Skip to main content

How to become a nutritionist

Medical personnel stand at a doctor's meeting, give advice, nurses and assistants, hospital personnel, professionalism; Shutterstock ID 2187848989; purchase_order: -; job: -; client: -; other: -

You probably know the old saying: “You are what you eat.” This familiar adage actually has quite a bit of truth to it. Your body requires the right nutrients to fuel its internal processes and core functions; you need nourishment to grow, fight off disease, sleep soundly at night, and have sufficient stamina for daily activities. What you put into your body can have a dramatic impact on your health and well-being. 

In fact, an entire branch of health care is focused on nutrition. The role of the nutritionist is to counsel patients on how to eat properly to achieve a healthy lifestyle or attain a specific health-related goal. If you are passionate about holistic health and want to play a direct role in improving patient outcomes, a career as a nutritionist may be right for you.   


The question is, what are the steps required to succeed in this field? What are the educational requirements, core skills, and essential duties associated with the nutritionist role? Consider the basic trajectory for how to become a nutritionist. 

What does a nutritionist do?

A good starting point is to assess the nutritionist’s basic job description, including the tasks and duties associated with the profession.

Nutritionist job description

A nutritionist is a health care professional with expertise in food and eating and specifically how food can impact overall health and well-being. A nutritionist may meet with patients who have particular health conditions, ranging from inflammation to fatigue, or those who simply want to learn more about living a healthy lifestyle. The nutritionist advises clients on what kind of diet they should maintain to achieve their health goals.

Where do nutritionists work? 

Nutritionists work in a wide range of health care settings. For example, the work environment for a nutritionist may be any of the following:


  • Hospital
  • Nursing home
  • Long-term care facility
  • Private medical practice
  • Public health clinic

Different types of nutritionists

A nutritionist may focus their practice on serving a specific patient demographic or working in a particular health care environment. The practical applications are numerous, yet nutritionists can generally be placed into one of two broad categories — those who focus on clinical nutrition or community nutrition. Individuals interested in how to become a nutritionist should know that choosing between these two categories is an essential step.


  • Clinical nutrition. Nutritionists in this category typically work in clinical settings where they see patients one on one. The clinical nutritionist’s job is to design, implement, and monitor the effects of nutritional therapies and dietary strategies. In many cases, clinical nutritionists are working with patients to address a specific issue, which may be diabetes, high blood pressure, or chronic fatigue. In other cases, clinical nutritionists work with patients to develop a diet that complements other therapies; for example, a clinical nutritionist may help cancer patients develop diets that they can maintain along with their chemotherapy.
  • Community nutrition. Some populations have community-wide nutritional issues. For example, a particular school district may have widespread malnutrition, leading to problems like juvenile obesity or diabetes. As another example, individuals in a nursing home or senior care community may have rampant health issues that stem from poor food choices. Community nutritionists may work to develop dietary plans and strategies to address these problems. The community nutritionist may work in a public health clinic or be employed by a hospital, nursing home, or residential care facility.

Nutritionist subspecialties

Within these two broader categories, nutritionists may further refine their practice by focusing on a specific subspecialty. A few of the most common nutritionist subspecialties include:


  • Pediatric nutrition. Nutritionists who specialize in this field work to promote optimal nutrition among adolescents, toddlers, and even infants. A pediatric nutritionist may provide one-on-one support to children and their parents in a clinical care setting or work in a community nutritionist position to promote sound food choices to students and families in a school system.
  • Gerontology nutrition. By contrast, nutritionists in the gerontology subspecialty promote healthy nutrition among older adults. Again, their practice may be either clinical or focused on designing nutrition plans for a senior living community or nursing home.
  • Sports nutrition. Another subspecialty is sports nutrition. Professionals who choose this field work with athletes or entire teams, helping to implement eating plans that harmonize with the athletes’ training and conditioning programs.

