Got a passion for health, diet and nutrition? Then learn how to become a nutritionist and spend your life mastering the skill of improving physical health and helping others to do the same through a career as a certified nutritionist. In this guide we will look at exactly how to become a nutritionist, as well as, how to become a dietitian (a nutritionist certified to treat clinical conditions). We will also answer questions such as ‘how long does it take to become a nutritionist?’, ‘what kind of salary can I expect to make as a nutritionist or dietitian?’, ‘what type of person tends to do well as a nutritionist?’ and more. Let’s dig in (pun intended!).
What Does a Nutritionist Do?
Nutritionists help their clients create comprehensive dietary plans that can help them achieve their health and nutrition-related goals. Nutritionists will assess food choices and eating habits and make recommendations for constructive change, which may help their clients better manage health problems like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, autoimmune disease, food allergies, and heart disease. They may also consult with individuals looking to improve their dietary habits as a form of preventive medicine, or may be hired to work with younger people to teach them good nutritional habits at early ages. A nutritionist will meet with their clients regularly, to monitor their progress and receive feedback about any obstacles or difficulties the clients may be encountering.
People who choose to pursue careers as nutritionists will have many options to consider, since the field features a wide variety of potential employers and diverse working environments. Depending on their qualifications and training, nutritionists may be hired by hospitals, outpatient clinics, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, schools, social service agencies, sports organizations, private corporations, spas or wellness retreats, fitness centers, community organizations, or individual employers.
How Much Does a Nutritionist Make?
Individuals employed within the dietitian (also spelled dietician) and nutritionist sector earned a yearly mean salary of $61,270 in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those who found employment in outpatient care clinics were the highest-paid by location within the profession, enjoying an annual mean wage of $68,000.
Medical practitioners, their patients, and society as a whole have become more conscious of the benefits of a nutrition-centered approach to health management and maintenance. Consequently, employment opportunities for qualified nutritionists have been rising nationwide for the last several years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the demand for nutritionists will rise by eight percent between 2019 and 2029, which is double the growth rate for all job categories combined.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Nutritionist?
Post high school, becoming a nutritionist can take anywhere from two to eight years, depending on which school path you take (certificate, associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree) and which state you live in.
If you already have a bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject, it is possible for you to become employed as a nutritionist in as little as six months, but a more likely time frame is one to two years.
Read on for details and to be able to find a more precise answer for yourself the question of how long does it take to become a nutritionist.
How to Become a Nutritionist: A Step-by-Step Guide
Here is our step-by-step guide on how to get into a career in nutrition. While we will address how to become a nutritionist without a degree (and instead with a certificate program), long-term you will almost certainly have better results and command a higher salary if you pursue at least an associate’s degree or, ideally, a bachelor’s degree.
Step 1: Obtain a College Degree
Your first step on your way to a career as a nutritionist is to seek a certificate, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree in a relevant specialty or subject area.
While there are some academic programs available that award a degree in nutrition specifically, most universities will offer training and education appropriate for nutritionists under a variety of labels. As you investigate different schools, you may see programs that offer degrees in:
- Food Science
- Nutritional Science
- Health and Wellness
- Food and Nutritional Science
- Applied Dietetics
- Nutrition and Exercise Physiology
- Nutrition and Dietetics
- Health Science
- Nutritional Education
- Family and Consumer Sciences/Nutrition
Despite the slight differences in themes and emphasis, all of these degree programs will prepare you to launch your career as a nutritionist. Assuming you complete a bachelor’s degree program, they will also provide you with the credentials you need to pursue a master’s degree in nutrition or a related area, which you will need to do if you want to become certified or licensed as a nutritionist or dietitian-nutritionist in some states.
Certificate and associate degree programs are offered at many institutions of higher learning, and are often available in an online format. These are legitimate choices if you plan to work as a nutritionist in non-medical settings, and/or in states that allow you to assume the title of nutritionist without being licensed or certified. However, if want to keep all your options open, with regards to work environments and certification or licensing, you should enroll in a four-year bachelor’s degree program.
Step 2: Gain Supervised Work Experience
To qualify for various types of certification or long-term employment, you’ll need to gain supervised pre-professional work experience with an institution that offers nutritional counseling. While you might gain some practical experience during college-level internships, it is normal for aspiring nutritionists to seek these supervised work experience/internship opportunities after they’ve completed their four-year degree programs.
