Nutritionist Career Guide

What is a Nutritionist?

When you think of a nutritionist, you might think of someone that understands food, health, nutrition, and dietary needs very well, and who uses that knowledge to help sick people make a faster recovery with the proper diet.

However, a nutritionist is much more than that. Not only do nutritionists advise their clients about what to eat, but they also help their clients manage long-term illness, disease, and injury with the appropriate diet.

Furthermore, nutritionists don’t just work with clients that are ill; instead, they also work with individuals and that simply wish to make healthier choices when it comes to the food they consume.

What Does a Nutritionist Do?

When evaluating what a nutritionist does, it’s easy to say that they use food as a means of helping people live healthier lives. However, this career involves much more than understanding what foods are good and bad for people.

Instead, nutritionists offer a complete range of services aimed at improving the health of others. Traditionally, nutritionists begin their work by assessing the needs of their clients by collecting valuable information about the client’s current health, health history, and establishing goals with the client for what they want their future health situation to be like.

After the assessment phase, nutritionists often provide food counseling to their clients. This typically takes the form of working with clients to help them understand the differences between healthy and unhealthy foods as well as educating clients on the types of eating habits that promote improved health.

At this point in the process, nutritionists then get into the meal planning stage. Though the primary driver of their planning is the health of their client, nutritionists have other factors to consider. For example, they will use information garnered from the assessment phase, like the types of foods that the client likes, and build the nutritional plan with those likes (and dislikes) in mind. It’s also important for nutritionists to plan meals bearing their clients’ budget in mind as well.

Related Reading: How to Become a Clinical Nutritionist

Furthermore, nutritionists use the latest research in nutritional science research to inform how they develop nutritional plans. This might include reading research journals or using information from their own research on nutrition to come up with menus for their clients that meet their individual needs as well as fulfill best practices in nutrition.

Another central component of a nutritionist’s job is to evaluate the efficacy of their nutrition plans. Naturally, if the meals they’ve planned for their clients aren’t generating the kind of changes they want or need to see, adjustments to the meal plan will be necessary. In that regard, this is very much an evidence-based process – nutritionists don’t just make blanket statements like “eat more vegetables,” but instead utilize science and data to determine how well their nutrition plans are working and how to adjust them if necessary.

Nutritionists don’t always work directly with clients, though. In some cases, they might work in the field of research to learn more about the benefits or detriments of certain types of foods. Likewise, many nutritionists utilize part of their time at work to delve into nutritional education. For example, a nutritionist might develop educational materials for children to help them learn about the value of certain food groups.

What is a Naturopathic Nutritionist?

A naturopathic nutritionist is a professional that uses both nutritional science and naturopathic techniques to inform how they develop nutritional planning. Since naturopathic nutrition revolves around the idea that the right foods can promote wellness and prevent sickness, much of what a naturopathic nutritionist does is treat their clients’ ailments with specific foods and diets.

The nutritional plans they devise seek to bring the body into better balance without introducing foreign substances like drug treatments. Additionally, these nutritionists are holistic in their practice, and strive to address their clients’ needs on a body, mind, and spiritual level.

What is the Difference Between a Nutritionist and a Dietitian?

Though nutritionists and dietitians have many things in common, not the least of which is the use of healthier eating habits to promote improved health, there are several distinguishing characteristics that set these professions apart from one another.

One of those differences is that while all dietitians are nutritionists, not all nutritionists are dietitians. Only nutritionists that have been certified by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) can call themselves dietitians. Otherwise, the term “nutritionist” is not a legally protected term, and in some cases, anyone that wishes to call himself or herself a nutritionist can do so.

The level of education required for each career is different as well. In some states, anyone can be a nutritionist, even without any formal training, whereas registered dietitians must have at least a bachelor’s degree. Furthermore, since the title of nutritionist isn’t legally protected in some states, there is much less regulation for nutritionists than for dietitians. That is, in some cases, a nutritionist might not need any kind of certification or licensure to practice, while to be a dietitian one must have the appropriate credentials.

What Do You Learn in a Nutritionist Training Program?

