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How to become a nutritionist

A step-by-step guide to becoming a certified nutritionist.

a nutritionist and her client standing at a kitchen island with produce

With so much conflicting information out there about food (not to mention a new fad diet around nearly every corner), knowledgeable nutritionists are becoming increasingly important for educating clients on the way that food can sustain their well-being and even assist with certain medical conditions.

If becoming a nutritionist sounds like it might be the perfect fit for you, read on to dive deeper into the pros and cons of being one, the various credentials, educational paths, licensing requirements, pay potential, and job outlook for this career path.

The study of food as medicine dates back to 400 BC when the “Father of Medicine,” the Greek physician Hippocrates, advised, “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.” While these principles guide modern-day nutritionists, today’s practitioners have the benefit of centuries of research and scientific discovery. 

What is a nutritionist?

A nutritionist advises and teaches clients how to maintain a healthy diet to improve their overall wellness or achieve a specific health-related goal. They are educated in the science of nutrition and how to apply that science to individuals.

The term ‘nutritionist’ can take on different meanings depending on the credentials, education, and job scope of the individual. This means that there are such a variety of nutritionists that they may not all perform the same duties. This becomes especially true for nutritionists that specialize. Some nutritionist specialties include:

  • Gerontology nutritionists create nutrition plans for the elderly and study how our nutrition needs change as we age
  • Holistic nutritionists take a broader approach to nutrition by looking at diet in conjunction with other factors that affect someone’s health, such as lifestyle, exercise, stress, and more for an all-encompassing perspective on health and wellness
  • Oncology nutritionists work alongside a larger medical team to help create nutrition plans for cancer patients that can both boost immunity to fight off disease as well as manage side effects caused by their illness
  • Sports nutritionists work with athletes and other active people on how to maintain a diet that maintains or improves physical performance
  • Pediatric nutritionists address the unique nutrition needs of children and adolescents to promote healthy growth 
  • Registered dietician nutritionists (RDNs) are dual nutritionists and dieticians who have been awarded their credentials by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) due to a combination of appropriate education and experience

Some other specializations include clinical, PCOS, forensic, function nutritionist, and more. Those who are passionate about helping people achieve results related to health, performance, or personal appearance could find that becoming a certified nutritionist can not only have a huge impact on the lives of others but offer benefits such as personal satisfaction and above-average salary. 

Nutritionists vs. dietitians


As you investigate a career in nutrition, you’re likely to find resources that interchange the terms “nutritionist” and “dietitian.” While both professionals provide education and guidance on food choices, the roles typically aren’t the same.

Generally, the education, experience, and credentialing needed to work as a nutritionist or dietitian differ. Every state also sets its own licensing requirements for each position as well as specific job titles. Make sure you understand how nutritionists and dietitians differ and which career you prefer before you select an education program.


Steps to become a nutritionist

Determine the type of nutritionist job you might want to pursue.

female student with notepad in hand staring pensively into distance

Before making any investments into your education, it’s a good idea to explore what kind of nutritionist you’d like to become and/or the credentials you hope to achieve. This can help you determine the level of education needed to pursue your particular career goals.

Research nutritionist licensing laws in your state.

woman sitting at desk with her laptop and open books to the side

In addition to honing in on what you want to do, you should research what the licensing regulations are for nutritionists in your state, if any. This may affect the level of education or certifications you need in order to practice lawfully.

Get an education in nutrition or a related field.

nutritionist holding a book as her smiling colleague takes a bite of food

Even though it’s possible to be a nutritionist in some places without a degree, having a formal education can be invaluable to learning the science behind nutrition and make you a more esteemed professional.

Postsecondary education could also expand the number of jobs available to you because of your higher qualifications. Furthermore, you may need a degree if you ever move somewhere that requires nutritionists to be licensed and have a certain level of education.

Lots of institutions offer degrees in nutrition specifically, but you might also consider earning a degree in a related field, especially if you intend to specialize. Nutritionists have degrees in food science, dietetics, exercise science, chemistry, biology, microbiology, biochemistry, and more.

Gain experience and complete supervised hours.

nutritionist points to a food table on a counter with an avocado next to it

Lots of nutritionist certifications require that you complete a certain number of supervised experience hours. This is also true for states that require nutritionists to have a specific license. You may be able to complete this during a degree program, but if not, you may need to keep working under the supervision of a professional nutritionist in order to accrue the hours needed.

