“Let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food.” It is believed that these words were uttered by Hippocrates, the Greek “Father of Nutrition,” in 400 BC. That’s how far back the science of food nutrition and nutritionists go.
While it might have been much easier to maintain a healthy diet back then, today’s society faces a whole different kind of challenge. With the proliferation of processed foods, fast foods, and microwave dinners, the science of nutrition has quite frankly become rather diluted. That’s one of the main reasons lifestyle diseases are on the rise, and so are diet-related ailments.
Thankfully, more and more people have realized just how important their diet is to the quality of life they lead, albeit not as significant a number as it should be. According to the CDC, only 17% of Americans say that they or one healthy diet or another as of the year 2020. While that might sound like a small number, it’s a marked improvement from a decade before when only 14% of Americans observed any kind of healthy diet.
This increase in healthy eating is in part thanks to nutrition science and the increase in the number of registered dietitians in the country. Registered dietitian nutritionists have not only been increasing in number. Still, they have also been finding new ways to get the message across: people need to eat healthier to avoid minimize their chances of developing unwanted lifestyle diseases.
Becoming a certified nutritionist or a nutrition specialist is a slightly arduous process, but it’s well worth it for people who don’t mind the hard academic work that comes with it. As a growing industry, there are bound to be more lucrative job opportunities for talented individuals in the field, from becoming a sports dietitian or sports nutritionist working with some of the most iconic sports personalities and franchises in the world to working with regular people who need the help.
Learn exactly what a certified nutrition specialist does, and the processes involved in becoming one or maybe even a clinical nutritionist through this guide.
What Does a Nutritionist Do?
A nutritionist is a trained and qualified nutrition and health expert who can offer guidance on food, healthy eating, and a healthy lifestyle to individuals who need it. Simply put, a nutritionist is a nutrition scientist specializing in healthy diets and eating.
These individuals have an academic background in this field, and the advice they offer is backed by scientific evidence. Nutritionists are typically hired to help support individuals in their journey towards better health.
It should, however, be stated that nutritionists are not medical professionals despite being educated and qualified health experts, which means that these individuals cannot diagnose or prescribe medication to combat medical conditions.
However, experts within the field, such as clinical nutritionists, often develop meal plans that go hand in hand with prescribed medication to manage conditions such as obesity, diabetes, etc.
What is a Nutritionist Qualified to do?
Licensed nutritionists are qualified to work with a host of clients, with no two clients ever really being similar. For the most part, a certified nutrition specialist will find themselves dealing with many different issues on any given day. Here are some of the things a nutrition professional is qualified to do:
Offer Lifestyle Guidance to those Who Need It
Most clients attended to by a nutritionist often have one or several of the following issues:
- Often feeling fatigued or low in energy
- Has erratic mood swings
- Experiences frequent injury or illnesses
- Is looking to take care of their long-term health or improve their quality of life
- Wants to change to a new diet, such as becoming a vegan, and needs advice on how to do it in a healthy manner
- Has concerns about their overall health and well-being
Additionally, registered dietitians or registered dietitian nutritionists can help individuals struggling with weight management in a number of ways, including coming up with improved eating habits, weight gain or weight loss diets, and appetite management for people who have eating disorders.
The idea behind all this is that the kind of food one eats can help support their health and manage a host of conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, digestive issues, and food allergies.
Furthermore, holistic nutritionists or experts dealing in clinical nutrition can take a more important role when it comes to managing the diets of entire families by coming up with inclusive meal plans, infant feeding schedules, and generally improving the family diet.
Finally, most nutritionists are specialized in highly sensitive fields such as sports nutrition, whereby they help develop meal plans and diets that help improve sports performance and athlete body composition.
What Types of Jobs Can Nutritionists Do?
Most professionals have a bachelor’s degree in health and wellness, nutrition science, or any related field. These experts then choose a specific focus, and that focus determines the kind of job they do or can get.
Typical nutritionist employers include companies such as huge multinational food retailers or manufacturers, animal feed companies, international charities, government or even non-government organizations, and other aid agencies.
