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What Does a Nutritionist Do?

Nutritionists help people make changes to their diets and improve their relationships with food.

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Home » Nutritionist » Duties

Nutritionists can help people create eating plans that are realistic, sustainable, and healthy. Instead of recommending crash diets, detoxes, or quick fixes, nutritionists teach people new ways to eat and understand food. Plus, nutritionists work with each client individually to create plans specifically for their situation.

After all, the healthiest food choices for a child recovering from cancer, a college athlete, an older adult with prediabetes, or someone who just wants to feel healthier, will all look very different. Nutritionists also consider factors like religious and cultural dietary needs, food allergies, and personal tastes.

Nutritionists work with clients one-on-one to tailor specific diets based on their individual needs.

Working as a nutritionist can be a great career choice for people who are passionate about food and wellness and who want to help others meet their goals. The role allows you to share your knowledge and educate your clients so they can lead healthier lives.

Typical Career Paths

As a nutritionist, you’ll work with clients to understand their current lifestyles. This includes gaining insights into each client’s diet, exercise routine, sleeping habits, stress level, career and life commitments, and physical health. From there, you can work with them to create a nutrition plan that can help them meet their goals. You’ll guide them through the food choices that will best provide the nutrients they need, offer meal and recipe suggestions, and more.

The specific tasks you’ll take on will depend on your workplace, specialty, and job title, but your focus will remain on helping create plans that meet the needs of each client. Typical responsibilities include:

  • Meeting with first-time clients to determine their overall health
  • Establishing short-term and long-term health goals
  • Creating a care plan that is realistic and appropriate
  • Ensuring plans meet health, weight, and nutritional goals
  • Counseling clients about what to expect from their eating plan
  • Educating clients about food and nutritional choices
  • Creating menus and meal plans
  • Researching or developing recipes

You might picture this work as being limited to a private office space or a fitness center, but that’s not the case. Nutritionists can find work in places that might surprise you.

“There are a wide different variety of places where nutritionists are found throughout the world,” says Divya L. Selvakumar, PhD, RD, the nutrition program manager for the Baltimore County Department of Aging. “Nutritionists can be employed in healthcare settings, restaurant chains, academia … and even management and administrative roles.”

Workplaces for Nutritionists

Where you work can determine the type of tasks you’ll perform on a daily basis.

In a hospital, you’ll work alongside other healthcare professionals to ensure meals meet medical needs.

In a skilled nursing facility, many of your patients will have chronic health conditions. You’ll work with nursing staff to ensure every patient gets the best meals for their individual health needs.

In a mental health specialty hospital, you might work with patients who are recovering from disordered eating conditions to help them rebuild a healthy relationship with food.

In an outpatient care facility, you’ll need to adjust meals as patients heal and recover from procedures, injuries, and illnesses.

In a physician’s office, you might be called on to consult with patients who’ve received a new diagnosis or are struggling to maintain a healthy weight.

In private practice, you might specialize and only see patients that are seeking the specialized care you provide.

In corporate settings, you might work as a wellness consultant to help employees meet personal goals.

At food manufacturing centers, you’ll be responsible for ensuring products meet nutritional standards.

At resorts and other travel destinations, you’ll create menus that offer choices to meet a variety of needs.

In athletic departments or facilities, you’ll work to create meal plans to help athletes and teams meet fitness goals.

These options are only a handful of the choices available to nutritionists. For instance, if you’re interested in holistic health, you could consider working with professionals such as massage therapists or chiropractors at holistic healthcare clinics and centers.

Nutritionists who keep up with current food trends might be interested in working to create meal plans and recipes for a subscription meal delivery service. You could also teach classes, create health plans for local governments, help insurance companies create wellness incentives, and more.

Are You a Good Fit for this Role?

A nutritionist is a healthcare professional who works closely with the public, so you’ll need patience, understanding, and empathy. Beyond that, you’ll need to be able to apply your education in a practical, real-world way that your clients can incorporate into their lifestyles. That takes great communication skills and the ability to understand the challenges each client you meet might be facing. 

“When working directly with underprivileged communities or patients at healthcare facilities, compassion and respect are extremely important,” Selvakumar says.

Selvakumar points out a few skills and personality traits an aspiring nutritionist should have.

  • Passionate about food
  • Knowledgeable
  • Willing to learn
  • Humble
  • Flexible
  • Detail-oriented
  • Articulate
  • Excellent at written communication
  • Skilled at public speaking

Additionally, fine-tuned networking skills can help nutritionists improve their knowledge and grow their client base, Selvakumar says.

“A nutritionist should be able to create and maintain relationships with older and experienced professionals,” she says.

Nutritionist vs Dietitian: What’s the Difference?


There are many similarities between nutritionists and dietitians. In fact, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. However, the roles are not exactly the same. Generally, dietitians typically work in clinical settings. They use nutrition as part of a care plan to treat and manage disease. For example, dietitians may help patients who receive dialysis treatments due to kidney disease maintain a specialized renal diet. Conversely, nutritionists tend to focus more on teaching patients or clients about food and nutrition. They help their clients learn to make healthier choices by educating them on the nutrition their bodies need.

