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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.
“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:
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.
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.
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. You might want to consider leveling up.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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 a 6.6% growth in nutritionist roles by 2031. The demand isn’t surprising. Nearly all healthcare roles are projected to see 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.