Nutritionists understand what types of food are best for producing specific health effects in the human body. They can examine an individual’s lifestyle and biological makeup to determine which diets can improve their lifestyle or elicit results compatible with their specific conditions.
Acquiring all the skills involved in this takes time, and even though all nutritionists have the same underlying function, they take different paths to become one.
What’s more, there often needs to be more clarity regarding who a nutritionist is, who a dietician is, and whether or not they are the same.
This is why, in this guide, we’ll look at everything you need to know about becoming a dietician and nutritionist, including necessary credentials, education, licensing requirements, and more.
Nutritionists vs. Dietitians - Is there a Difference?
Before you learn how to become a nutritionist or dietician, you must understand the distinction between the two. You see, the term “nutritionist” is an umbrella term for nutrition professionals in general.
These professionals have different fields of specialization and varying levels of education and licensing.
Registered dieticians are nutritionists who have attained a certain level of education and licensure. That is, while anybody who finishes a certificate program in nutrition can be technically referred to as a nutritionist, it takes much more to be considered a registered dietitian.
To become a registered dietitian, you need to earn a degree from an institution accredited by ACEND (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics), along with a few other requirements, which we’ll discuss in detail later in the coming sections.
How to Become a Nutritionist - Available Options
Depending on how far you’re willing to go, which state you choose to practice, and where you wish to work, there are a few avenues you may consider on your way to becoming a nutritionist. We take a look at some of the most popular options below.
Complete a Certificate/Associate Program
You don’t necessarily need a bachelor’s degree to become a nutritionist. For example, those who have worked as fitness instructors or in other areas of healthcare only need an associate degree or certificate program to become nutritionists.
There are also certificate programs like vocational schools where aspiration nutritionists learn the basics of nutrition and nutrition counseling and start practicing in states where degrees are not needed.
It is worth mentioning that while these programs are good at what they do, there are better options for those who wish to work in a traditional healthcare setting.
Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
Earning a bachelor’s degree is usually the conventional way of starting a career as a nutritionist. Bachelor’s degree programs typically take four years and can be obtained in any health-related field, such as food science, nutrition, biology, dietetics, or biochemistry.
While, as mentioned above, no rule says a nutritionist must have a bachelor’s degree, most employers like to look out for those who have completed degree programs.
It is also imperative to ensure that the program you enroll in is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).
Earn a Master’s Degree
A master’s degree is also not necessary to become a nutritionist. Still, it is crucial for those who wish to work in education, a clinical setting, or as a researcher in the field.
Master’s degree programs take two to three years and pay close attention to topics in biostatistics, nutrition therapy, molecular biology, public policy, and more.
Additionally, those who graduate in a program accredited by the Certification Board of Nutrition Specialists may earn the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential, a symbol of advanced knowledge in the field.
Additional Steps to Become a Nutritionist
Obtain Work Experience
Work experience is a significant licensing requirement in many states, and as such, it is wise to start gaining some experience under your belt as soon as possible.
The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics usually has resources to help match individuals into appropriate internship programs so that they can gain needed work experience.
They also have resources on licensing requirements and career advancement.
Licensing requirements vary from state to state. Some states do not need licensing at all. However, for most states where licensing is required, obtaining a bachelor’s degree is usually at the top of the list of requirements.
Additionally, while not all states require licensing, it is still a positive signal to employers that you have undergone significant training at a very high standard.
Lastly, most state-issued licenses allow nutritionists to offer counsel. As such, they also tend to require an individual to possess a master’s degree and to pass the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) exam.
Certificate programs are not the same as certifications. While certificate programs teach fundamentals that allow an individual to be considered a nutritionist, certification credentials are administered by professional organizations and are signs of advanced specialization.
Examples of certifications in several fields of nutrition include the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) certification mentioned earlier, the Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN) certification, the Nutrition and Dietetics Technician (NDTR), and the Registered Dietician certification, among others.
Becoming a Registered Dietician
Becoming a registered dietitian involves fulfilling a handful of robust requirements that qualify one for the Registered Dietician certification. One of these requirements is having a bachelor’s degree, which must come from an ACEND-accredited institution, and another is obtaining 1200 hours of supervised experience in an ACEND-accredited practice.
Candidates must also pass a multiple-choice CDR examination with a scaled score of at least 25 out of 50 questions. Finally, candidates must complete 75 continuing education credits every five years.
Meeting the above requirements in most states will also qualify one for licensure. Some states, however, have even more conditions that must be met.
Additional specializations are also available for registered dietitians who wish to acquire more knowledge and increase their pay.