Additionally, nutritionists could choose a career in sports nutrition, in which case they could be employed by big brands sports franchises, sport and leisure companies, and professional sports associations.
Public health nutrition is also a big part of most developed countries today. Employers such as local governments and government departments such as the US Department of Health and Human Services.
There’s also huge potential for aspiring nutrition professionals who want to pursue a career in research. These individuals can be employed by international research bodies, universities, or privately-owned companies.
Finally, it’s not uncommon for professional nutritionists to be self-employed as personal trainers, dietitians, and food gurus.
Certifications and Schooling Required for Nutritionists
Typically, nutritionists have a very rewarding career. These professionals quite literally help people to lead a better life every single day by training and nutrition certification to come up with better, healthier meal plans and eating habits. Everything a nutritionist or a registered dietitian does is backed by science and has a good track record of working.
Suffice it to say that the different roles a nutritionist can take, such as becoming a sports nutritionist or a registered dietitian nutritionist, are results-oriented. To qualify as a professional in these fields, the individual needs to undergo a rigorous training and education period that prepares them for the tasks and responsibilities that come with a career in nutrition.
Here are some of the steps that a nutritionist is typically expected to take before becoming licensed to practice:
Step 1: Earn a Relevant Bachelor’s Degree
Before an aspiring nutritionist can become a licensed professional, the first step they need to take is to earn a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field. These fields could range from nutrition itself, health, or any similarly related option. Typically, this step (earning a bachelor’s degree) takes four years, although some students could complete it in a much shorter or longer time period.
In the course of their studies, nutritionists will undertake classes in:
- Food science
- Clinical nutrition
- Holistic nutrition
Students will also learn the different types of nutritional compositions that make up various foods and how that combination determines just how the foods react with the human body. They will also learn how to use this information to plan the right kind of meal plan based on their dietary needs and restrictions. For the most part, students also study a wide range of courses related to public health and fitness.
One major point of note is that for students to become certified nutrition specialists, they must attend an accredited nutrition program in a school that meets the requirements set forth by ACEND (Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics).
Step 2: Gain the Necessary Experience
As is the case with most professional careers, to meet the strict licensing requirements often set forth by the governing bodies, students must gain some kind of real-life work experience. This can come in many forms, from attaining a dietetic internship to working in a supervised practice under a certified nutritionist.
While the exact requirements in this stage will depend on the specific state in which the student wants to practice, one of the best ways to get a head start is to simply check out the resources available on the ACEND website. This council often advertises numerous internship and placement positions that aspiring nutritionists and dietitians can appreciate and use.
Step 3: Get Licensed
The good news is that licensing in this field isn’t mandatory in every state. However, it’s always a good idea for aspiring professional nutritionists to get licensed to improve their chances of gaining employment or earning opportunities. In this field, the most common credential is the “Registered Dietitian” certification or RD in short.
This certification is administered as well as continuously regulated by ACEND. To qualify for this certification, the candidate will need to have graduated with a bachelor’s degree in a related field before taking and passing the Registered Dietitian exam.
What stands out most about this field is that gaining the RD credential isn’t the only path to practicing professionally. Students who choose to go in any other direction, such as becoming a health or nutrition coach, clinical dietitian, or holistic nutritionist, can avoid this certification process altogether.
Becoming a holistic nutritionist, for example, only requires the candidate to have relevant post-secondary training where they are taught about traditional or natural ways in which they can help their clients improve their health.
While taking on the nutritionist certification isn’t exactly necessary in every state, it’s still an excellent idea. It may signal potential employers that the candidate’s know-how and training meet the agreed-upon minimum quality standard. This makes the student easier to hire.
Note: A licensed nutritionist, a certified dietitian, and an RDs aren’t the same thing despite these terms being often used interchangeably. There are many overlaps, but in many states, what individuals with these three qualifications can or are allowed to do differ greatly.
For example, a licensed nutritionist who has passed the certified nutrition specialist exam (CNS) and received a state-issued license can offer counsel and is an authoritative voice in public health matters. This means that they can help formulate public health policies at the state level.