Nutritionist duties and responsibilities 

What does a nutritionist do from day to day? The specific duties and responsibilities can vary depending on each of the factors we’ve mentioned, including work environment, concentration, and subspecialty. With that said, some of the most common nutritionist responsibilities include:


  • Clinical assessment. Nutritionists work to evaluate the specific health status of patients and determine the current state of their nutrition.
  • Counseling and nutritional strategy. The role of the nutritionist involves advising patients on what they should eat and what foods they should avoid to improve their health.
  • Developing nutrition plans. Nutritionists may design meal plans specifically for their patients, taking into account factors like disease prevention and overall health but also preferences and budget. Furthermore, nutritionists review and modify meal plans as needed.
  • Continuing study. Nutritionists must conduct regular research, staying up to date on the latest advances in nutritional science.


These core duties reflect a general view of the nutritionist’s role in health care.

Choosing to become a nutritionist vs. a dietitian

When learning about how to become a nutritionist, an important aspect to consider is how the role of a nutritionist differs from that of a dietitian. Though the two positions are comparable in many ways, they are also distinct, particularly in the educational requirements involved. Before choosing a specific career trajectory, further exploring the nutritionist vs. dietitian roles may be valuable.

Similarities between a nutritionist and a dietitian

A few foundational principles connect the nutritionist and dietitian roles. Both of these jobs are considered to be part of the health care field, and both share the ultimate goals of promoting wellness and alleviating specific ailments that may be related to poor nutrition. Additionally, both the nutritionist and the dietitian study the importance of food to overall health and how diet and dietary supplements can impact a patient’s well-being. Like nutritionists, dietitians often work with individual patients, recommending dietary changes that can help them improve their physical health or alleviate a particular set of symptoms.

Differences between a nutritionist and a dietitian

Despite these similarities, the nutritionist and dietitian roles also differ in some important ways. The most critical distinction is that, to practice, dietitians must seek registration, specifically from an accrediting body called the Commission on Dietetic Registration. This accreditation proves that the dietitian has received a certain level of formal training, qualifying them to serve the needs of their patients.


The qualifications to become a dietitian include:


  • Academic credentials. A bachelor’s degree is required to become a registered dietitian. Further, the degree must be in a field of study that is approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics.
  • Work experience. The aspiring dietitian must also work in an accredited hospital, clinic, or health care facility, under the supervision of a registered dietitian. Some 1,200 hours of supervised experience are required before an individual can sit for the exam.
  • Exam completion. Finally, to become registered as a dietitian, completing an exam that is administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration is required. This exam covers areas related to dietetic science and general standards of patient care.


In addition to completing the above requirements, registered dietitians also need to complete continuing education (CE) courses annually, ensuring they are up to date on the latest in dietary science. These yearly CE credits are necessary for maintaining their registration status.


By contrast, the nutritionist role is less formalized and regulated than the dietitian role, which affects the type of work that dieticians and nutritionists typically do. Dietitians have the clinical acumen required to treat eating disorders and assess specific food related pathologies. Nutritionists are commonly hired to promote more general health outcomes in certain populations or among their particular group of patients.


These are a few of the things to consider as you seek to determine whether the nutritionist or dietitian job description is better aligned with your professional goals.

Nutritionist requirements: How to become a nutritionist

As noted in the previous section, the nutritionist requirements tend to be limited. The reason for this is because the term “nutritionist” is not formally accredited or regulated, meaning anyone who offers advice related to diet or nutrition is legally allowed to claim the title.


    With that said, you can take certain steps to hone the right skills for working as a nutritionist. Formal training may not be mandatory, but it can be useful as you seek opportunities to advance your career.


    Many people who wish to become nutritionists seek both bachelor’s-level and more advanced degrees, studying fields such as life science, nursing, or dietary science. Some even obtain nursing licenses before choosing to practice as nutritionists. Again, formal education is not strictly necessary but can provide you with the skills and level of authority needed to succeed.


      And while the term “nutritionist” is not regulated, a body known as the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists (CBNS) offers a protected title — the certified nutrition specialist (CNS). By sitting for the CBNS exam, you can earn your CNS title, which may help you seek more prestigious jobs in the field.


