietitian is limited in most states to those who meet certain education and credentialing requirements. Nutritionist is the title given to those who might not meet those requirements but still work to promote healthy eating habits.

Nutritionist Specializations

When considering what does a nutritionist do, keep in mind that the answer can vary by specialty and employer. Nutritionists may be hired by medical facilities, restaurants or individual clients. In each setting, their job duties may be slightly different. For instance, here's a closer look at three common nutritionist specializations.

  • Clinical nutritionists are employed by hospitals, clinics and other medical institutions. They counsel patients on how to address and improve health conditions through proper nutrition.
  • Community nutritionists may have jobs at government agencies, non-profit organizations or insurance companies. Their job is focused on creating and implementing public health programs and campaigns that promote good nutrition.
  • Management dietitians work in cafeterias, hospitals, schools or similar settings to create food programs. They may be responsible for managing kitchen staff in addition to creating menus.

How to Become a Nutritionist

You can take several paths to a career as a nutritionist. However, here is a common route people might take:

  • Earn a high school diploma or GED.
  • Attend a training program.You'll need some formal training to work in this field, but nutritionist education requirements depend on your career goals. Options range from short-term certificates to graduate degrees in nutrition.
  • Meet your state's requirements.State laws vary significantly with some allowing anyone to provide individual nutrition counseling and others restricting this work only to licensed dietitians.
  • Become certified.Even if your state doesn't require licensure, becoming certified can be a smart career choice. Employers may prefer to hire those with a professional certification.
  • Take continuing education classes.To do your job well, you'll need to know the latest nutrition research. Continuing education classes may also be required to maintain professional certification.

Throughout this process, you can expect to learn about the following topics:

  • Nutrition
  • Psychology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry

Nutritionist Degree Programs

How long does it take to become a nutritionist? That depends on whether your state has licensure requirements and whether you want to become certified. Before you enroll in any program, make sure it fits with your nutritionist career goals.

  • Certificate: A certificate in nutrition can be completed in six months or less at many schools. These programs offer students a foundation in topics such as the science behind nutrition, the relationship between food and disease and how the digestive system works.
  • Associate Degree: An associate degree in nutrition generally takes two years to complete. It provides a greater level of instruction than what is found in a certificate and may incorporate courses in food systems, exercise and wellness practices. Some associate degrees prepare students for non-clinical work that they can begin immediately after graduation. Other programs are designed for students who want to transfer to a four-year college or university.
  • Bachelor's Degree: If you're interested in learning how to become a certified nutritionist, it starts with earning a four-year degree. A bachelor's degree in the minimum education needed to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.
  • Graduate Degree: Although not necessary for many jobs in the field, certified nutritionist degree programs extend to the master's and even doctoral level.

Nutritionist Schools

Nutrition programs may be offered by community colleges, four-year colleges and universities. Some schools offer online programs although nutritionist certification schools - those that prepare students to become Registered Dietitian Nutritionists - typically include a 6-12 month practice program that provides hands-on experience. If you want to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, make sure you attend a school accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Nutritionist Licensure and Certification

Currently, three states do not regulate the work of nutritionists or dietitians, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. These states are Michigan, New Mexico and New Jersey. Others may allow anyone to dispense individualized nutritional advice but limit the use of the title dietitian to licensed individuals. Still other states restrict nutritional work to registered dietitians only. Because nutritionist education requirements can vary significantly and are subject to change, contract your state's licensing board before enrolling in a program.

When it comes to certification, there are two main designations for nutritionists.

  • Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN): Overseen by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the RDN is considered the primary credential in the field. Many states recognize RDNs as having met requirements for licensure. You'll need at least a bachelor's degree and dietetic internship of at least 1,200 hours to become a RDN.
  • Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS): This designation is offered by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists. It requires at least a master's degree, 1,000 hours of supervised experience and passage of an exam.

Some professional organizations also offer their own credentials. For instance, the National Academy of Sports Medicine has a program that results in Certified Nutrition Coach designation, or you can become a Fitness Nutrition Specialist through the American Council on Exercise. These programs may be best for those who plan to do work not regulated by their state.

Career Advancement for Nutritionists

It's a big commitment to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Instead of starting with a bachelor's degree, some people may begin with a certificate or associate degree. That may allow them to work as a nutrition or health coach in many states. Once they decide the field is right for them, workers may go back to school to complete the education needed to become a dietician or certified nutritionist.

Program Costs and Financial Aid

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Skills and Qualities for Nutritionists

In addition to knowledge of nutrition, professionals in this field often possess the following abilities.

  • Active listening: A significant part of a nutritionist's job is talking with clients to understand their specific needs and challenges.
  • Learning strategies: Not everyone is motivated in the same way. A nutritionist needs to be able to adapt information and healthy eating strategies as needed to help their clients be successful.
  • Service orientation: Helping others is at the heart of a nutritionist's job, and they must be attuned to how else they can meet the needs of people.
  • Deductive reasoning: There may be times when a meal plan or nutritional approach is not achieving the desired results. A nutritionist must use their deductive reasoning ability to figure out why.
  • Problem sensitivity: A good nutritionist will be sensitive to the challenges of their clients and be able to anticipate when a problem might arise.

Career Outlook and Salary Information for Nutritionists

If you're wondering what is a nutritionist salary, the numbers below will help answer that question. However, these are national figures and don't take into account education, experience and certification which can all impact how much someone earns.

Given people's interest in health and wellness, demand for nutritionists may be robust in the years to come. While the chart below highlights national estimates for the career, actual job opportunities may vary by region and depend on a person's education and experience.

Total Employment
Average Salary
Projected Job Growth
Dietitians and Nutritionists67,670$62,33011.2%
*2019 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2018-28 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics,

Professional Resources for Nutritionists

To stay on top of the latest information about nutrition and nutritionist careers, check out these three organizations.

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics - As the largest global organization of nutrition and food professionals, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has been around since 1917. It oversees the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist certification and counts more than 100,000 RDNs, dietetic technicians and other professionals among its members.

National Association of Nutrition Professionals - The NANP advocates for holistic nutrition and embraces the idea of food as medicine. The group also offers its own certification program.

American Nutrition Association -The ANA is part of a consortium of organizations that includes the Board for Certification of Nutritionist Specialists which offers the Certified Nutrition Specialist designation. The consortium is committed to advancing science-based nutrition education, training and advocacy.

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