Step 4: Attain Career Advancement By Earning a Master’s Degree
Much like certification in many states, a Master’s Degree isn’t exactly required for a career as a professional nutritionist. However, attaining one does open up a host of doors and opportunities for interested individuals.
For example, a nutrition specialist with a master’s degree could explore more or better opportunities in related roles such as becoming a nutrition researcher, specialized nutritionists, community educators, and policymaker.
The ACEND website has a number of excellent resources for candidates interested in pursuing advanced knowledge in this field by attaining a master’s degree and becoming a certified nutrition specialist (CNS).
Just as is the case with most professions, specializations tend to set the aspirant apart from the rest of the pack. People looking to go into more lucrative roles such as sports nutrition or looking to work for highly competitive employers need to attain as much certification and receive as much additional training as possible.
Differences Between a Nutritionist and a Dietitian
At first, aspiring professionals within the nutrition industry might get confused between what it means to be a nutritionist and what it means to be a dietitian. The main issue here is that these terms are often used interchangeably for good reasons. Both professionals study pretty much the same thing, and there are many overlaps within both professions.
However, a dietitian and a nutritionist are not the same people. While one can be both or the other, the roles involved in each profession differ slightly. Here are some of the main differences between a nutritionist and a dietitian:
The first difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist is that a dietitian tends to have more education under their belt, although this isn’t true for 100% of the cases. To understand these slight differences, the two terminologies and professions have to be observed separately.
A dietitian is an expert in dietetics, a branch of knowledge that is expressly concerned with diets and how it affects human health. For the most part, dietitians work with clients to develop a meal plan based on their medical needs or individual goals. To gain certification, a dietitian needs to attain the following certification:
- Bachelor’s Degree: This has to be in coursework that is approved by ACEND as well as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- Gain Supervised Experience: This has to be achieved at an accredited healthcare facility, a food corporation, or a community agency.
- Take and Pass a National Exam: The national exam is administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration
Once all these requirements are met, the qualified dietitian will be recognized by one of two names – a Registered Dietitian (RD) or a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). What’s more, every licensed dietitian is expected to maintain their board certification each year by continuing their professional education, which isn’t expressly required of nutritionists.
Technically, a nutritionist should at the very least have some kind of education in the field, however, since this particular field isn’t as regulated as that of dietitians. This means that anyone offering any kind of nutritional or diet-based advice can call themselves a nutritionist – even those without professional training.
That being said, most nutritionists are educated in related fields and have to go through a similar program as dietitians:
- Get a Bachelor’s Degree, preferably in a related field
- Gain supervised experience
However, there are nutritionists, especially sports nutritionists, who have advanced degrees and have gone through the testing and certification by associated boards to get the coveted title of Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS).
To gain this title, the applicant must first have a master’s degree either in nutrition or a related field and a minimum of 1,000 hours of supervised practical experience before sitting for an exam administered by the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists (CBNS). Only then can the candidate legally add the coveted CNS title to their names.
It should be stated that dietitians and nutritionists tend to work in different places in different capacities despite both these professionals promoting the similar goal of improving human health by giving excellent nutrition advice.
Common Dietitian Workplaces
Since dietitians are technically more educated, they tend to work in more sensitive areas such as medical settings. This could be in a hospital or a health clinic. In some cases, they also work in food service or are employed by various research institutions, including universities.
Here, the individual can either conduct specific research, teach as part of the faculty, or is directly responsible for addressing any public health issues related to nutrition and diet.
Furthermore, there is a branch of dietitians referred to as registered nutrition dietetic technicians. These individuals are typically recognized by the letters that come after their name − “NDTR” (nutrition dietetic technician, registered). They typically have an Associate’s Degree and commonly work with registered dietitians.
It’s not uncommon to find dietitians in more advanced or sensitive roles that could expand into insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and many other related areas in the healthcare industry.