In a typical nutritionist training program, student learning will likely include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Organic chemistry, or the study of the structure and properties of carbon-based compounds.
  • Biochemistry, or the study of the chemical processes that occur in living things.
  • Anatomy, which is the study of the structure of biological systems and organs, like the cardiovascular system and the heart.
  • Physiology, in which students learn about the functions of organs within systems, such as learning about the role of the intestines in the process of digestion.
  • Psychology, which gives prospective nutritionists valuable insights into human behavior.
  • Research methods, or how to devise, implement, and evaluate research related to food and nutrition.
  • Food science, which brings in aspects of biochemistry, biology, and other scientific disciplines to better understand how to grow food, adapt food to our needs, and use food to improve nutrition.
  • Genetics, in which students learn how traits are related to one’s genetic makeup.
  • Health promotion, or the examination of how nutritionists and other professionals can promote healthier living among different populations.

How Do You Become a Nutritionist?

Educational Requirements

Because some states do not govern nutrition as a legally protected career, it is possible to become a nutritionist in some locations without any formal education at all.

However, the majority of states require nutritionists to have a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, dietetics, food service, or another closely related area in order to be licensed. These four-year programs typically require approximately 120 credit hours of study, the final 60 of which are concentrated in the area of study. Typical courses for students studying nutrition include food science, biology, health and fitness, and food service management.

Depending on the major area of study, classes at this level will have a slightly different theoretic orientation. For example, a bachelor’s degree program in food service would likely include several business courses that help students understand the economics of food and running a food-related business.

Conversely, a bachelor’s degree program in dietetics or nutrition would be focused more on the value of food and how to prepare food and plan meals to maximize the health and well-being of other people.

For more advanced studies, students can elect to pursue a master’s degree or doctoral degree in nutrition or a related field. A master’s degree might take anywhere from one to three years to complete, and focuses student attention more on the application of knowledge as opposed to classroom learning, though that is still a large component of master’s degree studies.

A doctoral program is even more advanced and represents more individualized learning than a bachelor’s or master’s program. For example, a doctoral student often works on independent research or a thesis that is related to an area of particular interest to them. They must then defend their work to a panel as part of their final studies before graduation. Doctoral degrees can take upwards of five years to complete, so it is a significant investment of both time and money.

Licensure Requirements

As noted above, some states do not regulate nutritionists, so there are locations in which licensure is not required. On the other end of the spectrum, some states require nutritionists to be licensed. There are multiple licensing boards for nutritionists, including the Commission on Dietetic Registration and the Certification Board of Nutrition Specialists. These bodies have different licensure requirements, but generally speaking, nutritionists might need to have verifiable educational credentials from an accredited post-secondary institution, demonstrate a satisfactory degree of continuing education, complete supervised training, and pass a licensure examination.

Nutritionist Certification Requirements

Like licensure, certification for nutritionists is not required in some states and is required in others. One of the most widely recognized certification bodies for nutritionists is the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB). To become certified by the CNCB, one must meet CNCB-approved course requirements, submit college transcripts for review, finish post-graduate courses in nutrition, and score satisfactorily on a written certification exam.

Are There Any Online Nutritionist Training Programs?

Online training programs in the field of nutrition are extremely popular. In fact, online education in nutrition is available for certificate programs, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees as well. Some of these programs are not accredited, however. To ensure that you get the best nutrition education, it’s important to ensure that the online nutritionist training program is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).

What Skills are Needed to Be a Nutritionist?

To be successful in this line of work, one must possess the following skills, traits, and qualities:

  • Applied food science – Nutritionists need to understand the properties of food and how different foods can be used to bring about healthier living for people of different ages and backgrounds.
  • Research skills – Nutritionists should be able to conduct evidence-based research and be consumers of quality research to drive their understanding of food science.
  • Understanding of human behavior – Nutritionists not only need a solid understanding of food and nutrition, but they also need to understand why people eat the foods they do and how to help people modify their behavior to eat a healthier diet.
  • Analytical skills – Much of what nutritionists do is problem solving. As such, they must possess the ability to analyze situations and data to devise solutions that enhance their client’s health and nutrition.
  • Communication skills – Having the ability to communicate in verbal and written forms is a must-have skill so nutritionists can work together with their clients to achieve goals.
  • Organization skills – Nutritionists often work with a large number of people, so having the ability to keep detailed and organized records is a must.
  • Evaluation skills – A large part of working as a nutritionist is evaluating the progress of clients and the effectiveness of nutritional plans.
  • Service oriented – Nutritionists work to help others improve their lives, so dedication to helping others is a top trait of successful nutritionists.
  • Empathy and understanding – Nutritionists must be able to have empathy for people that struggle with health-related issues that pertain to diet and nutrition.

