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What nutritionists do—roles & workplaces

team of women surveying a table of fresh fruits and vegetables

It’s no secret that making healthy food choices improves your overall health, but making those healthy choices isn’t always easy.

Despite the current recommendations, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has found that three-fourths of the U.S. population consumes below the recommended intake of vegetables, fruits, and healthy fat, yet far exceeds the limits for added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat.

In fact, according to a recent report, the number-one source of calories in the U.S. is grain-based desserts such as cookies and cake, followed by bread, pizza, pasta, soda, and alcohol.

Why do people consult nutritionists?

There are a number of reasons for the disparity between what the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends and what people are actually consuming. The fact that many of those foods and beverages can be hard to resist certainly doesn’t help, but confusion also comes because factors such as culture, age, lifestyle, illness, and activity level can all affect what people eat and the diets that will work for them.

Even more confusion arises from constantly shifting societal attitudes about certain nutrients—one day carbohydrates are the enemy and the next day it’s fat.

Thus, more people are increasingly consulting professional nutritionists as they try to make improvements to what they consume. Changing a lifetime of eating patterns can be overwhelming, but nutritionists can help their clients unravel confusing information about food, design a dietary plan to meet their needs and get them on the path toward happier and healthier lives.

Nutritionist job description

Nutritionists are experts in the use of food and nutrition to promote health and manage disease. They plan and conduct food service or nutritional programs to help people lead healthy lives.

As a nutritionist, you’ll typically work one-on-one with clients to develop a plan for improving their health through food. When you first meet with a client, you’ll assess not just their current diet, but their overall lifestyle including exercise, sleeping habits, and if they’re struggling with a disorder or disease.

Setting client goals

From there, you can help them set realistic goals and formulate a plan to meet their individual needs. What you do daily will vary depending on your exact job and where you work, but you might expect typical tasks to include:

  • Performing health assessments on first-time clients
  • Discussing short- and long-term goals and helping set realistic expectations
  • Developing diet plans to meet health, nutritional, and weight goals
  • Helping clients understand which foods will provide them with the right nutrients
  • Supplying menus, recipes, and meal-planning support to clients
  • Monitoring clients over time and keeping track of their progress
  • Supporting and motivating clients as they get used to their new lifestyles
  • Adjusting nutritional plans as needed

Working in various environments & across generations

You’ll see different types of clients depending on your specialty and where you work. For example, you could work in private practice with clients who are recovering from an eating disorder or want to lose weight, or work with athletes to make sure they’re getting the right amount of calories and nutrients to support their activity. In a medical setting, you might also work with clients with diseases or people with shifting dietary requirements due to factors such as aging.

For example, a study conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation found that dietary goals can be generational, reporting that “Boomers are more likely than Millennials to be interested in health benefits associated with foods such as weight management, cardiovascular health, and digestive health.”

It adds that “Millennials are more likely to be interested in benefits such as mental health, muscle health, and immunity associated with foods. “With those and other differences in mind, it’s important to remember that working as a nutritionist requires more than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Where do nutritionists work?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts around 5,100 new jobs for nutritionists and dietitians by 2031. With so much growth, combined with the convenience of online nutrition degrees, the possible career opportunities and work environments are expanding.

Most nutritionists choose to work for an employer rather than be self-employed. The benefits of working in a hospital, doctor’s office or other facility are structured hours and medical benefits.

On the other hand, if you build a strong reputation for yourself, being self-employed can sometimes yield a greater salary and hours of your choosing. Nutritionists can be found in a wide variety of roles and workplaces:


What you’ll do

Private practice

Many nutritionists have their own counseling practices. For an hourly consulting fee, you might offer counseling to clients whose goals align with your background and any specialty you might have such as holistic health or weight loss.


Nutritionists working in hospital settings work with other healthcare professionals to develop nutrition plans for patients to follow both during their stay and after discharge.

Physicians’ offices

You’ll collaborate with physicians to offer integrative services that combine traditional medicine with nutrition, counseling patients who have a chronic condition, have received a new diagnosis, or are undergoing a change such as pregnancy.

Holistic healthcare clinics

In these environments, nutritionists work alongside other professionals to combine the science of food with other methods to improve overall wellness. These could include counseling services on topics such as sleep, exercise, or relaxation, or alternative therapies like acupuncture, chiropractic care, or massage.

Nursing care facilities

Patients in nursing care facilities often have chronic conditions that require specialized diets. In this setting, you’ll work with both the nursing and kitchen staff to ensure patients get the meals that fit their needs.

Outpatient care facilities

You’ll work with patients who are recovering from hospital stays, certain procedures, or eating disorders. Patients in this setting might need to have their progress continuously monitored and have changes made to their diet plans as they continue to heal.