In general, you’ll be able to find internships through the same types of organizations, institutions, or agencies that hire nutritionists on a full-time basis (hospitals, outpatient clinics, corporations, holistic wellness centers, sports medicine institutes, gyms or fitness centers, etc.). These pre-professional training programs will generally take from six-to-nine months to complete if you work full-time, although some programs will allow interns to work on a part-time basis.
To be qualified to take the certification exams available for nutritionists, you’ll usually need to have completed between 900 and 1,200 hours of supervised work experience in a professional environment, in addition to holding at least a bachelor’s degree.
About half the states have no licensing or certification requirements for those who want to call themselves nutritionists. But regardless of where you look for jobs, most potential employers will expect you to possess a college degree (preferably a bachelor’s degree), and they will want to see proof that you’ve had a significant amount of supervised work experience in the recent past.
Step 3: Seek Initial Employment as a Nutritionist (if You Plan to Work in a State with No Licensing or Certification Requirements)
If you plan to work in a state that doesn’t have licensing or certification requirements for nutritionists, you could start searching for full-time employment once your internship/pre-professional work experience program is complete.
Jobs for trained nutritionists may be listed under alternative or more specialized labels. Depending on your interest and previous experience, you might find employment as a holistic nutritionist, a food science specialists, a dietitian, a sports nutritionist, a wellness consultant, or a health coach, to list just a few of the possibilities.
As an alternative to seeking immediate employment after finishing your internship, you could try to improve your resume by adding voluntary certifications that would verify your knowledge about nutrition and food science. In many instances, your internship or pre-professional work experience would be sufficient to qualify you to take certification exams.
Step 4: Become Certified and/or Licensed at the State and National Levels (and How to Become a Registered Dietitian)
You won’t have to carry any certifications or a license to become a practicing nutritionist in the United States. But you will have to be certified and/or licensed to call yourself a nutritionist in 23 states and the District of Columbia.
You’ll need 900 hours or more of supervised work experience, plus a bachelor’s or master’s degree, to sit for most state-level certification or licensing exams. Should you pass those exams and receive your certification or license, you’ll have to take continuing education courses on an annual basis to maintain your status.
There are several nationally recognized certification programs that offer additional options for adding credentials to your resume. While none are mandatory in any location, all can increase your chances of finding employment as a nutritionist.
The types of certification available include:
- Certified Nutritional Consultant (CNC). This certification is offered by the American Association of Nutritional Consultants (AANC), and can be achieved by the successful completion of an extensive exam given to those who join the AANC. No experience in the field is necessary, making the CNC certificate ideal for self-styled and self-taught nutrition specialists.
- Board Certification in Holistic Nutrition (BCHN). If they have a postsecondary degree from a holistic nutrition program and have completed 500 hours of supervised work experience, aspiring holistic health nutritional counselors can take the BCHN certification exam, which is made available by the National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP).
- Certified Nutritional Professional (CNP). Holistic nutritionists with bachelor’s degrees or higher can sit for the NANP’s CNP exam, after they’ve gained 1,200 hours of supervised work experience to complement their academic credentials.
- Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN). This certification is for individuals who have a bachelor’s degree or higher and want to offer nutritional counseling in hospitals, clinics, or other medical facilities. Applicants for the CCN exam will need 900 hours of previous supervised work experience and they’ll have to complete a special online postgraduate studies program offered by the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB), which sponsors this certification.
- Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist (RDN). Learn how to become a dietician – A registered dietitian/nutritionist will have an educational background in both dietetics and nutrition, with their experience in the former category qualifying them to offer nutritional advice in a medical and treatment-related context. To sit for the RDN exam, you’d need a bachelor’s or master’s degree from a program approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND), and also have 1,200 hours of supervised experience in an ACEND-approved internship or pre-professional work program.
These credentials will boost your employment chances in any state, regardless of their certification requirements.
Step 5: Seek Initial Employment as a Nutritionist (if You Plan to Work in a State that Requires Licensing or Certification)
Once you’ve passed your certification or licensing exam in a state that requires one of them, you’ll be free to seek any type of employment you’d like in your chosen field. You’ll be officially recognized as a licensed or certified professional nutritionist in that state, and you’ll be allowed to use that title before and after you’ve obtained a position.