Get certified.

paper-certificate-with-rolled-up-paper-tied-in-a-bow

Although it may not be required to break into the field everywhere, earning a certification is a wise choice if you want to expand your job prospects and strengthen your reputation. There are numerous certifications to choose from, some of which are easier to earn than others and therefore have different levels of professional prestige.

Get licensed (if applicable).

smiling female with braided hair and a lab coat that says nutritionist on it

If you live in a place that requires you to have a nutritionist license, you’ll need one before you can start your professional career. Licensing requirements vary by state, so check out what your state requires and apply for a license if needed.

If you chose to get a bachelor’s degree like many other nutritionists, that means it could take around four to five years to become a nutritionist. The amount of time it takes to become a nutritionist will vary depending on where you live and the degree you choose to pursue.

Consider pursuing a specialization.

smiling-female-extending-a-small-salad-bowl

Specializing could open the door to new job opportunities and even higher earning potential because of the unique knowledge and skills you offer. There are many nutritionist specializations out there that you can get certified for, such as forensic nutrition, sports nutrition, oncology nutrition, and pediatric nutrition, to name a few.


What is being a nutritionist like?

Nutritionists use evidence-based principles to individualize each person’s recommendations so that they can optimize the nutrients in their diet.

They don’t diagnose or cure disease, though they may help people use food to strengthen or heal from treatments, surgery, or other medical conditions. Instead, they emphasize empowering people to use food to find wellness and fight off disease. Nutritionists work one-on-one, in groups, in hospitals, schools, and industrial settings. 

From a clinical perspective

Those who work in traditional healthcare settings such as hospitals, clinics, or extended-care facilities typically approach nutrition from a clinical perspective. They may work with a patient’s treatment team to provide medical nutrition therapy for conditions such as diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. This can include modifications to a patient’s diet, intravenous fluids, or tube feeding, depending on their condition.

From a holistic perspective

Holistic nutritionists, in particular, incorporate a whole-life, or holistic, approach in their perspective on wellness. This involves an emphasis on maintaining a balance between food and the mind-body-spirit connection. In addition to dietary education, holistic nutritionists may advise people on how to use sleep, exercise, relaxation, meditation, or social activities to reach their wellness objectives and maintain a healthy lifestyle. 


Is this career path right for me?

As a nutritionist, you can expect to work with a diverse array of clients to help create optimal nutrition plans based on an individual’s needs and health goals. This requires numerous traits and skills such as:

  • Good listening and effective communication
  • Analyze and apply information to an individual’s circumstances
  • Organized and able to manage your time well
  • Empathetic and non-judgmental

As with any career, being a nutritionist comes with its fair share of advantages and drawbacks.

Pros of a nutritionist career


  • Less stressful than other healthcare careers: Unlike nurses and other highly intense healthcare professions, nutritionists typically work in a less stressful atmosphere because they aren’t dealing with emergencies or have to be on call.
  • Flexible schedule: Nutritionists may be able to have a flexible schedule because their profession is appointment-based, particularly for private practitioners. This means they may be able to set their own hours and work as much or as little as they want.
  • You get to help others: At the end of the day, being a nutritionist can be highly rewarding because you get to help people live healthier, happier lives. Depending on the scope of what you do, you may even get to help people heal or manage certain ailments by informing their diet.
  • Lots of specializations to choose from: The field of nutrition has lots of specialty areas within it. If you want to make an impact on a certain group of people, you can get certified in one of these areas.

Drawbacks to being a nutritionist


  • Varied requirements: The requirements to become a nutritionist can be vastly different in one state compared to another. This can make it somewhat confusing to figure out what you need to become a nutritionist where you live.
  • You may need a lot of schooling: Some states have strict requirements for nutritionists like requiring them to have a master’s degree. Even if the state itself doesn’t require it, some higher-level jobs may ask that you have an advanced degree. This may demand a large investment of your time and money.
  • In some places, nutritionists are not regulated: A lack of regulation for nutritionists in some states could mean that people can call themselves nutritionists with very little training and credentials. This can give nutritionists a bad reputation when compared to their more heavily regulated dietician counterparts. This can also make it more difficult to receive referrals from other healthcare professionals.

