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Nutritionist How to become, career path, income potential

What is a nutritionist?

The primary role of a nutritionist is to advise people on what foods to eat. They can help clients and patients achieve health goals and offer nutrition advice. If people are looking for assistance to battle fatigue or lose weight, a nutritionist can help develop meal plans.

Creating meal plans that help people reach health and fitness goals is one of the most common roles of nutritionists. An education in nutrition gives them the necessary expertise to help manage dietary restrictions and food intolerances and help people still get all the essential vitamins and minerals to stay healthy. Nutritionists also help take medical assessments from doctors and give some ways to implement the suggestions in daily routines.

Nutritionists are often mixed up with dieticians, and it’s understandable. All dieticians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dieticians. Each state has a board or agency that reviews the requirements to become licensed as one or the other, so the qualifications and job duties vary a bit. In some states, nutritionists can be covered by health insurance and help to treat certain health conditions, but in others, they are only allowed to consult and educate. 

Qualifications and eligibility

Aspiring nutritionists will need to check on the requirements for their specific state. Each one is different. Bachelor’s degree is not required for all positions and all locations, but it’s a great starting place for anyone interested in this career path. There are also graduate degrees to further education and plenty of certifications and specific courses to learn about particular illnesses and diets. 

In addition to education, a few qualities are important for nutritionists. The willingness to help others is the most important. Organization and communication are also crucial in this role, especially when managing multiple clients, all with different needs and backgrounds. 

Work environment

The work environment for nutritionists can vary quite a bit depending on the employer. Many are in healthcare facilities, like hospitals and long-term healthcare facilities. Depending on the specific function, these environments can range from calm and quiet to hectic and stressful. Other typical workplaces for nutritionists include government offices, schools, and companies in the food industry. 

Client-facing nutritionists will meet with many people throughout the day, either one-on-one or with a group. Those working in an office will spend their days doing more research and reporting to large groups in meetings and presentations. In either case, there is a good mixture of sitting, working at a computer, and moving between sessions. 

Typical work hours

For nutritionists, the average work week is usually around 40 hours. The days and hours will depend on the needs of your clients and place of employment. Hospitals and nursing homes may need a nutritionist on staff for weekends and different shifts, but most of the consultations and meetings can occur during regular business hours.

Athletic teams and schools with a nutritionist on staff may have some seasonality based on schedules. During the off-season, more or less work may be required, so the hours may change a little more in these roles.

Income

Salaries and income are based on experience, education, and location. It’s hard to track exact numbers for the first two variables, but the BLS reports on the highest-paying states for nutritionists. Here are the top 5 with the annual mean wage shown:

  • California – $82,380
  • District of Columbia – $80,600
  • Hawaii – $75,020
  • New Jersey – $74,850
  • Rhode Island – $74,080

The median annual wages for nutritionists differ by industry, and here are the top four sectors for this career path:

  • Outpatient care centers – $74,640
  • Government – $61,830
  • Hospitals; state, local, and private – $61,820
  • Nursing and residential care facilities – $60,840

Steps to become a nutritionist

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree

The first step to becoming a nutritionist is to get your bachelor’s degree in a relative field from an accredited college or university. The most common choices include nutrition, health, microbiology, or food science. Not all states require nutritionists to have a college degree, but it will set you up with the knowledge base you need to succeed in this field.

2. Complete an internship

Like many jobs that deal with people’s health and wellness, there is a requirement to get some hands-on training in the field under the supervision of a licensed and qualified professional. Once you have your degree, search for an internship that allows you to get some experience working with a nutritionist. 

Many states have specific requirements for the number of hours you must complete in the field before taking your licensing exam. Check with the appropriate state agency to see what the prerequisites are for your state, and make sure that you apply for an experience that meets the requirements.

3. Pass the necessary exam and get licensed

If your state requires certification to be a nutritionist, your next step is to take the appropriate exam and become licensed. Even if you work in a state with no statutes regulating this occupation, you can still prime a Certified Nutrition Specialist from the American Nutrition Association.

4. Find a job

Search for job postings using all the usual avenues. Check online job listings on websites like LinkedIn, and do some outreach to your current professional network. You can often apply for employment at the location where you did your internship if there are openings. 

5. Receive additional certifications

The more education you have, the better you’ll be at your job. Take advantage of the many courses and certifications you can get. 

6. Work towards a graduate degree

Advancing your nutrition career often requires continuing education and receiving your graduate degree. The Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam will need at least a master’s degree before you can take it beginning in 2024. With a graduate degree, you’ll have an even more robust understanding of food science, nutritional therapy, food service systems, and other relevant areas to help with community nutrition.

7. Stay up to date with licenses and credentials

Every license and certificate has its requirements for renewal. Stay up to date with your credentials by setting reminders for any expirations, completing the required continuing education courses, and taking any necessary exams and tests. 

Types of nutritionists

Because food and nutrition are critical parts of life and health, nutritionists work in many different community areas and throughout all stages of life. 

Pediatric nutritionists focus on infants and children to ensure they receive proper nutrition by educating parents on breastfeeding, formula, and introducing foods to kids. They even work in schools to help develop breakfast, lunch, and snack programs to benefit the students.

Gerontological nutritionists work with older adults to improve their quality of life. Whether they work primarily in a nursing home or partner with doctor’s offices and primary care physicians, they can help people assess their diets and find meal plans that promote healthy aging.

Between those two, you’ll find specialists who work within the community and with government agencies to help with food regulation or general education on nutrition. Clinical nutritionists help in inpatient and outpatient facilities to help address specific medical issues like obesity, diabetes, or food sensitivities. 

