Certification and Licensing: What It Takes to Earn Nutritionist Credentials
As a nutritionist, you’ll take countless steps to help your clients navigate their way through the confusing and often conflicting information that’s out there about food. But your first step to starting a career should be getting the education you need to understand the science behind food and how it affects our health. You’ll also want to consider earning a professional certification through a nationally recognized board or association. Having these credentials can set you up for better job opportunities by meeting certain guidelines and requirements—and that means giving potential clients and employers greater confidence in your knowledge and dedication to the field.
There’s a wide range of certifications available, each requiring a different degree of work to earn them. Keep in mind, however, that even if you have a certification through a national board, it may not necessarily be enough to become licensed or certified in your state, if that’s indeed a requirement. While national certification is an optional credential that verifies your knowledge and experience, your state credentials are what govern the legal use of your title and what kinds of services you’re allowed to perform.
National Certifications for Nutritionists
When talking about certification, it’s important to first clarify that it’s not the same as a certificate. Certificates are proof that you’ve successfully taken a class or series of courses and can sometimes be completed in as little as a few weeks. Certificate programs are often designed for those who have already earned a degree and want to gain a deeper knowledge of a particular subtopic. In the field of nutrition, these could be specializations such as sports nutrition, weight management, or nutrition for children or the elderly. Depending on the coursework, earning a certificate might help you meet certain requirements for certification.
National certification, on the other hand, is a credential given by a regulated professional organization that verifies you’ve completed a certain level of education, gained a designated amount of professional experience, and in most cases, have passed a specific exam. What’s more, the certifications with the highest requirements often align with the prerequisites for becoming licensed or certified by your state. Many states require a licensing exam offered by one of these organizations, meaning that you can pursue your state credentials and optional certification at the same time.
National certifications are optional credentials (unlike state requirements) but can give you greater authority as you begin your career.
As if that doesn’t sound confusing enough, making things even more complicated is the fact that some companies that offer “certifications” may really just be offering certificate programs. To sort through the credentials, we’ve outlined the most common nutritionist certifications, starting with those that have the least requirements and leading up to those that offer the most prestigious titles and can open the door to top job prospects.
State Requirements for Nutritionist Licensing or Certification
Beyond the optional national certifications, you may be required to become either licensed or certified by your state to practice with the title of nutritionist. In general, a license allows you to legally promote yourself to the public as a nutritionist, and provide services that are within the scope of practice as defined by your state board. Holding a license also ensures that a nutritionist is being held to the established standards of the profession.
Similar to having a license, being certified allows you to legally use the title of nutritionist and demonstrates that you’re qualified to practice and are held to certain standards. That said, in states that offer this credential instead of a license, uncertified individuals can still provide the services of the profession, so long as they don’t promote themselves with any protected title. Because they’re not being regulated by the board and therefore aren’t held to the established standards, clients should be careful to receive services from uncertified individuals.
While the majority of U.S. states impose regulations specifically for dietitians, more than half of the states have no requirements for nutritionists, meaning that anyone can promote themselves as such regardless of their education or experience. As of 2019, only nine states and Washington, D.C. require licensing or certification for nutritionists specifically. An additional 14 states require a dual dietitian/nutritionist credential, which allows you to use either or both titles as you wish. The good news is that earning a dual title shouldn’t require additional work. In fact, in most states, the educational requirements are less than for those that have separate credentials for nutritionists.
Click on the states below to learn about the various nutrition licensing laws, including prerequisites, internships, and/or professional experience.