        To sit for this exam, you will need to earn a master’s in nutrition or a comparable field and gain at least 1,000 hours of practice experience. The exam covers topics related to nutrition, general health and wellness, and clinical practice. When you pass the exam, you can add the letters CNS to your name, potentially earning a higher level of trust in your clinical ability.


          These are not nutritionist requirements, but completing this exam is one of the best ways to advance your career in this field.

          Essential skills

          Through a combination of training and experience, you can hone the skills that are essential to success in the nutritionist profession. Some of the core skills required for this role include:


          • Listening. One of a nutritionist’s most essential tasks is to actively listen while patients talk about their dietary concerns, health problems, and overall goals.
          • Communication. Often, the role of the nutritionist is to offer advice and education to patients. Being able to convey the nuances of a dietary plan in a way that is compelling, persuasive, and easy to understand is crucial.
          • Collaboration. Nutritionists sometimes work on teams with other health care providers and need to know how to collaborate with physicians and nurses to achieve ideal patient outcomes.
          • Organization. Nutritionists may have many open cases at one time and must be proficient in juggling the needs and demands of several patients at once. Organizational skills are key.


            These are just some of the basic competencies that can lead you to success as a practicing nutritionist.

            How long does it take to become a nutritionist

            Another common question among those seeking this career path: How long does it take to become a nutritionist?


            To become a CNS, you must earn an undergraduate degree, typically in a field related to human nutrition, and a graduate degree. Then, to gain the 1,000 hours of experience required to sit for the CBNS exam, it will typically take a year or two in the workplace.


            All told, if you are planning to become a CNS, you can assume it will take around seven or eight years. If you decide to practice as a nutritionist without seeking certification, the process may not take quite as long, though you will likely still desire a four-year degree.

            Nutritionist salary and job outlook

            If you are interested in pursuing a career as a nutritionist, you likely have some questions about the typical salary range, as well as the level of demand for nutritionists.

            Nutritionist salary range

            The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) groups nutritionists with dietitians. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for this category is $63,090. The highest 10% of earners in this field earn more than $90,000, while the lowest 10% earn less than $39,840.


            Multiple factors can impact the nutritionist salary range, including:


            • Years of experience. Nutritionists with more practical experience will typically earn higher pay rates.
            • Education and certification. Earning an advanced degree and/or sitting for the CNS exam can help you earn a higher salary.
            • Geographic location. The nutritionist salary can vary by geographic location depending on local needs and demand.
            • Work environment. The BLS data shows that nutritionists who work in outpatient care centers have the highest median salaries, while those who work in nursing homes and long-term care facilities have the lowest.

            Nutritionist job outlook

            The BLS projects that the nutritionist and dietitian job market will grow by 11% between 2020 and 2030, which is faster than the average for all professions (about 8%). In other words, professionals in this field are in considerable demand, and ample opportunity exists for those who wish to positively impact patient outcomes via a focus on diet and nutrition.


            This promising job outlook is due to a number of reasons. One factor noted by the BLS is that general interest in preventive medicine and holistic care has increased, leading to greater demand for nutritional expertise.


            Another factor is the climbing obesity rate. About a third of all U.S. adults qualify as obese, and nutritionists and dietitians can play a crucial role in helping to treat this condition and minimize its prevalence. In particular, the nutritionist’s role as an educator and public health advocate can be vital here.


            The BLS also notes that the aging population is another reason for the increasing demand for nutritionists. Individuals in the baby boomer generation, in particular, are interested in finding lifestyles that allow them to remain healthy and active for as long as possible.

            Seeking a path as a nutritionist

            If you are curious about how food affects a person’s health, then seeking a career in nutrition may be right for you. As you seek information about how to become a nutritionist, consider some of the degree programs that are currently available. Start by checking out your options using our recommendation engine.


            Stay in the know

            Program Type
            Program Name
            Total tuition:
            Program Type
            Program Name