Nurturing a Nutritionist Career
Your guide to healing others through healthy eating, from applying to school to preparing for the workforce
Nutritionists aim to address what the International Food Information Council (IFIC) refers to as “a dietary disconnect” by helping to close the gap by advising people about the health benefits of food and different types of diets. With so much conflicting information out there about food (not to mention a new fad diet around nearly every corner), knowledgeable nutritionists will become increasingly important for educating clients on the way that food can heal, energize, and sustain their well-being. Those who are passionate about helping people achieve results related to health, performance, or personal appearance could find that joining this growing field can not only have a huge impact on the lives of others but offer benefits such as personal satisfaction and above-average salary.
If this sounds like it might be the perfect fit for you, read on to dive deeper into what nutritionists do, how to get started, and what you can expect once you’ve entered the field.
What Do Nutritionists Do?
Nutritionists don’t diagnose or cure disease, though they may help people use food to strengthen or heal from treatments, surgery, or other medical conditions. They emphasize empowering people to use food to find wellness and fight off disease. Nutritionists work one-on-one, in groups, hospitals, schools, and industrial settings.
Nutritionists 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.
Holistic nutritionists, in particular, incorporate a whole-life, or holistic, approach in their perspective to 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.
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.
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, existing level of education, and finances when choosing what’s right for you.
Nutritionist educational 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:
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 program in nutrition with a high school diploma or GED.
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:
Online or classroom studies?
As you examine educational programs, you’ll find opportunities for online learning at all levels. Online education 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.
Most important, consider your learning style when deciding whether online or classroom instruction is best for you.
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.
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).
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 oversees accrediting of holistic health programs and offers 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.
Careers and Salary
Nutritionists can work for hospitals, government agencies, nursing and residential care facilities, outpatient care centers, or are self-employed. They can work independently or as part of a private practice, providing services as nutrition educators or health coaches. Nutritionists 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.
Job opportunities for all types of nutritionists are projected to grow by 11% over the next decade, adding an expected 8,000 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 between about $38,000 to over $84,000, with a median wage of $60,370, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Licensing and Certification
Regulations regarding licensing for nutritionists 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.
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:
Professional Nutritionist Organizations and Resources
Professional organizations, journals, podcasts, and more offer a wide range of information and support, as well as offering an opportunity to build a community with other nutritionists as you transition from prospective student to experienced professional. Stay up to date in the field and follow this list of journals, associations, podcasts, channels, and more.