Nutritionist educational path

You’ll find a wide range of educational programs available to help you qualify to work as a nutritionist. Consider your career goals, your existing level of education, and finances when choosing what’s right for you. 

Nutritionist schooling programs emphasize biology, chemistry, and the science of food. Individual programs may emphasize a clinical or holistic approach, depending on the institution. Many programs offer opportunities to develop advanced skills in one area of practice.

Common areas of nutrition specialization include:


  • Weight management
  • Sports and fitness
  • Oncology
  • Pediatrics
  • Gerontology
  • Eating disorders
  • Animal nutrition
  • Plant-based nutrition

What degree do I need to be a nutritionist?

Earning a bachelor’s degree or higher will open up more career opportunities, but earning them calls for advanced admission requirements and will involve more time and money.

A bachelor’s or master’s degree may also be required to work as a licensed or clinical nutritionist, depending on your state. Though exact titles vary, available educational programs for nutritionists generally include:

  • Master of Science (MS) in Nutrition
  • Bachelor of Science (BS) in Nutrition
  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nutritional Sciences
  • Graduate Certificate in Nutrition

Non-degree path (dependent on local laws)

Depending on your state laws, earning an entry-level certificate in nutrition can be the fastest way to begin a career as a nutritionist. A certificate proves that you’ve completed a specific course of study. The curriculum is typically streamlined to emphasize one specific area so you can graduate as quickly as possible with the least expense. You may qualify for a Certificate of Proficiency in Nutrition with a high school diploma or GED and thus become a nutritionist without a degree.

online vs classroom

Online or classroom studies?


As you examine educational programs, you’ll find opportunities for online learning at all levels. Becoming a nutritionist online can be a convenient alternative to classroom instruction if you’re working full-time or handling family responsibilities while studying to be a nutritionist. If you’re considering online learning, make sure you understand your program’s structure.

Some online programs require that you attend some classes on-site and/or fulfill in-person internship requirements. Most important, consider your learning style when deciding whether online or classroom instruction is best for you.


School accreditation

School accreditation ensures that the institution has met national standards for quality of education, and you must attend an accredited school to qualify for federal financial aid. You’ll also get the best value from an accredited school because these credits are more likely to be accepted if you decide to transfer or use them to meet admission requirements for a higher-level degree. 

While a school can claim accreditation, it’s best to confirm this on your own since schools can lose their designation. You can verify a school’s current accreditation status by searching the database provided by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)

Program level accreditation

Beyond school accreditation, program accreditation ensures that you’ll receive the education necessary to qualify for licensing or certification. But don’t confuse accreditation with recommendations. Some programs are “recommended” by a professional organization, only indicating that the program will help you qualify for that organization’s professional credential—not necessarily for any other licensing or certification that can help you reach your goals.

If you wish to become licensed, a program approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) should meet the educational requirements of your state. Other organizations, such as the American Association of Drugless Practitioners oversee accrediting of holistic health programs and offer board certification for graduates. However, before choosing a school they endorse, verify that the program will help you meet the requirements for any other credentials you plan to seek. 

Financial aid & paying for nutritionist schools


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While you may feel enthusiastic about your future career as a nutritionist, paying for tuition, books, and other educational costs may interfere with reaching your goal. Based on your circumstances, you may qualify for assistance from the federal government or through your school.

Factors including your personal finances and selected educational program determine your eligibility for financial aid. You may also receive funds from loans, scholarships, work-study programs, or assistantships, depending on the program you select. Just remember, in order to qualify for federal financial aid, you must be enrolled in an accredited school and program.


Licensing and certification

Regulations vary by state. It’s important to understand how your state regulates nutrition counseling before you plan to work as a nutritionist. Knowing your state laws may impact your decision to pursue a specific career path —visit our nutritionist licensing and certification page to learn about your state’s requirements.

Certificate vs. certification

While you can earn a certificate at the end of an educational program, certification is a professional credential that indicates that you’ve completed a set of educational, experience, and/or testing requirements necessary to earn a specific title. 

It also shows that you’re dedicated to keeping current with the profession since most certifications require continuing education. Though often optional, some employers and state licensing boards require a specific certification to work as a nutritionist.

There are several types of nutritionist certifications. Training and experience qualifications differ for each one. Consider your education plan, state licensing requirements, and professional goals to determine the credential that’s right for you.

