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What Education Do I Need to Become a Nutritionist? 

A bachelor’s degree is a great way to get the educational foundation you need to start your nutritionist career. 

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Nutritionists develop meal plans for clients to help them meet weight, fitness, health, and overall wellness goals. They teach clients about how food affects the body and how they can use nutrition to improve their health. Before they can pass that knowledge onto clients, nutritionists need to gain their own in-depth understanding of food, nutrition, and the human body. Educational programs can give nutritionists the foundation they need to help clients.

Unlike many healthcare professions, there are no national standards for nutritionists. Some states have no minimum educational requirements at all, while others require at least a master’s degree. This means that in one state you could use the title of nutritionist with no formal degree, but in a neighboring state you’d need a master’s degree, experience, and to have passed an exam before you could work as nutritionist.

That might sound confusing and feel overwhelming, but finding the appropriate educational path is not as complex as it might appear. Starting by earning a bachelor’s degree is the best option for most nutrition students. It will give you the knowledge base you need and make you eligible for licensure in many states. A bachelor’s degree is also the degree most workplaces will look for, even if a state doesn’t require it. Plus, earning a bachelor’s proves to employers and clients that you’re a trusted source for nutrition information.

While requirements vary state to state, a bachelor’s degree is a good degree to aim for as you start your educational journey.

“Academic credentials are one of the most important aspects of a nutritionist’s career,” says Divya L. Selvakumar, PhD, RD, nutrition program manager for the Baltimore County Department of Aging. “When people come to a nutritionist for advice or help, he or she must have the ability to provide as much detailed information and should be as qualified and competent as possible.”

A bachelor’s degree can prepare you to take on roles at:

  • Hospitals
  • Physicians’ offices
  • Skilled nursing facilities
  • Private corporations
  • Athletic facilities

If you’re looking to advance your career further by taking on a leadership role or opening your own nutrition practice, pursuing a master’s degree is a great option. Keep in mind that a few states do require a master’s degree before you can apply for nutritionist licensure.

What Is a Bachelor’s in Nutrition?

With a bachelor’s degree, you’ll gain the knowledge base you need to help other people improve their health through food. Classes such as biology, cellular nutrition, and dietetics will give you an in-depth understanding of how the human body uses nutrients. Additional classes such as geriatric health or sports nutrition will teach how to apply that knowledge in a specialized setting.

  • Prerequisites: You’ll generally need a high school diploma and a strong GPA to enter a bachelor’s degree program. Some schools might also require SAT or ACT scores. You might need to take biology or health science courses before taking any nutrition degree classes, especially if you didn’t take those courses in high school.
  • Curriculum: Classes will depend on your school and program, but will generally include biology, biochemistry, cellular biology, cellular nutrition, dietetics, pediatric nutrition, geriatric nutrition, weight management, sports nutrition, and medical nutrition.
  • Time to Complete: 4 years
  • Clinical Work or Fieldwork: Clinical hours or fieldwork will depend on your program and might be influenced by licensure requirements in your state. Often, programs will require at least one fieldwork placement so that students can gain supervised work experience.
  • Jobs: You can take on most roles with a bachelor’s in nutrition. Many nutritionists who work in food services, physicians’ offices, athletic centers, holistic health centers, hospitals, and weight loss clinics have a bachelor’s degree.
  • Who’s the Best Match for a Bachelor’s: Students who know they want to pursue a nutrition career and gain licensure.

What is a Master’s in Nutrition?

A master’s degree in nutrition is a great choice for students who are interested in leadership, research, and other advanced roles. A master’s program gives you specialized knowledge of the relationship between food and health.

You’ll dive deep into topics that explore how food impacts specific areas of health, such as heart function or mental health. You’ll study the different nutritional needs across populations and communities.

Many master’s programs will also help you gain the skills you need to manage your own nutrition practice. Additionally, there are a few states that do require a master’s degree before you can earn nutritionist licensure.

  • Prerequisites: Master’s programs can be highly competitive. A strong GPA of at least 3.0 from your undergraduate program is recommended. Some programs might require a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, biology, health sciences, or another closely related subject, but this isn’t always a requirement.
  • Curriculum: Your exact classes will depend on your program and any specialization you choose, but most master’s programs include advanced biology, health research, biostatistics, holistic nutrition, nutritional science, community nutrition, and nutrition and disease pathology.
  • Time to Complete: 2 to 3 years
  • Clinical Work or Fieldwork: The exact requirements will depend on your program and will often align with license requirements in your state. You’ll often have an internship or fieldwork placement that allows you to gain the supervised work experience you can later apply toward certification and licensure requirements.
  • Jobs: A master’s degree can help you gain leadership or management roles. You’ll have the skill you need to run your own private office, manage a team of nutritionists, or conduct nutritional research.
  • Who’s the Best Match for a Bachelor’s: Motivated students who want to take on higher-level roles or open their own nutrition practices.