There are nutritionists trained in particular medical areas as well. Oncology nutritionists work with cancer patients during chemo and treatments to develop a meal plan to help them keep as much strength and energy as possible. Renal care nutritionists work with patients with kidney problems and help plan healthy diets to support their organs.

Finally, there are athletic and sports nutritionists. Their primary goal is to help enhance athletic performance. They work with individual athletes and team organizations to organize meal plans during the season and help with training in the off-season. They work closely with trainers to make sure everyone is getting enough caloric intake and all the necessary nutrition to perform.

Tips for becoming a nutritionist

If you’re interested in becoming a nutritionist, education is super important, but there are a few other tips you can try to put yourself in a better position to land the job you want. 

  • Nutrition is an ever-changing field with a lot of misinformation. Take time to understand current trends and rumors making their way around on social media. 
  • Take a course in business finance. Many nutritionists want to venture out on their own, so it’s essential to understand the basics of running your own business.
  • Pick a specialty or a few. The field of nutrition has such a broad reach, so choosing a specialty can help you become an expert in one area (or a few.)
  • Show your commitment to education. Take advantage of speakers or any opportunities to learn more. 
  • Learn more about fitness and anatomy. These two fields can work hand in hand with nutrition to help people hit their health goals, and being connected with people in these fields can be very beneficial.
  • Volunteer in your community. Working with nonprofits and community organizations can be a great networking opportunity and gives you a chance to put your knowledge to good use and help more people.
  • Use your diet to learn more. Keep a food journal and try new recipes and learn about unique cuisines and diets. 
  • Consider where you want to live. States all have different requirements for nutritionists, so if you plan to move in the future, check to see if you would need to acquire other degrees or certifications.
  • Work on your bedside manner. Communication is everything in this role. Working with patients and clients can be challenging, especially if they make tough routine changes. Practice being encouraging and gentle.
  • Keep organized files and notes. Having a system ahead of time that works for you is beneficial. 

Position trends

The BLS predicts nutritionist jobs to increase by 11% over the next decade. With an increased interest in supporting healthy lifestyles, more and more organizations and individuals are seeking out the expertise of a nutritionist. There are stricter regulations and restrictions in restaurants, and many companies are onboarding in-house nutrition experts to stay on top of everything.

Research shows more correlation between nutrition, mental health, and energy levels than previously known. More dietary trends are gaining popularity, like plant-based and keto diets, so people are looking for experts to guide them in their health journey.

Career path

The career path for a nutritionist can go in many different directions. There are quite a few specialties that can be explored, like sports nutrition or working with a specific age group. In addition, you can take the exam to become a registered dietician by returning to school and obtaining a graduate degree. 

It’s also possible for nutritionists to branch out from their employers and start their own businesses as well. Take on clients and create programs for them. The growth potential is endless with this path.

1. What made you want to become a nutritionist?

Get personal with your answer to this question. Give the interviewer a chance to get to know you and your passion for nutrition. Did you face struggles with health in your life? Do you just love giving back and helping others? Are you passionate about food and its ability to heal and energize? Talk about your why.

2. How would you create a meal plan for a young patient recently diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes?

Diet is vital when managing diabetes. Newly diagnosed patients typically need plenty of education, along with their guardians, to help them succeed and stay healthy. Explain how you would approach this situation. There’s a lot of information to cover, so talk about what resources you recommend and what changes you would suggest immediately making to their diet.

3. What recommendations do you have for someone with high blood pressure?

Cover the DASH diet that helps lower blood pressure. Give a complete example menu for a day or two that you would give to a client. High blood pressure is a common concern for many people, so it’s good to show your understanding of how changes to the diet can help.

4. What new ideas do you have to motivate a client who is not interested in changing their diet?

You will inevitably have some clients that are not open to making changes. Explain your educating methods and break down the importance of making those adjustments. Are there ways to slowly alter their lifestyle and still enjoy some of the things they currently enjoy? Being able to gently but firmly push clients towards success is a skill, so show the interviewer that you have it.

5. Describe your ideal client.

It’s OK if you don’t have a specific person you want to work with. You can answer this question by sharing what populations or groups of people you want to help in your role. Consider where you are applying and refer to their clientele.

6. What do you think the most interesting diet trend has been in the last 50 years?

Showcase your knowledge of the trends and fad diets that have appeared. Over the last few decades, there have been some strange things floating around on the internet. Share a few that you’ve done a deep dive on, maybe something you covered for a school course. A few interesting topics include vegans, the Atkins diet, diet sodas, and juice cleanses. Interesting doesn’t have to mean something healthy.

7. How do you get to know your clients at the first appointment? What are essential questions to ask right away?

Learning some of the basics about your client right out of the gate is necessary. Learn about their goals, diet, health concerns, and what they like to eat. You’ll be able to get an idea of the direction to take the appointment once you get the basics covered. It’s important always to consider what the clients like and what they want to accomplish first.

8. What skills are most critical for success as a nutritionist?

Highlight the skills you possess that would make you great at this role. Talk about your love of helping others and creating plans to help them reach their health goals. Make sure to talk about your communication skills and any experience you have working with patients or clients.

9. Tell us about the best meal you’ve ever eaten.

Food is the center of this role, so you must be interested in food. Get creative with your answer to this question, and talk about what you like to cook and what restaurants you love. A healthy relationship with food and an interest in all the different flavors are both great qualities of nutritionists.

10. How do you organize your client files and notes?

Each patient or client will have their likes, dislikes, sensitivities, and issues they are trying to work through. You must have a system to manage and organize all your files and client information. Elaborate on what you’ve used in the past to showcase your attention to detail, and then ask if there are processes that your potential employer uses that you would need to incorporate.

Nutritionist FAQs