How to Become a Nutritionist: A Guide

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Learn how to become a nutritionist, including the educational requirements, salary, dietician job outlook, and skills needed to succeed in this health-related field.

[Featured Image]: A nutritionist, wearing a black uniform is standing next to her desk, including, two computers.

A nutritionist is an expert in food and nutrition who advises people on what to eat to be healthy. Nutritionists sometimes work with people who have medical conditions and those who want to improve their overall health.

In this guide, you'll learn about the various credentials, education, and licensing requirements for becoming a nutritionist. You'll also discover the important skills to have as a nutritionist and get a peek into salary expectations and employment outlook. 

It’s possible to become a nutritionist online, and without a degree. However, many people pursue a degree in health science or a related field, such as food science, nutrition, chemistry, biology, dietetics, or biochemistry. The amount of time it takes to become a nutritionist can vary from state to state and depends upon whether you enroll in a bachelor’s degree program or a shorter months-long certification program. 

Bachelor’s degree 

A bachelor’s degree is not always required to become a nutritionist. Still, many employers look for nutritionists who have a certain amount of coursework and often a degree or board certification. It’s important to choose an accredited program to be equipped with the knowledge to help future patients. The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics offers accreditation for nutrition programs. The bachelor’s program can be in any major, but related fields like anatomy, biology, biochemistry, or nutrition are beneficial. Bachelor’s degree programs in nutrition often require an internship. 

Certifications 

In addition to a bachelor’s degree, nutritionists are required to meet licensure and certification requirements, which vary by state. Becoming licensed may include taking exams to determine competency or obtaining and updating special certifications. Optional certifications include:

  • Earn the Registered Dietitian (RD) credential from the Commission on Dietetic Registration. RDs can work in various employment settings, including health care, community health, education, research, government agencies, and private practice.

  • Go beyond a bachelor’s degree for a master’s or doctoral degree to earn a Certified Nutrition Specialist credential after completing 1,000 hours of experience. The Certification Board of Nutrition Specialists awards this credential.

  • A Clinical Nutritionist credential requires a bachelor’s or master’s degree in clinical nutrition and courses including aging and nutrition and herbology. You must also pass the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board assessment.

  • Earn a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) credential from the Commission on Dietetic Registration. RDNs can work in various settings, including hospitals, schools, public health clinics, nursing homes, fitness centers, universities, and private practice.

  • Obtain a specialist Board Certification from the Commission on Dietetic Registration in one of the following: Pediatric, renal, gerontological,  pediatric critical care, or oncology nutrition, as well as sports dietetics and obesity and weight management.  

Master’s degree

Some nutritionists looking to work in a clinical setting or education go on to earn a Master of Science from a nutrition degree program. This is not required to become a nutritionist but is helpful or required for some positions. A master’s degree takes about two years and features classes on medical nutrition therapy, probability or statistics, molecular biology, public policy, and health issues. In these programs, nutritionists can focus on specialties within the nutrition field and work on their understanding of nutrition research. 

Consider certification to become a licensed nutritionist. 

Certifications can help you stand out in a job search. Nutritionists can pursue various certifications, some of which include the following:

Registered dietitian (RD)

A registered dietitian can work in a hospital or other medical facility, non-profit organizations, government entities, or educational institutions. Most states require a license or certification to be a registered dietitian. To be an RD, you first obtain a degree from a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics. A dietitian internship is a part of that learning. 

You also must pass the Registration Examination for Dietitians Test by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR exam). After passing, you will often be required to obtain a state license and maintain that license and registration throughout your career. 

According to the CDR, 47 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia currently have statutory provisions regulating the dietetics profession or associated titles such as dietitian and nutritionist. The others do not require licensure but may require credentialing.

Certified nutrition specialist (CNS)

If you opt to pursue a Master of Science, you can become a certified nutrition specialist and work in advanced medical nutrition therapy. You can also conduct research by completing the required supervised clinical hours and passing the CNS licensing exam. 

Certified clinical nutritionist (CCN)

As a certified clinical nutritionist, you’ll use your strong foundation in biochemical science to help clients attain their optimal health using laboratory tests and case history to determine the best treatment. Your assessment can also provide the basis for a referral to a physician. You can become a certified clinical nutritionist by completing a bachelor’s degree and passing an exam.

Registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN)

RDNs help individuals make positive lifestyle changes. They work in various settings, including hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and private practice. You can become an RDN by completing a bachelor’s degree from an Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetic-accredited program, completing a supervised dietetic internship, passing the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s assessment, and gaining your state license. 

