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How to Become a Nutritionist
As the nation grapples with rising obesity rates and an increased prevalence in disease and chronic illness, many policy makers, medical experts and families have placed renewed emphasis on healthy eating. From the national Let’s Move initiative, launched by the White House, to local community health efforts, programs large and small have been focused on helping Americans make smart choices regarding their food and nutrition.
In the middle of it all are nutritionists who play an integral role in helping spur healthy changes. If you want a meaningful career, keep reading to learn more about how you can make a positive impact in the lives of others.
The difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian
Before learning how to become a nutritionist, you must first understand the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian. Both careers share a similar goal: to create healthy families and communities by promoting proper nutrition. However, each profession has different education and certification requirements.
The term dietitian refers to individuals who have been credentialed as a registered dietitian nutritionist by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. To receive that designation, individuals must earn a bachelor’s degree through an approved program, complete an internship including at least 1,200 hours of supervised, practical experience and pass the Registration Examination for Dietitians.
On the other hand, the term nutritionist is not regulated in same way and, depending on state laws, may apply to individuals with a wide range of educational backgrounds and experience.
According to the Center for Nutrition Advocacy, current state laws vary significantly with some only allowing registered dietitian nutritionists to provide individualized nutrition counseling while others allow individuals of any background to provide nutrition advice.
- 15 states require individuals be registered dietitians to provide individualized nutrition counseling.
- 6 states require individuals be licensed to provide individualized nutrition counseling, but licensure is open to those who are not registered dietitians.
- 18 states do not require individuals be licensed to provide individualized nutrition counseling, but only registered dietitians are recognized by the government and that may affect insurance reimbursements.
- 11 states do not require individuals be licensed to provide individualized nutrition counseling although insurance companies may limit who they reimburse as service providers.
Roles and responsibilities
While all nutritionists help individuals make smart eating choices, they may work in a variety of capacities and settings including the following.
- Nursing homes
- Government agencies
Within these settings, they may be responsible for counseling individual patients on how to plan meals, select nutritious ingredients and track progress toward health goals. They may also advise institutions on how to develop cafeteria programs that offer well-rounded meals or meet specialized dietary restrictions.
In addition, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 11 percent of nutritionists and dietitians are self-employed. These individuals may work as consultants to businesses or take on individual clients who need help navigating how best to meet their nutritional needs.
Salary and career outlook
The BLS estimates jobs for nutritionists and dietitians will grow nationwide by 21 percent between 2012 and 2022 which is much faster than the average for all occupations during that time period. However, demand varies by state.
The following states are expected to have the greatest percentage growth in jobs for nutritionists and dietitians from 2010 through 2022, according to state labor department data.
- Texas: 30.1 percent
- Utah: 29.9 percent
- Colorado: 28.2 percent
- Kentucky 27.6 percent
- District of Columbia: 25.8 percent
In 2013, the BLS found average annual wages for nutritionists and dietitians across the U.S. was $56,300. Incomes were highest in California and Nevada, where average wages were $71,870 and $70,580, respectively.
Degrees for nutritionists
While the BLS notes most nutritionists have a bachelor’s degree, educational opportunities are available at all post-secondary levels.
- Certificates : Certificate programs may be offered at the undergraduate or graduate level. Undergraduate certificates may serve as an introduction to the field of nutrition or supplement the education of personal trainers, coaches and health care professionals. Graduate certificates may be more appropriate for current nutritionists who want to specialize or otherwise gain expertise in a particular area.
- Associate degree : Full-time students can typically earn an associate degree in about two years. They may then be eligible to move into entry-level positions or apply their credits toward a bachelor’s degree in the field.
- Bachelor’s degree : Employers may prefer nutrition professionals who have at least a bachelor’s degree. With this level of education, which typically takes at least four years to complete, nutritionists should have a strong understanding of anatomy, physiology, health and disease. After graduation, students may be employed by health care facilities, outpatient clinics or other settings or choose to be self-employed.
- Master’s degree : A master’s degree is a graduate degree appropriate for those wishing learn advanced concepts or teach at the undergraduate level. Most master’s degree programs can be completed in two years.
- Doctoral degree: The very highest level of education available is a doctoral degree. Marked by several years of intense study and often capped with a dissertation, a doctoral degree may lead to a career in research or higher education.
Although professionals may earn their degree specifically in nutrition, there are a number of related fields that can also lead to becoming a nutritionist. These include degrees in dietetics, clinical nutrition, foods and nutrition and food service management systems.
As mentioned previously, nutritionists are not regulated in the same manner as dietitians. However, even in states where licensure is not required, nutritionists may find it beneficial to pursue voluntary certification.
Professional organizations and industry groups, such as the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists, administer certification programs. These include the following designations:
- Certified Nutritional Specialist
- Certified Clinical Nutritionist
- Certified Nutritionist
- Certified Nutritional Consultant
If you want to become a nutritionist, a voluntary certification is one way to show your mastery of nutrition concepts.
With the right training and experience, you too can have a fulfilling career helping others enrich their lives through good food, healthy habits and balanced nutrition.
Student Center, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,
Description of Degrees/Credentials, American Nutrition Association,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition. Dietitians and Nutritionists,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics. Dietitians and Nutritionists, May 2013,
State Map of Current Laws, Center for Nutrition Advocacy,
Dietitian vs. Nutritionist, DC Metro Area Dietitian Association,
Academics, Huntington College of Health Sciences,
Long Term Occupational Projections, Projections Central,
Online Certificate Programs, Tufts University,
Certificate in Food, Nutrition and Health, University of Washington,
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