Nutritionist certifications include: 


  • Certified Nutritional Consultant (CNC)
  • Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition (BCHN)
  • Certified Nutritional Professional (CNP)
  • Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN)
  • Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS)
  • Diplomate, American Clinical Board of Nutrition (DACBN)

Career outlook and workplaces

Where do nutritionists work?

Nutritionists can work for hospitals, government agencies, nursing, and residential care facilities, and outpatient care centers, or are self-employed, says the BLS. They can work independently or as part of private practice, providing services as nutrition educators or health coaches. They can also serve as nutritional consultants to restaurants or food service organizations. 

Holistic nutritionists may qualify to work as herbalists or health food store managers. They may also offer consultations in holistic health practices that offer nutritional counseling along with alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage, or chiropractic care. A growing trend includes nutritionists in integrative health practices, such as macrobiotic diet plans for cancer patients, which combine traditional medicine with these alternative therapies.

How in demand is this career?

6.8% 
Job Growth

$61,650
Median Income

Job opportunities for all types of nutritionists are projected to grow by 6.8% through 2031, adding an expected 5,100 new jobs in the industry. Since education levels vary widely among nutritionists, annual salaries range broadly.

Factors such as your location, employer, area of specialization, and level of experience also affect how much you earn. On average, annual salaries for nutritionists range from about $42,530 to over $93,640, with a median wage of $61,650, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021 data.


Frequently asked questions


Is a nutritionist a doctor?

In most cases, no, though this is not always true. Nutritionists are not doctors by definition, however, doctors can specialize in nutrition and call themselves nutritionists. Furthermore, a nutritionist may call themselves a doctor if they have a doctoral degree, but that doesn’t mean they are an MD (Medical Doctor) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine).

What major do you need to be a nutritionist?

This depends on your state’s licensing requirements for nutritionists if there are any. Most states that require nutritionists to be licensed require a bachelor’s degree or higher in nutrition or dietetics. Some states also accept closely related fields, such as food science, chemistry, biology, and more.

Can a nutritionist become a dietitian?

Yes, nutritionists and dietitians do a lot of similar work and you can definitely transition from one career to the other. This may be more or less difficult depending on where you live, as there are many states that have licensing regulations for RDNs and none (or very few) for nutritionists.

That being said, the education to become either of the two is often quite similar, so making the switch is certainly possible. What’s more, nutritionists can earn the Registered Dietician/Nutritionist (RDN) credential through the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR).

Can a nutritionist be a personal trainer?

Yes, nutrition and personal training go great together. Many personal trainers get educated in nutrition so that they can offer a more all-encompassing wellness regime and make that a selling point of their services. Nutritionists can also easily make the switch to personal training since they probably already have some education in the health sciences.

How much does a nutritionist cost?

Nutritionists may charge between $100-$200 per session, but that exact number can vary widely. The cost of nutrition services depends on many factors including your location, the type of services you’re seeking, and whether or not your insurance will cover all or a portion of those services.

Are nutritionists covered by insurance?

The short answer is that it depends. It’s common for insurance providers to cover nutrition therapy services if a patient receives a referral from another healthcare professional.

Some insurance providers may only cover nutrition services for populations that need it most, like children and adolescents, the elderly, or people with chronic health conditions like diabetes. Check with your insurance provider to see what kinds of services are covered under your individual insurance plan.

Who hires nutritionists?

Many different types of employers such as hospitals, physicians’ offices, holistic healthcare clinics, nursing care facilities, outpatient care facilities, natural pharmacies, herbalist shops, health food stores, corporations, food service management, food manufacturers, sports facilities, private practices, and more.


What comes next?

The role of nutritionists may continue to grow as Americans increasingly concern themselves with how their food impacts their well-being and the environment. As evidenced by the 2022 food and health survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC), which showed 52% of consumers follow a diet or eating pattern (up 39% from 2021) and 57% are concerned about food waste.

A successful career as a nutritionist begins with a solid educational foundation. If you want to help people lead healthier, happier lives by harnessing the benefits of a healthy diet, you need to understand the principles of nutrition and how to apply them to unique individuals. Thankfully, there are so many certificate and degree programs to choose from that you’re sure to find an educational path that will propel you to your dream career.


kendall upton

Written and reported by:
Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

Updated: 12.16.2022