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.
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 treat certain health conditions, but in others, they are only allowed to consult and educate.
Duties and responsibilities
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.
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 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. More or less work may be required during the off-season, so the hours may change a little more in these roles.
There is also a possibility of being a freelancer or contractor in this position. Take on your own roster of clients and bill them directly for your services.
How to become a nutritionist
In order to become a nutritionist, you will need a combination of education, training, and experience. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:
Step 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 give you the knowledge base you need to succeed in this field.
Step 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.
Step 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.
Step 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.
Step 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.
- Coursera has a collection of nutrition-focused courses, like Weight Management, Understanding Obesity, and Introduction to Food and Health. Some are for beginners, and others are great additions to a degree.
- Udemy offers nutrition classes. Find specific courses on green smoothies, plant-based diets, and reading food labels. With almost 500 options, you can always find something new to learn about and add to your knowledge base.
- Work towards becoming a registered dietician and completing your state’s necessary coursework and internships.
Step 6: Work toward 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.
Step 7: Stay up to date with licenses and credentials
Every license and certificate has its requirements for renewal. Stay current with your credentials by setting reminders for any expirations, completing the required continuing education courses, and taking any necessary exams and tests.
How much do nutritionists make?
There are many variables that go into determining how much a nutritionist makes, from company size to experience to education just to name a few. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top-paying places of employment and specific industries for nutritionists are (shown in annual mean salary):
- Outpatient care centers – $74,640
- Government – $61,830
- Hospitals; state, local, and private – $61,820
- Nursing and residential care facilities – $60,840
The top-paying states for nutritionists to work in are (shown in annual mean salary):
- California – $82,380
- District of Columbia – $80,600
- Hawaii – $75,020
- New Jersey – $74,850
- Rhode Island – $74,080
The average national salary for a nutritionist is:
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.
Nutritionists in specific medical fields
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.
Sports and athletic nutritionists
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 ensure everyone is getting enough caloric intake and all the necessary nutrition to perform.
Top skills for nutritionists
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.
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The career path for a nutritionist can go in many different directions. Quite a few specialties 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.
Similar job titles
Position trends and outlook
Research shows more correlation between nutrition, mental health, and energy levels than previously known. More dietary trends like plant-based and keto diets are gaining popularity, so people are looking for experts to guide them in their health journey.
Employment projections for nutritionists
The BLS predicts increasing nutritionist jobs 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. Restaurants have stricter regulations and restrictions, and many companies are onboarding in-house nutrition experts to stay on top of everything.
Nutritionist career tips
Soft skills and traits for nutritionists
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. Use your diet to learn more. Keep a food journal, try new recipes, and learn about unique cuisines and diets. 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.
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. Volunteer in your community. Working with nonprofits and community organizations can be a great networking opportunity and allow you to put your knowledge to good use and help more people.
Commonly required skills and qualifications
Keep organized files and notes. Having a system ahead of time that works for you is beneficial. 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. Take a course in business finance. Many nutritionists want to venture out independently, 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.
Develop a professional network
Professional networks are extremely important to most career paths. You’ll be able to find other nutritionists and learn about opportunities and new trends. It’s great to have others in your field that you can talk to. Here are a few to consider:
- American Society for Nutrition (ASN)
- National Association of Nutrition Professionals
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)
- Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition
- LinkedIn Groups
- The Nutrition Network
Where the jobs are
- Morrison Healthcare
- Kaiser Permanente
- Compass Group
- Dignity Health
- New York
- Rhode Island
- New Hampshire
What is the difference between a nutritionist and a dietician?
The biggest difference between a dietician and a nutritionist is the licenses required. Dieticians require a higher level of education and certification and can work on more complicated medical diagnoses. Nutritionists tend to work with more general issues and larger groups of people. To become a dietician, you must register with the Commission on Dietetic Registration.
Can you become a nutritionist without a degree?
Requirements for nutritionists are different from state to state. Most locations require candidates to earn a bachelor’s degree, complete a number of hours of supervised training, and pass an exam to get licensed. There are a few states where you don’t need to receive a bachelor’s degree, but the majority require a degree.
Where does a nutritionist work?
Nutritionists work in most healthcare facilities to help consult with patients dealing with health issues. There are also jobs in the food industry, on the coaching staff and athletic facilities, and as private consultants and educators.
Do nutritionists make good money?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most nutritionists earn between $51,500 and $70,500 per year. Experience, education, and location play a role in determining the pay. Many organizations hire nutritionists to keep on staff, so it’s a great career path.
How do I become a nutritionist?
To become a nutritionist, earn your bachelor’s degree and then check to see what your state requires to become a licensed nutritionist. Each state differs in the requirements, but there are usually a certain number of hours you need to work underneath a licensed nutritionist and get hands-on training.
What are the typical hours for a nutritionist?
Nutritionists typically work 40 hours a week. Schedules vary based on where they work and what their needs are. Some hospitals and long-term care facilities may require weekends or evenings occasionally to have someone on call to meet with patients.
Does a nutritionist have to go to medical school?
Nutritionists do not need to attend medical school. Becoming a doctor allows you to diagnose patients. Nutritionists have a lot of biology expertise and work alongside doctors to help patients with their health goals, but they do not need to go to medical school.
What do nutritionists do on a typical workday?
A typical workday for a nutritionist will include reviewing files, assessing clients’ nutritional and health needs, developing meal plans, and reviewing them with the client. Depending on the workplace, there might also be consultations with educators or officials or some research work that is required.
What are the necessary skills to become a nutritionist?
Nutritionists must be knowledgeable in biology, dietary needs, and food science. Working with clients requires strong verbal and written communication skills and a sound organizational system. Patience and the ability to explain complicated things to people are also crucial because you’ll be working to help patients understand the importance of changing their diets.
Do nutritionists have to cook and prepare meals?
Nutritionists are not usually the ones preparing the meals, but a little experience in the kitchen doesn’t hurt. A nutritionist’s primary role is to plan the meals and put together dietary plans to fit their client’s needs.