How to Become a Certified Nutritionist

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated July 23, 2021 | Published February 4, 2020

Updated July 23, 2021

Published February 4, 2020

Many people suffer from health issues that require changes to be made in their diet. Whether it's a chronic condition, an autoimmune disease, food allergies or other health issues, a nutritionist can assess and determine each situation and help get their patients' or clients' health to a more optimal condition. In this article, we will define what a certified nutritionist does, where they work and how to become a licensed nutrition professional.

What does a certified nutritionist do?

A certified nutritionist is an expert whose job is to help people reach their health goals through creating customized meal plans. The people who these nutritionists work with are often diagnosed with chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol and other conditions. Some clients are patients who are going through chemotherapy or who suffer from autoimmune diseases or severe food allergies. These clients benefit from the nutritionist's assistance in suggesting healthy eating habits to improve their health through proper nutrition.

A certified nutritionist assesses the unique needs of each client and their current dietary habits, then uses their expertise to recommend dietary adjustments based on the client's nutritional needs. They'll provide support and monitor their client's progress, as well as help them plan menus and educate them on the positive and negative health effects of certain foods. They'll also follow up with the client to see how well the new meal plans are working, adjusting as necessary and keep a running document of the patient's progress.

To become a certified nutritionist, you often need a certification or undergraduate degree, masters degree and at least 900-hours of internship experience.

Nutritionists can work in the following environments:

  • Hospitals

  • Rehabilitation facilities

  • Schools

  • Clinics

  • Nursing homes

  • Foodservice management

They often participate as part of public health, social service or community welfare programs. They can choose to take a different path, depending on their interests and level of education, and work in food and health-related companies, where their services are in high demand, or open a private consulting firm. Certified nutritionists generally work full-time, with some irregular hours during evenings and on weekends, depending on the needs of the clients.

Certified nutritionist average salary

The salary range of a certified nutritionist can vary widely depending on the professional's level of education and experience, location, size and industry of employer.

  • Average salary: $52,686 per year

  • Salaries can range between $14,000 to $122,000 per year.

Related: Learn About Being a Nutritionist

How to become a certified nutritionist

To become a certified nutritionist, you need to begin with an interest in health and nutrition, a bachelor's degree and certifications. Follow these steps to accomplish this:

  1. Earn a beginner-level certificate.

  2. Earn an undergraduate degree.

  3. Obtain state licensing.

  4. Earn a graduate degree.

1. Earn a nutrition-related certificate or certification

These certificates are a way to enter the field rather quickly and only require a high school diploma or equivalent to enroll.

  • Nutritionist certificate: This beginner-level certificate can be obtained through online courses in about a year.

  • Certificate of completion in clinical nutrition: This certificate is administered by the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board and is awarded upon completion of a 56-hour online program.

2. Pursue a Bachelor's Degree in Nutrition or health-related field

Entry-level nutritionists generally hold at least a Bachelor's Degree in Health or nutrition-related field. Some examples of undergraduate majors that can lead to a nutritionist career are:

  • Anatomy

  • Biochemistry

  • Biology

  • Chemistry

  • Clinical nutritional care

  • Community nutrition

  • Dietetics

  • Food science

  • Microbiology

  • Nutrition

  • Psychology

During their four-year undergraduate training, students may be required to complete an internship as part of completing their program.

3. Obtain the required licensing for your state

Most states require nutritionists carry up-to-date certifications, obtained by completing credentialing courses and passing a comprehensive exam to verify knowledge and skills. The Commission on Dietetic Registration administers the Registered Dietitian and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist credentials, which meet some states' licensing requirements. To earn these credentials, do the following after receiving your undergraduate degree:

  1. Complete a supervised practice program for dietitians/nutritionists.

  2. Pass the culminating examination.

  3. Earn continuing education requirements.

There are several certifications related to nutrition at this level of education:

  • Certified nutritional consultant: This certification is granted upon successful completion of an open-book exam administered by the American Association of Nutritional Consultants.

  • Certified nutritionist: This certification can be earned through the completion of a two-year associate-level degree program or a six-course distance-learning program, followed by successfully passing a supervised exam.

  • Certified clinical nutritionist: This certification, administered by the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board, can be obtained by completing the following steps:

    • Earn an undergraduate or graduate degree from an accredited university.

    • Complete a 900-hour internship.

    • Complete 56 postgraduate hours in clinical nutrition studies.

