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Becoming a clinical nutritionist (Careers, education and salary)

clinical nutritionist documents diet plan for patient

Clinical nutrition career overview

What you’ll do: Clinical nutritionists work with patients to evaluate their diets and make nutrition recommendations to promote overall wellness and address health concerns.

One key factor of the job: You’ll look at—and study—diet-related illnesses, such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, and how the right diet may keep them from advancing in patients.

Where you’ll work: Private practice, hospitals, clinics, health departments, long-term care facilities, prisons, schools and research settings

Degree you’ll need: A bachelor’s degree plus a master’s degree in clinical nutrition

Median annual salary: $66,450

In This Article

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that the average American diet consists of “excess sodium, saturated fat, refined grains and calories from solid fats and added sugars.” The guidelines state that Americans eat less vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy products and oils than recommended. Clinical nutritionists aim to change these statistics.

What is a clinical nutritionist?

A clinical nutritionist evaluates how a person’s nutrition and diet can impact health, help prevent disease, or help to relieve chronic illness symptoms. Amber Dixon, Dietitian and CEO of Elderly Assist, Inc., explains that clinical nutritionists provide individualized nutrition plans, monitor a patient’s progress and then make adjustments to those plans as needed.

Where does a clinical nutritionist work? 

“[Clinical nutritionists] work in a variety of settings including hospitals, clinics, private practices and long-term care facilities,” explains Dixon. They may also work in the food and supplement industry, local health departments, prisons, school districts and in research settings. A clinical nutritionist may also choose to work in a college, educating future nutritionists.

What does a clinical nutritionist do?

Clinical nutritionists help patients improve their health by making strategic diet changes. They may work to help prevent diet-related disease or manage the symptoms of a condition the patient already has, such as PCOS, and they recommend nutrition strategies to help patients meet their individual goals. Nutritionists may recommend specific meal plans to improve a patient’s or family’s nutrition and food choices.

Clinical nutritionists may use laboratory tests to help evaluate diets and recommend nutrition changes

They may work as part of a patient’s medical team to provide the patient with comprehensive healthcare.

Clinical nutritionists may diagnose and treat diseases that affect the intake, absorption and metabolism of food in patients

They promote good health through education and prevention of diet-related disease

If you want to become a clinical nutritionist, it’s important to have a passion for the work that you will be doing. People who truly enjoy learning about nutrition and helping others are the most likely to be successful in this career.

“People who truly enjoy learning about nutrition and helping others are the most likely to be successful in this career.”

Clinical nutritionists should be strong communicators and should enjoy engaging with people. They need both written and verbal communication skills, and active listening talents are also essential to successfully working with people. If you have compassion, empathy and patience, you will likely be able to develop an important rapport with your patients, which allows you to better understand their challenges and help them find solutions.

While it’s important for a nutritionist to enjoy engaging with people, nutritionists need a scientific, methodical approach to their work, too. It’s ideal if you enjoy math and have strong math skills, since math plays a key role in calculating nutrient and caloric intake and establishing other metrics that will help you to help your patients. A genuine interest in science and a thorough understanding of biology are also important.

Clinical nutritionists planning to open their own practice will need an entrepreneurial mindset. Organization skills, marketing knowledge and a driven, committed nature are all important in operating your own business.

What education is needed?

Your path to becoming a clinical nutritionist starts with an undergraduate degree, wich can be earned either in a trditional setting or online bachelor’s program. While you don’t need an undergraduate degree specifically in nutrition, a degree in a related field, like biology or health science, may also be helpful.

Next, you will need to earn your master’s degree in clinical nutrition or a closely related field. Master’s degree programs in nutrition may require you to have completed a certain number of courses in a field like biosciences before beginning your graduate degree.

Certificate in clinical nutrition

To become a clinical nutritionist, you will usually have to earn the Certified Nutrition Specialty (CNS) credential. CNS certification requires that you complete 1,000 hours of supervised practice experience and pass the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists examination offered by the American Nutrition Association. The exam is offered twice a year in June and December and you must apply to take it two months prior to the actual exam date.

Don’t forget to become licensed if your state requires it

Depending on the state where you will live and practice, you may also need to become licensed to work as a clinical nutritionist. The American Nutrition Association maintains a database of state laws about required licenses for nutritionists and dietitians.

Many states allow any individual to perform individualized nutrition counseling, while states like North Dakota, Georgia and Florida require that nutritionists be licensed in order to practice.

How to get experience as a clinical nutritionist

“Students can get experience as a clinical nutritionist by completing a supervised practice program or internship, volunteering in a healthcare setting, or working as a research assistant,” Dixon says.

