How to Become a Nutritionist

Good nutrition is more important to our society than ever before. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one-third of American adults have the disease known as obesity. This condition predisposes people to metabolic syndrome, which later brings diabetes, stroke, heart attack and cancer, the most common killers in Western countries.

Given this, it is more important than ever to add to the nucleus of effort building around the idea that proper nutrition is not only attainable, it is crucial. If you’re such a person, and you believe in helping people reach their best selves through diet and fitness, becoming a nutritionist might just be the job for you.

Today, let’s talk everything you need to know to get started down this path. We’ll discuss some basic definitions, talk about what a day in the life looks like as well as the job outlook, then consider the nitty-gritty of programs and licensure. All this is with the goal of helping you get a job as a nutritionist as quickly and easily as possible, so you can begin helping others today.

What Is a Nutritionist?

Nutritionists, along with their close cousins dietitians, help to improve their clients’ health through evaluation of their current lifestyles and recommended fixes to diet, exercise and other habits. In addition to advising which foods to eat and habits to instill, nutritionists also help clients identify bad foods and behaviors and cut them out of their lives.

A nutritionist’s job is to tailor plans to individual clients that work with their specific background and needs. They will take into account issues such as:

  • Blood sugar and blood pressure
  • Weight
  • Allergies and sensitivities
  • Dietary preferences
  • Lifestyle and type of work
  • Preferred exercise types
  • Diseases

… and more. Each of these factors helps a nutritionist understand what an individual client needs, and craft a plan that will work with their lifestyle. Some clients have serious issues, such as heart disease, that they need to address before they experience negative or fatal repercussions. Other clients just want to get as healthy as possible. Nutritionists help clients at either end of the spectrum.

A Day in the Life of a Nutritionist

The type of nutritionist you come to be, the clinical setting in which you practice and the patients which with you work will all influence what daily life looks like. However, as a general rule, nutritionists do have several things in common.

Firstly, they all speak with patients on a one-on-one basis to determine their lifestyle, nutritional and health needs. They will then counsel patients on how best to update their lifestyles for the sake of health, helping them develop meal plans, evaluate their effectiveness, adjust approaches, and supplement those dietary goals with fitness and lifestyle advice. Typically in the course of a day, a nutritionist will see a range of clients, fill out paperwork and comply with any regulations necessary to keep practicing.

Secondly, they may work with larger groups of people. This can include in school settings, public talks, health clinics, hospitals and more. These talks are typically geared toward helping people understand how to take better care of their health and make the dietary and lifestyle choices that will lead to long-term health. Explanation of how poor health contributes to negative outcomes may also be part of this.

Job Outlook

The average salary for nutritionists and dietitians, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $57,910 per year, which breaks down to $27.84 per hour. Keep in mind that this number is an average for all people working in this field, so you will likely make less than this starting out, but can increase your income to significantly more than this if you stay in the field for several years.

Where you work also influences how much you make. Nutritionists who work in outpatient care centers make the most, at an average $62,330 per year. Those who work in accommodation and food services, on the other hand, make a little less: $54,770 annually. These differences are small enough, however, that you can safely ignore them and pursue the type of nutritionist work that most appeals to and fulfills you.

It’s a good time to join the nutrition field in terms of jobs. The number of nutritionist and dietitian jobs as of 2014 was 66,700, and that number is growing at a rate of 16 percent … much faster than the total job market. Therefore, getting trained and licensed as a nutritionist is a great career move right now.

Types of Nutritionists

There are multiple types of nutritionists as well as their closely related counterparts, dietitians (we will discuss the exact differences between these two professions in the section below). The main types of roles include:

  • Certified Nutrition Specialist: One of the most common nutritionist positions, this role requires a master’s degree or PhD as well as 1,000 hours of supervised training. People who earn this degree are able to work in community clinics, private practice and other health settings.
  • Certified Clinical Nutritionist: This title requires a bachelor’s degree and extensive clinical training (900 hours), as well as a master’s degree. It enables degree-holders to work in private practice or in specialized clinics.
  • Holistic Nutritionist: While many nutritionists follow USDA guidelines, holistic practitioners tend to orient themselves to Eastern medicine, herbs and other more traditional remedies. Training for this type of role usually occurs at specialized holistic colleges.
  • Diplomat of the American Clinical Board of Nutrition: Diplomats typically use this certification as a way to boost clinical practice or chiropractic services. This title requires a PhD and a two-part exam.
  • Certified Nutritionist: Perhaps the easiest type of nutritionist career to realize, a certified nutritionist completes a short distance learning program (averaging six courses), passes an exam and can then go to work.

Whatever type of nutritionist you choose to become, you should talk to the director of a program before deciding which route to take. They can help you think through schooling time, potential careers and additional factors before you decide.