Step 6: Obtain a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Studies (if Necessary)
There are currently seven states where you must possess a master’s degree in nutritional science, nutritional education, nutrition and dietetics, or a related discipline in order to qualify to become a licensed or certified nutritionist: Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, and Minnesota.
Even if you don’t plan to work as a licensed nutritionist in one of these states, you could still benefit from obtaining a master’s degree in nutritional studies. Having this designation could qualify you for administrative or teaching positions, or give you an advantage over the competition in the contest for promotions.
Step 7: Seek Initial Employment as a Nutritionist (if You Plan to Work in a State that Requires a Master’s Degree to Qualify for a License or Certificate)
Should you decide to pursue a career as a nutritionist in a state that requires a master’s degree to sit for its certification or licensing exam, you may have to wait six years or more before you can make your debut as a professional nutritionist. But with your master’s degree in hand, you’ll be qualified to apply for positions that are well above entry-level, starting on the first day of your job search.
Pros and Cons of a Career as a Nutritionist
Pros of Becoming a Nutritionist
As a highly trained healthcare professional, you’ll have an opportunity to help willing clients make dramatic and noticeable improvements in their lives. Motivated men and women can complete profound life transitions with the assistance of a trained nutritionist, reaffirming to the nutritionist just how valuable their knowledge and services can be. If you enjoy working with people, becoming a nutritionist is an ideal career choice, since your success will depend on your ability to form constructive and rewarding one-on-one relationships with individuals who really need your help. A nutritionist who has been properly trained and prepared has a broad choice of potential employers to choose from, and with the demand for nutritionists continuing to rise there is a good likelihood you’ll be able to secure the type of position you covet relatively early in your career.
Cons of Becoming a Nutritionist
At times, the work of a nutritionist can be discouraging. Many of your clients will follow your advice and recommendations, but others will not, or will only do so part of the time, and it can be disheartening to see people struggle to change their self-sabotaging nutritional habits. In some instances you may work with people who have serious health challenges to overcome, and even if they make constructive changes in their diets you may be disappointed that your work doesn’t have a larger impact. Nutritionists do make good salaries, but they may be somewhat under-compensated, given the impact of their work and the amount of time they must invest in training and education to reach their ultimate career goals.
Important Characteristics of a Successful Nutritionist
Extroverts and introverts can both find success and career satisfaction as nutritionists. But regardless of their personality type, nutritionists must truly enjoy working with people, in intimate settings where the communication is direct, open, and honest. The best nutritionists serve as advisers, counselors, and advocates, and their genuine concern for the health and welfare of their clients will shine through in all their interactions.
Beyond their general interest in people, the top nutritionists are highly effective communicators. They are eager, engaged, personable, and passionate about the subject matter, and they’re able to pass their enthusiasm for their mission on to those who can benefit the most from their guidance. Always aware of the challenges involved in communicating science-based insights to laypersons, the best nutritionists do an excellent job of breaking their nutritional knowledge down into easily comprehensible and digestible bites of action-inducing information. They consider it their sacred responsibility to educate and motivate their clients, and they will spend a considerable amount of time honing their verbal and written presentations to make sure they are clear and effective.
While being passionate and knowledgeable is important, this won’t matter if a nutritionist is unable to develop carefully crafted plans of action that their clients will be willing to follow. That is why the most successful nutritionists are highly organized, detail-oriented people who aren’t satisfied to limit their advice to vague or overly general recommendations. They will listen very closely to what they’re clients tell them, and work closely with those clients to develop seven-day, three-meal-per-day eating plans that are precisely designed, easy-to-follow, and enjoyable to consume from the client’s perspective. The best nutritionists are willing to offer recipe advice, food preparation tips, and other personalized assistance that increases the odds that their clients will stay compliant and follow their meal plans to the letter.
In this guide we took a deep dive in learning how to become a certified nutritionist, how to become a registered dietitian if you already have a degree, how long does it take to become a nutritionist and more. In the future, we plan to add how to guide for nutrition specializations such as, how to become a holistic nutritionist. By now you should have a fairly good feel for what it will take you to enter this profession and if you are likely to enjoy and excel as a nutritionist. Stay healthy and we wish you success on your career journey!
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