Nutritionist (Dietitian)

The classic adage “you are what you eat” is easy to understand, yet the state of nutritional health in the United States indicates that the message has not gotten through to the majority of the population. Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows that 38 percent or 93 million Americans are obese and lack adequate sources of healthy nutrition in their diets (CDC 2016). Fewer than one in ten children and adults consume the recommended daily amount of vegetables, and poor nutrition is a leading cause of the two of the deadliest and most preventable diseases in adults: obesity and heart disease (CDC 2017).

In an attempt to be proactive about their health, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) reports that 22 million Americans annually turn to fad diets, which promise dramatic results in weight loss but are statistically shown to be ineffective in sustaining long-term healthy habits (ACSH 2018). With the weight loss industry netting a record profit of around $72 billion dollars per year (MarketResearch.com 2019), it is clear that many people struggle to understand what kind of food to eat to reach their optimum level of health. Oversaturated with so much conflicting information about how to live a healthy lifestyle, who can people trust to learn how to eat well and live healthier, happier, and longer lives? The answer is nutritionists and dietitians.

While medical science provides information on what nutrients are needed for general health, nutritionists decipher and tailor this information for an individual’s unique health needs. Nutritionists teach people how to care for their health by empowering them with diagnostic health assessments, individualized meal plans, and dietary counseling.

Considering the stats on U.S. obesity rates, it’s not surprising that nutrition is one of the fastest-growing careers in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the demand for this profession to increase 11 percent nationally, leading to the creation of approximately 8,000 new positions between 2018 and 2028 (BLS 2019). Requiring a bachelor’s degree, supervised training, and licensure in most states, a career as a nutritionist can be rewarding for those with an interest in the concept of “food as medicine” and who enjoy helping people live healthier lives.

Read on to learn more about how to become a nutritionist.

Nutritionist Specializations & Degree Types

A licensed nutritionist typically holds a bachelor’s degree in dietetics (the study of the practical applications of nutrition) or a field such as nutritional science. Related disciplines include clinical nutrition, foods and nutrition, and public health nutrition. These involve studies in biology, chemistry, nutrition, and psychology. Clinical internships are frequently part of nutrition program curriculums and require several hours of supervised training.

Nutritionists with advanced degrees or specializations can position themselves to work in a specific area of the field, be an integral part of dietetic academic research, hold more leadership roles in healthcare, and possibly earn higher salaries.

The following is a list of specializations offered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, a leading credentialing organization in the field of dietetics:

  • Gerontological nutrition
  • Oncology nutrition
  • Obesity and weight management
  • Pediatric nutrition
  • Pediatric critical care nutrition
  • Renal nutrition
  • Sports dietetics

To learn more about licensing and the certifications available for nutritionists, please see the section on “Nutritionist Certifications and Licensure” below.

Admissions Requirements for Nutritionist Programs

Admissions requirements for nutritional science programs at colleges and universities degrees vary for each institution. A list of general admissions requirements for students applying to bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in nutritional science or dietetics is as follows:

  • Official high school diploma or GED (for bachelor’s degree programs)
  • Official bachelor’s degree transcript (for master’s degree programs) from a regional or nationally accredited college or university (Note: for courses taken outside the United States, official transcripts must be evaluated and translated into English)
  • Prerequisite courses in anatomy and physiology, biology, and chemistry (for master’s degree programs)
  • Completed application
  • Application fee
  • Grade point average (GPA) minimum scores (typically ranging from 2.5 to 3.0)
  • Personal essay or statement
  • Letters of recommendation from academic or professional sources (typically one to three sources required depending on the school)
  • Resume
  • Interview with an admissions committee
  • Campus visit
  • Official SAT, ACT, or other standardized test scores (for bachelor’s degree programs)
  • Official GRE scores (for master’s degree programs)
  • Official Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) scores for international students

A list of featured bachelors, masters, and doctorate degree programs in nutrition is included below in addition to institutional and programmatic accreditation information.

Nutritionist Program Accreditation

Accreditation organizations measure and verify the educational quality of academic programs. An accredited institution has proven itself to meet high academic standards for educational rigor and quality. Without accreditation, students, staff, faculty, and employers seeking to employ nutritionists cannot be certain of the level of academic rigor and professionalism a program offers. Students applying for federal aid in the United States can only attend colleges or universities with regional or national accreditation.