Where Does a Nutritionist Work?

One of the perks of being a nutritionist is that there are many different employment settings available. Hospitals, by far, are the biggest employers of nutritionists. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that nearly one-third of all nutritionists are employed in a medical care facility, be that a hospital, inpatient care center, HMO, and the like.

Many nutritionists also work in outpatient care centers or rehabilitation settings. Likewise, nursing homes and residential treatment centers often employ nutritionists to provide high-quality and balanced meals to their clients.

Approximately 14 percent of nutritionists work for government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration. As noted earlier, nutritionists that work for government agencies typically focus on research as opposed to working directly with clients to help them improve their diet.

A final common workplace for nutritionists is to be self-employed. By working for oneself, a nutritionist can meet with clients, work with small groups, serve as an independent contractor for local agencies, and so forth, and set their own work schedule and pay scale as well.

What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Nutritionist?

As with any occupation, there are some benefits and detriments to consider. For nutritionists, the positives and negatives include:

  • Robust job growth – The job outlook for nutritionists is better than most occupations, which means finding jobs in the future should not be difficult for well-qualified nutritionists.
  • Plentiful employment settings – Being a nutritionist opens doors to many different types of work settings, from being self-employed to working in a hospital to working for state or federal organizations.
  • Good earning potential – One can make an excellent living, particularly if they work for larger organizations like outpatient treatment centers or hospitals.
  • Helping people – Working in nutrition means that you get to help people lead healthier, happier lives.
  • High job satisfaction – Nutritionists consistently report enjoying the work they do and feeling highly satisfied with their choice of career.
  • Flexible work schedule – For some professionals, the greatest benefit is being self-employed and being able to set one’s own schedule.
  • Nutritionist is not a legal title – Since some states don’t require nutritionists to have a particular type of education, training, or certification, you might have to work under a doctor, dietitian, or another health professional in order to practice.
  • Unclear licensure requirements – Licensure is controlled by states, with each state doing things a little differently. This can make it difficult to understand what you need to do to obtain or retain a license, or even if a license is required in the state in which you wish to practice.
  • Expanded education requirements for advancement – In some cases, nutritionists must pursue a higher degree of education and/or training in order to advance their career, which could represent a significant investment of time and money.

How Much Does a Nutritionist Make?

Though being a nutritionist isn’t among the top-earning careers in healthcare, there is still potential for a well-paying career. As of May 2017, the median annual salary for a nutritionist was $59,410.

One’s place of employment can significantly impact those earnings, though. For example, a nutritionist that’s employed in a nursing home can expect to make $57,020, or about $2,000 less than average. However, a nutritionist employed in an outpatient care center makes over $65,000 per year on average.

In terms of hourly wages, nutritionists make about $28.56 per hour, though those earnings can be as low as $17.74 per hour and as high as $39.94 per hour.

What is Job Outlook for Nutritionists?

Like many careers in the healthcare-related field, the job outlook for nutritionists is quite strong. According to a 2016 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nutritionists can expect job growth in the 15 percent range through 2026.

This stronger-than-average job growth can be attributed to a number of factors. First, with a recent shift towards wellness and health promotion instead of just reacting to poor health, many individuals are taking the steps necessary to live healthier lives. That often means adjusting their diet, for which consultation with a nutritionist is a good idea.

Secondly, the nutrition field is booming because of the continued prevalence of obesity, particularly in the United States. In an effort to combat obesity and its ill effects on people, public entities and private organizations are seeking the guidance of nutritionists to learn how to help people eat better for improved health.

Lastly, there are more older people in the U.S. than ever before, and with that segment of the population getting larger and larger, nutritionists are in high demand to help ensure that older adults get the nutrition they need to remain healthy throughout their later years.

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