Can I Get a Job in Nutrition with a Certificate or Associate?

There are certificate and associate programs for nutritionists available. These programs can teach the basics of food and health and show you how to use this knowledge to help clients. These programs take between six and 24 months to complete.

If you live in a state without licensure or certification requirements for nutritionists, your certificate or associate program will be enough to qualify you to work as a nutritionist. There are even some entry-level national certification options available for professionals who’ve earned this level of education.

However, your options and your income opportunities will be limited if you take this route. In states with licensure requirements, you won’t be able to work as a nutritionist with just an associate degree or educational certificate. You’ll be able to pursue other roles in the field, but you won’t be considered a nutritionist by your state.

Additionally, even if your state doesn’t have minimum educational requirements for nutritionists, many employers do, and a bachelor’s degree is often one of them.

While some states don’t require nutritionists to hold a bachelor’s degree, many employers do.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to earn a certificate or an associate degree in nutrition. Earning a certificate could allow you to work in a setting such as a spa or fitness center. In this role, you might have a title such as a “coach” or “consultant,” and your work will focus on helping clients manage their weight and meet wellness goals.

This can be a great way to find out if nutrition is a good fit for you. Your education plus your experience in a spa or fitness center could play a role in helping you decide to pursue a nutritionist career and bachelor’s degree. Plus, if you’ve earned an associate degree, you’ll likely have credits to transfer to a bachelor’s program.

Can I Earn My Degree Online?

Online programs are an option for earning your nutrition degree. These programs can allow you to go to school part time or at your own pace and are often sought by students who work full time or have other commitments. However, it’s important to note that many nutrition programs will require fieldwork or an internship. You’ll need to complete those hours in person, even if all your coursework can be done online.

“Online programs are not for every student,” cautions Selvakumar, so it’s a good idea to carefully consider your own learning style and preferences before enrolling in a degree program. Online programs are often a good fit for students who are self-motivated and able to study from home amid distractions.

What to Look for in a School

One of the key things to look for in any school—and the programs it offers—is its accreditation status. Accreditation is incredibly important because it:

  • Shows that a school has met national quality standards
  • Makes it more likely that your credits will transfer to another school if necessary
  • Allows you to apply for federal financial aid
  • Allows you to qualify for licensure or certification

It’s also important to ensure that any program you’re considering meets the requirements for licensure and certification in your state. It’s a good idea to find out what graduates of the program do on licensure exams, what percentage of graduates achieve licensure, and where graduates find work.

Is Financial Aid Available?

You can find financial aid for many nutrition programs. The best place to start your search for financial aid is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Filling out the FAFSA will let you know what federal loans, grants, and other programs you might qualify for. Eligibility is determined based on your income.

Federal student loans generally need to be paid back in full, but deferments and other programs are available. You might also qualify for merit-based scholarships, grants, stipends, or other aid from your school. Master’s programs might offer options such as teaching or research assistant positions to help cover your costs. The exact options will depend on your school, program, and personal circumstances. A financial aid counselor at your school can walk you through what’s available.

Licensing and Certification

Rules for licensing and certification vary widely by state. There is no one national overarching certification for nutritionists. However, there are a variety of certificates available. Two of these can help you earn licensure if you live in a state that requires it. Other “specialty” certifications can help you gain more knowledge of niche areas such as weight management nutrition, sports nutrition, and pediatric nutrition.

Certifications that can be used for licensure include:

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)


Offered By: The Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR)
Requirements: At least a bachelor’s in nutrition or dietetics from a school accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) and at least 1,200 hours of supervised practice.
Renewal: At least 75 continuing education hours every five years to maintain certification
States that Require It: New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, District of Columbia, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Illinois, Kentucky, South Dakota, New Mexico, Montana, Washington

Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS)


Offered By: American Nutrition Association
Requirements: At least a master’s degree in nutrition or a closely related field and at least 1,000 hours of supervised practice.
Renewal: At least 75 continuing education hours every five years to maintain certification
States that Require It: Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, New York

Minnesota is the only state that licenses nutritionists without requiring either the RDN or CNS. There is no certification testing requirement in Minnesota.

Licensing Requirements by State

Not every state requires nutritionists to be licensed. Here are the states that do.