Difference Between a Nutritionist and a Dietician

Before we go any further, it’s important to note that legally, there is a big difference between a dietician and a nutritionist. While the title “dietitian” is regulated by most state laws, “nutritionist” typically is not.

This is not to say that nutritionists don’t usually have degrees, or that the field is populated with quacks. To the contrary, most professionals using the title of nutritionist have a great deal of schooling and experience, as evidenced by the considerable amounts of education reflected in the above types of nutritionists. We are merely pointing out that it is possible to legally adopt the title without much in the way of training, but this route is best avoided.

We will talk further about regulations regarding use of the title dietitian and the practice of dietetics. For now, it’s enough to understand that while you may call yourself a nutritionist with little schooling, you likely will not get the kinds of clients and recognition you’d ideally like in your career without a serious multi-year education from an accredited institution. It’s better to pursue a degree in nutrition.

Necessary Degrees

You can find specifics about the types of degrees you need to work in various nutrition fields and settings, and to use various titles. For the most part, however, nutritionists need only a bachelor’s degree to practice in most public clinical and medical settings. In order to practice in private practice or private clinical settings, you may need to earn a master’s degree.

No matter which of these degrees you decide to pursue, they focus on the same general topics: clinical nutrition, public health nutrition, foods and nutrition or dietetics. Food systems management is another route you might take, helping steer the course of food in schools, hospitals and other facilities.

Nutrition Programs

Depending on your interests, location, the length of schooling you wish to undergo and other factors, you have a variety of program types at your fingertips. Most of these programs cover the topics of nutrition, psychology, anatomy and physiology, chemistry and biology. There are two main approaches to schooling, traditional programs that take place at institutions of higher learning, and online programs that allow you to learn from anywhere.

Traditional Programs

There are many nutrition programs at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels. In order to earn a bachelor’s degree, all you need is a high school diploma. To move on to the higher levels, you need to have earned a bachelor’s degree, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be in nutrition or dietetics.

If you do pursue these programs without a degree in those fields, however, you will likely have to complete a number of prerequisites. Not all doctoral degrees require you have a master’s degree; some will allow you to enroll with just a bachelor’s degree, again with the requirement that you possess the right prerequisites.

Traditional programs are perfect for people planning to go to a two- or four-year college anyway, while those who already have family or work commitments will likely appreciate the flexibility of online schooling.

Online Programs

Online programs allow you to work from home, the library, coffee shops or other settings and to complete schooling on a schedule that works for you. Depending on the level of mastery you wish to attain, many distance education programs can be fully completed online, along with the examination.

Other online programs, however, require that you spend some time on campus and in clinical settings. Typically to earn a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree, you will need to spend some time physically present in these settings. Online degrees are often cheaper as well. Which approach you choose depends on your age, work, family responsibilities and other factors.

Internships

To work as a nutritionist, it is not legally necessary to complete an internship. Some school programs may list that as a requirement to earn the degree, however, while some titles (such as the Certified Nutrition Specialist and Certified Clinical Nutritionist) have significant clinical hour requirements.

You may also choose to complete an internship to make applying for jobs easier. Many potential employers may be more likely to hire you if you have the experience that comes with spending time in a nutritionist setting and has given you a chance to hone your skills in the field.

Possibilities include the USDA Food and Nutrition Service Student Internship Program and the Institute of Holistic Nutrition’s Overseas Apprenticeship Program. These are, of course, just a few examples; you can do your own research or talk to a program director, who will be able to help you find other options.

Licensure

Licensure is a major part of working as a certified nutritionist as well as a dietitian. Requirements vary by state, so contact the agency that regulates licensure in your state. They will be able to point you toward the right licensure examinations and paperwork to ensure you’re properly approved to work in your state under the title you wish to use.

Getting a Job as a Nutritionist

Considering the fast rate of growth in the nutrition field right now, it most likely won’t be that difficult for you to get a job working as a nutritionist as long as you have the right education. In order to make getting a job easier and more likely, it’s still best practice to follow these recommendations:

  • Choose a school focus that provides you with a unique and marketable skill set.
  • Consider pursuing additional training in the field through an internship or apprenticeship.
  • Be willing in the beginning to work long hours, as well as nights and weekends, and perhaps even move to a more conducive location, in order to make seeing you easier for clients.
  • Follow trends in the nutrition industry to stay well informed

If you check off the above list and follow the other recommendations listed in this article, chances are good you will see great success as a nutritionist. Best of luck to you in your new career!

Written by Robert Sanchez
Robert Sanchez is HealthGrad.com's Chief Editorialist. Robert Sanchez has over 10 years experience in the Healthcare field and more recently has become an avid writer advising on career and job topics in this exciting field.

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