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How to Become a Nutritionist

Mary Gormandy White
young nutritionist

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), "Nutritionists are experts in the use of food and nutrition to promote health and manage disease." Working as a nutritionist generally requires specialized expertise, training, and field-specific credentials.

Requirements to Become a Nutritionist

If you want to become a nutritionist, you'll generally need to complete a minimum of a Bachelor's degree, according to OOH. Your degree can be in Nutrition Sciences, Dietetics, or a closely related field.

It generally takes about four years to earn this type of degree (for full-time students). If you already have an undergraduate degree in another field, you could opt instead to complete a Master's degree in Nutrition Science instead of seeking a second Bachelor's degree.

The curriculum typically includes core classes required of all university students and extensive coursework in Biology, Chemistry, and other sciences. Nutrition Science coursework includes subjects like:

  • Nutrition-specific courses (macronutrients, nutrition in health, nutrition in disease prevention, nutritional genomics, and more)
  • Biology courses (anatomy and physiology, genetics, microbiology cell biology, and more)
  • Chemistry classes (organic chemistry and biochemistry)
  • Physics
  • Additional coursework

Your degree program will also include an extensive internship during which you'll get hands-on, practical experience working under the supervision of an experienced nutritionist or other credentialed professional in the field.

Choosing an Educational Program

NutritionScienceDegrees.org recommends choosing a program that is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND), which is part of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Accredited programs must teach an approved curriculum that includes a 1,200-hour internship. Graduates of accredited programs are eligible to sit for the Commission on Dietetic Registration exam to earn their CDR credential.

According to Learn.org, the three best programs in the U.S. are the ones at Baylor University (located in Waco, Texas), Cornell University (located in Ithaca, New York), and the University of Michigan (located in Ann Arbor). Of course, you don't have to attend one of these schools to get a quality education to prepare for a career as a nutritionist.

There are many other quality ACEND accredited programs throughout the country, some of which require in-person attendance and others that can be completed online. You can see a list of accredited programs on the ACEND website. You can view all programs or limit your search to online programs, programs in a specific state, graduate programs, and more.

State Requirements for Nutritionists

Completing formal education is not the only requirement; the majority states require nutritionists to be licensed or certified. You can see a map detailing state laws for work in this field at NutritionAdvocacy.org. You can view the color-coded map of the entire country for a general overview. Click on the state where you live or want to work for details. Review the information provided on the site and (if applicable for your state) click through the provided link that goes directly to your state's regulatory board.

Licensure generally requires passing a state exam. Rather than offering an exam, some states simply require nutritionists to hold an acceptable certification credential. Commonly recognized certification credentials for nutritionists include Registered Dietician Nutritionist, Certified Clinical Nutritionist, or Certified Nutrition Specialist. You can see an overview of the differences between these three certifications on the website of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Even if you live in a state that doesn't require licensure or certification, that doesn't mean that you should try to jump in to the field without formal training. Even in these states, employers are likely to give preference to candidates with formal education or certification in the field. Further, even if you want to have an individual consulting practice, clients are likely to want to see credentials that demonstrate evidence of your expertise before engaging your services.

Growth Field

While it takes quite a bit of time and study to become a credentialed nutritionist, this is a good field to pursue if it is one that interests you. It is a growing field with good earning potential. According to the OOH, employment in this field is "is projected to grow 15 percent from 2016 to 2026," which is above the average growth rate expected for all occupations. OOH indicates there were 68,000 nutritionists or dieticians working in the U.S. as of 2016 with a median annual salary of just under $58,920 (which works out to a little over $28 per hour). Of course, this includes everyone working in the field, so you shouldn't expect this rate of pay as an entry level nutritionist.

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How to Become a Nutritionist