  • Title: Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours
  • Certification Exam: RDN
  • Title: Certified Dietitian/Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: A master’s degree with at least 30 credits in nutrition or dietetics. You can also apply for licensure with a bachelor’s degree if you already have RDN certification.
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 1,000 hours. You’ll need 1,200 for the CNS exam.
  • Certification Exam: CNS or RDN
  • Title: Licensed Dietician/Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours. You’ll need 1,200 for the CNS exam.
  • Certification Exam: CNS or RDN. The Delaware Board of Nutrition/Dietetics will sometimes approve other exams for licensure.
  • Title: Licensed Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours. Students with a master’s degree or who have worked as nutritionists for at least two of the past five years don’t need supervised hours before applying for licensure.
  • Certification Exam: RDN
  • Title: Licensed Dietician/Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours. This requirement is sometimes waived for applications with advanced education.
  • Certification Exam: RDN. However, the state board will accept the CNS exam if you have previously taken it. The doctorate-level Diplomate American Clinical Board of Nutrition (DACBN) certification can also be used.
  • Title: Licensed Dietician/Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours
  • Certification Exam: RDN. However, the state board will accept the CNS exam, or the Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN) exam, if you have previously taken them. The doctorate-level Diplomate American Clinical Board of Nutrition certification can also be used.
  • Title: Licensed Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: A master’s degree with at least 12 credits in nutrition or dietetics
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: No requirement
  • Certification Exam: RDN
  • Title: Licensed Dietician/Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours
  • Certification Exam: RDN
  • Title: Licensed Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a master’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 1,000 hours
  • Certification Exam: CNS
  • Title: Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: An internship of at least 900 hours. Three years of paid experience after a bachelor’s degree, two years of paid experience after a master’s degree, or one year of paid experience after a doctoral degree can also be used.
  • Certification Exam: CNS
  • Title: Licensed Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a master’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours
  • Certification Exam: None required
  • Title: Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours
  • Certification Exam: RDN
  • Title: Licensed Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a master’s degree from an ACEND-accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours
  • Certification Exam: RDN
  • Title: Licensed Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a master’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: No state requirement
  • Certification Exam: RDN. However, the state board might approve alternate exams.
  • Title: Certified Dietician/Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school. An associate degree can be used if you have 10 years of experience with at least 1,600 supervised hours of work done in each year. Endorsements are also required for associate degree-level candidates.
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours
  • Certification Exam: CNS or RDN
  • Title: Licensed Dietician/Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours
  • Certification Exam: CNS or RDN
  • Title: Licensed Dietician/Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an ACEND-accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours
  • Certification Exam: RDN
  • Title: Licensed Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours. Students with a master’s degree don’t need supervised hours before applying for licensure.
  • Certification Exam: RDN
  • Title: Licensed Dietician/Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours
  • Certification Exam: RDN
  • Title: No official licensure. However, you can only use the title of “nutritionist” if you meet set requirements.
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 1,200 hours
  • Certification Exam: CNS or RDN. The doctoral-level Diplomate American Clinical Board of Nutrition certification can also be used. Virginia also accepts nutritionist licensure from other states.
  • Title: Certified Nutritionist
  • Educational Requirements: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school
  • Supervised Clinical Experience: At least 900 hours. Students with a master’s degree don’t need supervised hours before applying for licensure.
  • Certification Exam: RDN

Supplemental or Specialty Certifications

There are a variety of other certifications available that can help you advance your career. These certifications aren’t required by any state, but they can help you stand out to employers. They’re a great way to show your knowledge in a specialized area, especially if you plan to look for roles that will require that knowledge.

The same certification agency that offers the RDN certification, the Commission on Dietetic Registration, also offers board certification in a number of nutrition specialties. You’ll need a master’s degree to earn board certification in any of these areas. Options include:

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

Specialty certifications offered by other agencies include:

Certified Clinical Nutritionist certification:

You’ll need to complete a bachelor’s degree and an online clinical nutrition program to earn this certification. It’s a great fit for nutritionists who want to work in hospitals, nursing facilities, or other clinical settings.

Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition certification:

This certification is intended for nutritionists who want to focus on holistic nutrition practice. You’ll need to have completed a board-approved holistic nutrition program to be eligible for the exam.

Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES):

This certification shows that you understand the nutritional needs of clients and patients with diabetes. You’ll need to have RDN certification to be eligible for the CDCES exam.

Salary and Job Outlook

Your salary as a nutritionist will depend on factors such as your education, experience, certification, specialty, and state. But overall, nutritionists enjoy steady incomes that are rising with time. Plus, many nutritionists can open their own practices and set their own hours and rates.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an 11% growth in nutritionist roles by 2030. The high demand isn’t surprising. Nearly all healthcare roles are projected to see massive increases over the next 10 years, and nutritionists will be a major part of that overall increase.

Additionally, more people than ever are concerned about what they eat and how it affects their bodies. That concern drives the demand for nutritionists even higher.

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