    • Pass and exam, administered by the CNCB.

    • Complete 40 continuing education hours biannually to maintain certification.

    • Recertify every five years by passing a recertification exam.

4. Earn a graduate degree (optional)

Though it is not typically required to earn an advanced degree to work as a nutritionist, some nutritionists decide to pursue one to become educators and researchers in the field of nutrition. Nutritionists with a graduate degree who have completed at least 1,000 hours of experience are permitted to earn the Certified Nutrition Specialist credential, which is administered by the Certification Board of Nutrition Specialists.

Earning a master's degree takes approximately two additional years of full-time schooling, and may include these courses:

  • Medical nutrition therapy

  • Molecular biology

  • Statistics and probability

  • Public policy and health issues

Doctoral programs in nutrition generally include completion of graduate-level courses in biology, chemistry and nutrition, in addition to performing fieldwork and completing a dissertation. The courses may include the following:

  • Advanced nutrition

  • Nutrition assessment methods

  • Research applications

A graduate degree can permit you to earn an advanced certification in nutrition. These certifications have strict requirements, which vary depending on the state where that license is to be held.

Certified Nutrition Specialist

This title can be earned by completing the following requirements:

  • Earn a Master's or Doctoral Degree in Nutrition from an accredited university.

  • Complete an internship of at least 1,000 hours in a supervised setting.

  • Pass the required 200-question exam, administered by the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists.

  • Maintain certification by earning 75 continuing education credits every five years.

Licensed Nutritionist

Licensure requirements typically include the following:

  • Earn an undergraduate degree in food and nutrition from an accredited university.

  • Complete a supervised internship.

  • Hold a current certification.

  • Complete continuing education credits.

Board certification in holistic nutrition

This designation, administered by the National Association of Nutrition Professionals, can be earned by those who hold a degree in holistic nutrition ranging from post-secondary to Ph.D. level, as well as completing the following requirements:

  • Successful completion of a NANP approved holistic nutrition program OR providing documentation of an approved certification, degree or diploma

  • Professional membership in the NANP

  • Complete 500 hours of professional experience in holistic nutrition. This includes at least 250 direct contact hours and up to 250 indirect contact hours.

Related: Learn About Being a Dietary Aide

Frequently asked questions about becoming a licensed nutritionist

Here are some of the most-asked questions related to becoming a licensed nutritionist:

What are the state requirements for practicing nutrition?

Requirements vary depending on the state. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 30 U.S. states require licensure, 15 require certification and one requires registration with the state. Arizona, Colorado, Michigan and New Jersey do not have regulations regarding the practice of nutrition.

What sorts of subjects are covered in credentialing exams?

Tests to validate your qualification to advise clients and patients about food and nutrition generally cover the following topics:

  • Diagnosis

  • Education and communication

  • Food Science and nutrient composition of foods

  • Menu development

  • Monitoring and evaluation

  • Nutrition and supporting sciences

  • Planning and intervention

  • Quality improvement

  • Research

  • Sanitation and safety

  • Screening and assessment

  • Sustainability

All told, how long does it take to become a nutritionist?

Depending on your specific path and schedule, becoming a licensed nutritionist can take around five years. This takes into account the four years to complete a bachelor's degree and one additional year to complete an internship. More advanced licensure will take more time, as a graduate degree may be required.

Do I need a degree to be a nutritionist?

To be a licensed nutritionist, it is required to earn an associate degree for lower-level positions and a graduate degree for advanced licensure. To get started in the field before completing a degree, you may consider obtaining either a nutritionist certificate, which you can get by taking about a year of online courses, or a certificate of completion in clinical nutrition, which typically takes only 56 hours of online instruction.

I have a bachelor's degree in another field. Do I have to start over to become a nutritionist?

If you've already earned an undergraduate degree in a field other than nutrition and dietetics, you can have your college transcripts evaluated to see which credits will transfer to count towards your new career choice. A program director at your prospective school can provide you with information about what requirements would need to be met and what courses you would need to complete to meet said requirements.

Related: Jobs That Pay Well

Jobs similar to certified nutritionists

If you're interested in the nutrition industry, there are many positions that you can consider. Here is a list of 10 jobs that are similar to certified nutritionists:

1. Nutrition consultant

2. Nutrition coach

3. Nutrition assistant

4. Dietetic assistant

5. Dietetic technician

6. Dietary aide

7. Dietary manager

8. Chef

9. Nutrition sales

10. Dietitian

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