Dietetic technician, registered (DTR)

Dietetic technicians work in a variety of settings, often navigating between food service and clinical nutrition care. The DTR credential allows you to advance your career in dietetics and nutrition. You’re eligible to earn this credential if you meet one of two requirements:

1. Earn an associate degree from an accredited university and complete an Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) accredited dietetic technician program of at least 450 supervised practice hours.

2. Complete a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited US college or university (or foreign equivalent) and complete an ACEND accredited Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD).

After meeting one of these two requirements, which the CDR validates, you’ll need to pass the registration exam.

Nutrition and dietetics technician, registered (NDTR)

If you are eligible for the DTR credential under the first option, you can use the NDTR designation as part of your professional title. This differentiates between the degree levels you achieved. For example, your credential with a bachelor’s degree could be BS-NDTR. You can choose DTR or NDTR, but if you want to emphasize the nutrition option, NDTR may be the best option for you.

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Background on Food & Nutrients

Gain experience.

Most nutrition programs require hands-on experience. To get more experience and become a nutritionist, you can complete internships, do freelance work, or join nutritionist organizations to gain more experience.

Internships

Most nutrition programs require hands-on experience. A popular option to gain experience is through an internship. The internship can either be during the coursework before graduation, or afterward. These internships give you hands-on experience in the field. Many people choose to complete multiple internships in various specialties to see whether they want to pursue jobs in those areas.

During an internship, you'll learn how to develop patient care plans, perform office duties like helping with paperwork, or manage food delivery for patients. Nutrition internships pay about $38,000 per year [1].

Freelance nutrition work

One way to work in the field of nutrition is to freelance, offering nutrition coaching to people looking to change their diet or lifestyle. Another option is to offer your nutritionist expertise on a case-by-case basis to earn more income. You can also volunteer at a non-profit organization if you’re looking for more experience.

Nutritionist clubs on campus

Joining a group of nutritionist students can help you network while completing your bachelor’s or master’s degree. Look for opportunities to hear from guest speakers or shadow professionals in your area. 

National dietetic or nutritionist organizations

Join organizations related to your nutritionist field or specialty and attend meetings and events. Look for opportunities to shadow nutritionists in your area and volunteer for public health or nutritionist offices to gain more experience.

Pass certification if you're becoming a licensed nutritionist.

A certification is a necessity for licensed nutritionist jobs. Not all states require a license to be a nutritionist, but many employers do. Certifications like a registered dietitian (RD), certified nutrition specialist (CNS), or certified clinical nutritionist (CNN) can make a nutritionist’s resume more appealing to many employers, especially those in a medical setting.

Skills you need to become a nutritionist

A nutritionist is a public-facing position, so communicating well and being empathetic is beneficial. Speaking languages other than English can help broaden your ability to help more clients. You should be able to listen to a patient’s concerns to understand their needs. You must also be willing to keep up with the latest in nutrition to offer the best care possible. 

The ability to think critically and problem solve can help you tackle problems with a patient’s health. Nutritionists should be skilled in mathematics to calculate a patient’s nutrient needs and other health metrics, like body mass index. 

Besides interpersonal skills, nutritionists need to be organized to stay on top of their client files and paperwork and manage many cases at the same time. If you pursue a leadership role, you will need to manage others effectively, which requires learning to delegate, allocate resources, coach others, and collaborate with colleagues. Nutritionists should have the ability to teach and guide clients and people in the community in a way they can understand.

How long does it take to become a nutritionist? 

The length of time it takes to become a nutritionist can vary from months for a short program to years for an advanced degree. Pursuing a two-year degree will take less time than a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree. Pursuing further certifications like a registered dietitian (RD), certified nutrition specialist (CNS), or certified clinical nutritionist (CNN) adds about two months to the timeframe.  It will take you about four years to obtain a bachelor’s degree, about two more years to earn a master’s degree, and about two months to earn a certification. 

Salary and career outlook 

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says that as of May 2021, dieticians and nutritionists make a median annual salary of $61,650 per year, with the typical education and training being a bachelor’s degree [2].

There were 73,000 nutritionist jobs in 2020, and that number is expected to grow by 11 percent between 2020 and 2030, which is higher than the average growth rate for all occupations of 8 percent, according to the BLS.[2]

Getting started 

Get started on your journey to becoming a nutritionist by researching accredited programs. You can also take a related course available on Coursera, including Stanford University’s Stanford Introduction to Food and Health.

You can also enroll in the National Academy of Sports Medicine Nutrition Essentials to learn the latest information on nutrition coaching strategies, behavior change strategies, and nutrition science.

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Article sources  

1. Zippia. “How to Become a Nutrition Internship, https://www.zippia.com/nutrition-internship-jobs/." Accessed April 23, 2022.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Dietitians and Nutritionists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dietitians-and-nutritionists.htm." Accessed March 27, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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