Specific programs or entire institutions can be accredited by programmatic, regional, or national accreditation organizations. Programmatic accreditation in the field of dietetics is given by four organizations: the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND), which is part of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and overseen by the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA).

Public health degree programs may hold programmatic accreditation through the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH). As previously mentioned, the Commission on Dietetic Registration is a leading credentialing organization for the field of dietetics and verifies specialization certifications for nutritionists.

There are several reputable regional accreditation agencies that are all approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

On-Campus Nutritionist Degree Programs

Auburn University

Auburn University’s College of Human Sciences specializes in nutritional studies related to diabetes and obesity and offers a complete selection of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in nutrition and dietetics. Students in these programs study the intake of food through biochemistry, physiology, social science, and public health and are encouraged to study the relationship between these disciplines and health, diet, and well-being. Through its extension programs, Auburn University aims to improve the health and well-being of residents of Alabama and of people all over the world.

Students in the bachelor of science (BS) program have specialization options to focus their careers in dietetics, nutrition science, and wellness. The master of science (MS) program allows students to choose elective courses in nutrition science, clinical nutrition, sports nutrition or community nutrition.

  • Location: Auburn, AL
  • Duration: Two to seven years depending on degree program
  • Accreditation: Programmatic – Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND); regional – Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Tuition: $10,696 per year in-state; $28,849 per year out-of-state

University of North Dakota

The University of North Dakota’s College of Nursing and Professional Disciplines offers unique degree programs in dietetics and nutrition. The bachelor of science in human nutrition gives a foundational knowledge of nutrition science and requires students to demonstrate their knowledge through 50 hours of service-learning to enhance their professional and academic knowledge. The minor in nutrition offers a complement to other bachelor’s degree programs in nursing, exercise science, public health education, athletic fields, and other allied health and fitness degrees.

The graduate-level programs in dietetics prepare students for careers as nutrition counselors. The coordinated program in dietetics prepares students for careers by requiring 1,200 hours of supervised practice hours to earn a master of science in nutrition and dietetics. The master of science in nutrition allows students to choose a specialization in nutritional education or counseling and prepares them to think critically by asking questions and creating solutions for nutritional deficiency problems in underserved populations.

  • Location: Grand Forks, ND
  • Duration: Two to five years depending on the degree program
  • Accreditation: Programmatic – Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND); regional – Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Tuition: $8,136 per year in-state; $19,290 per year out-of-state

Online or Hybrid Nutritionist Degree Programs

Eastern Michigan University

Eastern Michigan University’s College of Health and Human Services offers a fully online master’s of human nutrition degree program and a coordinated bachelor’s degree program in dietetics. While this program will prepare students to treat and prevent dietary and nutritional problems, it does not allow students to seek a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) credential. The school does, however, offer bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in dietetics.

The coordinated bachelor of science program in dietetics is accredited by ACEND. It is offered both on-campus and online and prepares students who are seeking RD credentials. Eastern Michigan University offers out-of-state students a fully online education at in-state tuition rates.

  • Location: Ypsilanti, MI
  • Duration: Two to five years depending on the degree program
  • Accreditation: Programmatic – Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND); regional – Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Tuition: $11,209 per year in-state; $27,702 per year out-of-state

University of Southern California

The USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology offers a fully online master of science (MS) in nutrition, healthspan, and longevity and a coordinated program degree in nutrition and dietetics. Students can qualify to complete this degree program online if they reside more than 100 miles outside of Los Angeles.

Students in this program learn about the ins and outs of nutrition through didactic coursework and 1,200 supervised practice hours. Upon completion, students can earn an RDN credential. Accredited by ACEND, graduates from this program go on to work in hospitals and healthcare facilities, long-term care facilities, school food programs, or private practices.

  • Location: Los Angeles, California
  • Duration: Two years (full-time), three years (part-time)
  • Accreditation: Programmatic – Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND); regional – Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
  • Tuition: $28,628 per semester for undergraduate and graduate students

How Long Does it Take to Become a Nutritionist?

Education and experience are major factors to consider when calculating the time to become a nutritionist. Pursuing qualifications at a full- or part-time pace is another factor that can affect the time it takes to become a nutritionist.