Many nutritionist degrees require that students get hands-on experience, so consider looking for a program that will help you to get experience before you’ve completed your education. Joining a nutritionist organization can also help to connect you to available internships and other opportunities to help you get experience.

Clinical nutritionist salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 Occupational Employment Statistics, dietitians and nutritionists earned a median annual wage of $66,450. While the BLS doesn’t differentiate between dietitian and nutritionist salaries, it does sort median annual salaries based on the location where dietitians and nutritionists work:

  • Outpatient care centers: $76,330
  • Hospitals: $70,360
  • Health practitioner offices: $66,660
  • Nursing homes: $65,790
  • Specialty food companies: $67,690

And here are the median annual salaries by state:

Dietitians and Nutritionists

National data

Median Salary: $66,450

Projected job growth: 6.6%

10th Percentile: $44,140

25th Percentile: $56,490

75th Percentile: $80,430

90th Percentile: $95,130

Projected job growth: 6.6%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $60,320 $37,210 $80,500
Alaska $74,340 $49,530 $95,100
Arizona $65,440 $49,890 $87,860
Arkansas $53,990 $37,120 $75,730
California $80,270 $30,600 $111,460
Colorado $74,700 $49,620 $92,920
Connecticut $75,680 $51,010 $93,430
Delaware $63,420 $54,490 $101,290
District of Columbia $85,380 $63,980 $103,010
Florida $63,240 $46,240 $81,910
Georgia $61,660 $36,970 $83,290
Hawaii $77,490 $56,490 $94,690
Idaho $62,530 $38,200 $85,290
Illinois $63,970 $42,890 $88,340
Indiana $61,700 $48,070 $81,660
Iowa $61,360 $46,150 $76,430
Kansas $62,590 $49,600 $88,490
Kentucky $61,910 $42,500 $78,520
Louisiana $62,290 $46,070 $81,720
Maine $67,630 $52,000 $129,450
Maryland $71,770 $55,200 $102,480
Massachusetts $66,050 $36,530 $94,180
Michigan $63,680 $48,830 $79,810
Minnesota $66,530 $52,320 $85,910
Mississippi $52,000 $23,550 $77,500
Missouri $59,590 $35,860 $78,670
Montana $60,840 $33,510 $77,440
Nebraska $63,180 $45,610 $80,160
Nevada $64,300 $35,750 $96,710
New Hampshire $67,840 $53,260 $87,840
New Jersey $80,140 $52,440 $107,290
New Mexico $63,960 $46,940 $79,010
New York $76,640 $50,820 $102,540
North Carolina $60,110 $44,350 $83,030
North Dakota $64,820 $50,570 $86,070
Ohio $62,650 $48,000 $79,440
Oklahoma $61,850 $36,670 $81,250
Oregon $75,160 $59,470 $98,410
Pennsylvania $63,320 $45,680 $84,940
Rhode Island $67,590 $51,120 $99,470
South Carolina $61,610 $33,860 $81,620
South Dakota $60,030 $47,720 $86,070
Tennessee $61,490 $31,160 $76,130
Texas $63,690 $43,210 $86,940
Utah $59,170 $33,580 $87,290
Vermont $72,900 $54,980 $96,700
Virginia $68,940 $44,420 $90,110
Washington $75,570 $54,280 $96,250
West Virginia $68,310 $48,870 $88,940
Wisconsin $62,650 $46,570 $81,720
Wyoming $63,510 $38,500 $93,030

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2032. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Job growth for clinical nutritionists

Clinical nutrition is a promising career, and the BLS predicts that nutritionist employment will grow by 6.6% through 2032, which is about as fast as the job growth for all occupations.

The increased interest and awareness of the role that nutrition can play in promoting wellness and the importance of controlling illness means that we are likely to see more nutritionist career opportunities in the coming years.

Getting started

“Getting started as a nutritionist involves education and building a strong foundation in nutrition science, gaining experience in the field and obtaining the necessary certifications and licenses,” says Dixon. “Networking with other professionals in the field can also be helpful in finding job opportunities and advancing your career.”

Online job boards tend to feature many clinical nutritionist jobs. If you completed nutritionist internships, consider reaching out to your internship supervisors, who may be aware of upcoming job vacancies. Depending on your career goals, you might decide to open your own nutritionist private practice, allowing you to start marketing to potential clients. 

Published: June 27, 2023

paige cerulli

Written and reported by:
Paige Cerulli

Contributing Writer

amber dixon

With professional insights from:
Amber Dixon

Dietitian and CEO, Elderly Assist, Inc.