A Day in the Life

Your day as a nutritionist will depend on your workplace and the specialty you choose. But no matter your specific job, your focus as a nutritionist will be food and how it impacts health.

“The day can consist of teaching nutrition education classes and doing presentations,” says Selvakumar. “If the role is administrative, he or she would be responsible for overseeing the performance of his or her staff. Other tasks (include) designing nutrition education materials, seeing patients, recommending therapeutic diets, writing reports, reviewing menus, overseeing food operations, and addressing problems and complaints from food-related issues. Writing educational articles on nutrition is also another task.”

Areas of Specialty

Your area of specialty can impact your nutrition career. Nutritionists have many options for specialization, and new areas have developed in recent years.

Integrative Nutritionist

What You’ll Do: You’ll help patients gain an understanding of how nutrients impact their bodies and then help them develop healthy eating plans around that understanding. You’ll focus on how healthy eating and good nutrition can prevent illness and complications in the future.
Where You’ll Work: Private practice, holistic health centers, integrative health centers

Holistic Nutritionist

What You’ll Do: Holistic nutritionists focus on how nutrition impacts overall health. As a holistic nutritionist, you’ll educate clients on how poor nutritional choices can be a root cause of illness, while positive nutritional choices can be the foundation of wellness. You’ll teach clients how to make positive choices.
Where You’ll Work: Private practice, holistic health centers, natural health food stores

Sports Nutritionist

What You’ll Do: As a sports nutritionist you’ll work with athletes or teams to create meals that help maintain energy, build muscle, sustain focus, and build health. Some sports nutritionists are also fitness trainers and will incorporate fitness and nutrition goals into their programs.
Where You’ll Work: Private practices, athletic centers, gyms, colleges and universities, sports medicine centers, sports teams

Pediatric Nutritionist

What You’ll Do: Children have dietary needs that differ significantly from adults, especially if they have chronic illnesses or aren’t meeting developmental milestones. As a pediatric nutritionist, you’ll work with families to help children get the nutrients they need to regain health, reach milestones, and more.
Where You’ll Work: Private practice, pediatricians’ offices, holistic health centers

Weight Management Nutritionist

What You’ll Do: You’ll work with clients to meet weight loss goals by developing healthy, low-calorie diets and providing recipes to help them stay on track. You might also help clients who need to increase their calorie intake meet their daily requirements without raising their cholesterol or blood sugar.
Where You’ll Work: Private practice, weight loss clinics, physicians’ offices

Clinical Nutritionist

What You’ll Do: You’ll develop specialized diets for patients and ensure meals meet each patient’s medical needs and treatment goals. You might also work with patients to develop new eating plans for them to follow once they are discharged.
Where You’ll Work: Hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, other clinical settings

Education

There are several educational options available to nutritionists. You’ll find everything from quick certificate programs to doctoral-level degrees. All those paths can help you work in the field. However, your best bet is to start by pursuing a bachelor’s degree. It will build the educational foundation you need for your career and give you the knowledge you need to help patients and clients.

A bachelor’s degree in nutrition will build the educational foundation you need for your career.

Plus, a bachelor’s degree is a good way to make sure you’re on the path to licensure and certification.

Licensure and Certification

Not all states require nutritionists to be licensed. In states that do, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree, although it’s possible to get an exception in both New York and North Dakota. Some states do require a master’s degree for licensure.

There are multiple certification options for nutritionists. However, the best option for you will depend on your state. There is no single, nationally required certificate or license for nutritionists. Some states don’t have any requirements at all, but you won’t be allowed to practice in other states without certification.

Not all states require nutritionists be licensed, but in the states that do, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree (New York and North Dakota excepted).

The most commonly required certification is the Registered Dietician Nutritionist (RND) from the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). You’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree in nutrition or dietetics from an accredited school and program to qualify for certification. You’ll also need at least 1,200 supervised practice hours and to pass an exam.

The Certified Nutrition Specialist certification is another commonly required certification. You’ll need a master’s degree in nutrition or a closely related field to qualify for this exam. You’ll also need to complete at least 1,000 hours of supervised experience and pass a certification exam.

Optional specialty certifications are also available through CDR, including:

  • Gerontological Nutrition
  • Obesity and Weight Management
  • Oncology Nutrition
  • Pediatric Critical Care Nutrition
  • Pediatric Nutrition
  • Renal Nutrition
  • Sports Dietetics

Salary and Job Outlook

You’ll be well compensated for your experience and knowledge as a nutritionist. Salaries can vary widely depending on your education, workplace, specialty, and location, but in general nutritionist, wages are above average.

Skilled nutritionists are in demand. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an 11% growth in nutritionist roles from 2020 to 2030. The role of a nutritionist will be increasingly important in the future of healthcare, Selvakumar says: Multiple common chronic conditions have a direct link to nutrition, and nutritionists will be needed to help people develop healthy eating habits.

“(Demand will) most definitely continue to grow,” she says. “Nutrition plays a major role in overall health. The U.S. suffers from one of the highest incidences of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension in the world.”

stephanie behring

Written and reported by:
Stephanie Behring
Contributing Writer

divya selvakumar

With professional insight from:
Divya L. Selvakumar, PhD, RD
Nutrition Program Manager, Baltimore County Department of Aging