Nutritionist positions require a bachelor’s degree in nutrition science or a related field which can take four to five years and 1,200 hours of supervised practice (approximately 30 weeks). Coordinated bachelor’s degree programs in nutrition shorten the completion timelines by allowing students to earn credit and supervised hours concurrently.

A would-be nutritionist with a high school diploma needs four to five years to earn a bachelor’s degree in nutrition science or dietetics and gain the required 1,200 supervised hours of experience through an internship for RDN certification. A person with an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s in a non-science related field may require two to three years to complete the coursework and internship experience to become qualified as a certified RDN.

Pursuing advanced degrees in nutrition can take anywhere from two to three years for a master’s degree and up to seven years for a doctoral degree for bachelor’s degree holders.

How To Become a Nutritionist – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Earn a GED.

Earning a high school diploma is a basic requirement for many rewarding careers and is an admissions requirement for two- and four-year degree programs at colleges and universities. Taking courses in anatomy and physiology, biology, and chemistry can help high school students prepare for college-level work in nutrition science.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Nutrition or a Related Field (Four Years).

Entry-level positions in nutrition require bachelor’s degrees in nutrition science, dietetics, or a related field of science. Coordinated bachelor’s degree programs allow students to double-dip by participating in internships that earn them college credit and hours that count towards the 1,200 hours of supervised experience for the RDN credential.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience in the Field (One Year or More).

Depending on state licensure requirements, professionals can begin their careers through unpaid or paid, supervised experience with entry-level positions in nutrition.

Step 4: Pursue Certification or Specialization (Less Than One Year).

If not already completed, the next logical step is to apply and take the exams to become an RDN. Other specializations and licensure certifications are available for those already in possession of an RDN such as licensed dietitian nutritionist (LDN), and certified diabetes educator (CDE).

Step 5: Earn a Master’s or Doctoral Degree (Optional, Two to Five Years).

Advanced levels of education allow nutrition professionals to immerse themselves in specialized knowledge and gain experience and notoriety as leading experts in the field.

What Do Nutritionists Do?

Nutritionists require specific skills and qualifications to help people eat healthfully, prevent disease, and manage medical conditions. Job responsibilities and skills include:

  • Identifying nutritional risk factors
  • Designing tailored plans for individual health goals including weight loss, weight gain, and blood sugar management
  • Staying informed of state, federal, and tribal regulations and health initiatives
  • Helping patients set and maintain short- and long-term health goals and form healthy habits
  • Informing nutrition policy-making for public institutions (e.g. schools, hospitals, long-term care facilities) and businesses
  • Developing educational materials for at-risk populations
  • Demonstrating cultural competence for persons of all socioeconomic backgrounds
  • Working with patients in a variety of healthcare settings: hospitals, schools, long-term care facilities, and private practices

Nutritionist Certifications & Licensure

Certification and licensure requirements for nutritionists vary by state and several states require a license in order to practice. Many nutritionists opt to pursue the registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) credential since the qualifications required for state licensure are often the same.

RDN is a nationally-recognized credential that is administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). RDNs are required to complete a bachelor’s degree and a dietetic internship of 1,200 hours of supervised experience. Coordinated programs accredited by ACEND offer both a bachelor’s degree and supervised experience through internships. Graduates of these programs can streamline the process by earning RDN certification.

Licensed nutritionists are also distinguished by the following certification credentials:

  • RDN: Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
  • LDN: Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist
  • CDE: Certified Diabetes Educator

Certified RDN credential holders must recertify every five years by earning 75 continuing education credits.

Master’s or doctoral degree-holders in nutrition or dietetics with 1,000 hours of supervised experience can apply to take the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) exam in order to distinguish their advanced levels of expertise. This credential is given by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists. CNS holders have advanced degrees and must be able to prove 1,000 hours of supervised clinical experience.

How Much Do Nutritionists Make?

Bachelor’s degree holders in nutritional science or dietetics holding RDN certification are qualified for entry-level positions in nutrition or dietetics. Aspiring nutritionists must complete 1,200 hours of supervisory experience if a state requires RDN or similar proof of professional competence requirements for state licensure.

The average annual salary for dietitians and nutritionists is $61,210 per year (BLS 2019) with top salaries in the 90th percentile reaching $84,610 and above. Salary data is impacted by several factors, including education, certification and licensure, professional experience, self-reported earnings, and location.

Rachel Drummond

Rachel Drummond

Writer

Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @oregon_yogini).

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