Natural pharmacies, herbalist shops, or health food stores

At a health-focused retail shop, customers are likely to be looking for specialized diets and holistic wellness alternatives. As a nutritionist in this setting, you’d advise these customers on the foods that can help them meet their goals. You might also offer recipe suggestions or host nutrition education workshops.


Large companies sometimes hire nutritionists to work as wellness consultants. These professionals help employees use nutrition to meet their personal goals and support their activities at work.

Food service management

Nutritionists could also go into food service management, overseeing the food and beverage options at a hotel, restaurant spa, wellness retreat, or dorms to help students living away from home for the first time and making independent food choices.

Food manufacturers

Nutritionists can also serve on staff or as consultants to food and beverage manufacturers, ranging from national food producers to locally sourced meal prep delivery kits. Some nutritionists find work ensuring that food manufacturers are following standards for quality and safety. In this role, you can help ensure that the food that reaches consumers meets their needs. Other nutritionists may work with animals and advise pet food and feed manufacturers on best diets for zoo, farm and stable or domestic animals.

Sports facilities

Nutritionists are often needed to help athletes ensure they get all the proper nutrients they need to maintain their strength, working either with individual athletes or entire teams.

Subscribing to a newsletter, such as The American Nutrition Association’s ‘Nutrition Digest’ and other professional resources for aspiring and active nutritionists can shed a lot of light on what it’s really like to be a nutritionist in various fields.

Areas of specialty

Being an expert in a specific type of nutrition can help you grow your career and find a job tailored to your area or population of interest. Some common specialties for nutritionists include:

Weight management

A weight management nutritionist works with clients to develop meal plans to help them meet their weight goals. Depending on the client, this might include plans that ensure that low-calorie diets still provide adequate nutrition, or that high-calorie diets will not cause unwanted effects such as spikes in cholesterol.


As an oncology nutritionist, you’ll work directly with cancer patients to help them get the nutrients they need during treatment and recovery. You’ll also work with doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals as part of a team to provide well-rounded care. Note, however, that to become a board certified specialist in this area, you will first need to be a registered dietitian, not a nutritionist.

Eating disorders

Patients with eating disorders need a nutritionist to be a partner in their recovery. An eating disorder nutritionist needs to be sensitive to the needs of patients who often have a very unhealthy relationship with food.

This role will involve not only meal planning but working directly with patients to help them feel better about their bodies and food choices. It’s a good idea to take classes focused on psychology and eating disorders in addition to nutrition courses if you want to pursue this specialty.

Plant-based nutrition

Plant-based nutrition is one of the newest nutrition fields. In this emerging specialty, you’ll help clients make the transition to a vegan diet and lifestyle. Generally, you’ll need to gain a certification in plant-based nutrition in addition to your nutrition degree program. You can earn certification in as little as 6 weeks and many programs can be completed entirely online.

Sports nutritionist

A sports nutritionist works with athletes or teams who have specific caloric and nutrient needs to support their athletic activities. Sports nutritionists might also be personal trainers who can help clients develop eating plans in conjunction with muscle-building or weight-loss exercise routines.

Pediatric or geriatric nutritionist

As a pediatric nutritionist, you’ll work with children to ensure the food they’re eating is helping them hit developmental milestones, as well as special needs for chronic conditions and more. Similarly, geriatric nutritionists work with the elderly to make sure they’re getting the nutrients they need to support the aging process.

Holistic nutrition

Holistic nutrition philosophy that can be used in many specialties. Holistic nutrition emphasizes treating the root causes of health issues by adjusting the balance of nutrients a client consumes and also incorporating other aspects such as exercise, sleep, and meditation to improve wellness.

A holistic nutritionist helps clients use diet, as well as other factors, to improve their overall health. You’ll need to earn certification from the National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP) in holistic nutrition in order to practice.

What sort of education and certification do I need?

The education you need depends on what type of nutrition you want to practice and whether or not there are any regulations in your state. Often, you can enter the field with a certificate or associate’s degree, which can help you start working quickly, gain experience, and decide if you want further education to advance your career.

However, nearly half of U.S. states require some sort of licensing in order to practice with the title of nutritionist legally. In most cases, this involves having a bachelor’s degree, though a master’s degree is necessary to practice in eight states.

Beyond licensing, there are also several nutrition certifications you can pursue which show potential clients and employers that you’ve completed rigorous studies and are dedicated to maintaining the highest standards of the field. Requirements for these certifications range from having just a high school diploma to a master’s degree with 1,000 hours of supervised experience.

What can I expect to earn as a nutritionist?

Salaries vary wildly depending on where you live in the country, your education and experience level, your work setting, and any specialty you have. Discover the earning potential with careers as a nutritionist.

kendall upton

Written and reported by:
Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

Updated: December 16, 2021