Common Nutritionist Workplaces
In sharp contrast, nutritionists are often found in settings that are more commercial as opposed to medical. For the most part, you will find nutritionists working in places like health and fitness centers and companies that produce nutritional supplements.
A nutritionist’s main role in these positions is to provide dietary consultation; if they work directly with clients as a health coach, they can also help develop healthy meal plans that meet the client’s body and health goals.
Other typical nutritionist workplaces include large corporations with in-house cafeterias or health food restaurants where the nutritionist is tasked with coming up with workable menus for the clients and employees.
Finally, depending on the kind of advanced qualifications they have, it’s not uncommon to find a nutritionist working directly with most government agencies. In this capacity, they will be required to provide science-backed advice on general public health policies and come up with frameworks that promote a healthier, well-balanced society.
Other Nutrition Professionals
It should be noted that other nutritional professionals fall outside of these two main categories (dietitian and nutritionist). The Clinical Nutrition Certification Board offers certification to professionals who identify as CCN or certified clinical nutritionist certified to assess clients’ nutritional needs based on their specific health goals and lifestyles.
Holistic nutritionists and health coaches are also additional professions within this field that don’t require as much education or extensive training and certification processes. While dietitians have to go through and graduate with a bachelor’s degree, a health coach only needs to go through a few weeks of nutritional training provided by bodies like the American Council on Exercise.
Holistic nutritionists specializing in functional nutrition, on the other hand, have to complete a course offered by an institution that meets standards set forth by the National Association of Nutrition Professionals. In addition to that, they must have at least 500 hours of supervised experience before taking and passing an exam offered by the Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board.
As is the case with most professions, each state has its own licensure requirements for both dietitians and nutritionists alike. For the most part, however, some states only license trained and qualified dietitians. At the same time, many allow nutritionists who have been certified by any one of the credible boards to practice within their borders.
Dietitian and Nutritionist Job Outlook
Because about 33% of American adults are technically obese, it’s very clear that society needs qualified nutritionists and dietitians. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, this industry is expected to grow by about 11% and has a rather positive outlook going through to 2028.
As things stand now, there are about 71,000 professionals employed either as dietitians or nutritionists across the country. While qualifications and place of employment matter, the median salary for professionals in this field is about $61,270 per annum.
Skills a Successful Nutritionist Should Have
Even though dietitians are technically more educated than nutritionists in general, both sets of professionals tend to rely on a similar skillset to succeed. Here are some skills that nutritionists will need to have a successful career in the industry:
At its core, this industry is scientific. Both dietitians and nutritionists base most of their work on evidence and scientific knowledge to come up with effective meal plans and diets. As such, a thorough understanding of food science and how it relates to human biology and chemistry is necessary. Furthermore, professionals in this field are often called upon to read and interpret data which calls for statistical knowledge.
This is perhaps the one skill that is necessary for almost every profession across the globe. Nutritionists and dietitians need to have excellent communication skills. This is especially true for nutritionists who deal directly with clients and are employed as personal trainers or holistic nutritionists.
Those who have roles to play in public health settings also need to find ways to not only present their data in a simple enough manner, so it’s easy for the general, non-scientifically trained public to understand but also effectively communicate with other healthcare professionals who prefer technical jargon.
Empathy and Understanding
Dietitians and nutritionists often work with people who come from different cultures, backgrounds and who are suffering from highly specific medical or dietary conditions that, in many cases, are unique to them. When in such a profession, the ability to empathize and understand is crucial to maintaining a professional and effective relationship with the clients or public in general.
The term nutrition is quite broad and covers a host of disciplines within it. From registered dietitian nutritionists to dietetic technicians, these healthcare professionals are all looking to do the same thing − promote greater public health through the formulation and implementation of better eating habits. Individuals interested in this profession need to have the ability to zero in on their preferred specialization as opposed to simply generalizing their role as a “nutritionist.”
Becoming a nutritionist is easy enough and, in many cases, only requires one to take a short course. However, becoming a highly paid and highly effective professional in this field requires extensive training and ongoing education and certification. It is, however, a rather fulfilling line of work for those who are enthusiastic about food and health.