How to become a nutritionist
Eating habits, food and nutrition are extremely important for maintaining one’s health, but also for recovery after severe illnesses, and this is one of the main responsibilities of a nutritionist and dietitiand, professionals who help people lead a healthier life, primarily by introducing healthy dietary habits.
Although telling someone to eat healthy sounds simple enough, it is far from it. The long-term health of the patient depends on the evidence-based assessment of their condition, which is why it is crucial to possess the necessary knowledge for such an assessment. In the United States, the professions of nutritionist and dietitian are taken very seriously, meaning that one needs to acquire certain knowledge and certificates to be allowed to practice these jobs.
Healthy people commonly do not pay much attention to the quality of their diet until they get sick. However, one should not wait for something bad to happen to start eating healthy. Although preventive action is an effective method of maintaining health, there are many situations when it is necessary to help the patient cope with a newly diagnosed disease. In those cases, the job of the dietitian nutritionist is to create a healthy food therapy and monitor the patient’s progress.
In most cases, the duties of a nutritionist and dietitian include:
- Analyzing the patient’s needs and adequate counseling with regard to diet change
- Designing a diet plan, i.e. defining how, when and how much food the patient needs
- Monitoring the effects of the new diet and potentially modifying the plan if the desired effect is not achieved
- In the case of serious conditions, such as diabetes or cancer, it is necessary to work closely with the patient’s physician in order to define food choices harmonized with the prescribed therapy.
In addition to direct contact with patients, another duty of a nutritionist is promoting a healthy diet and providing advice on how to maintain a healthy body.
How long does it take to become a nutritionist
Becoming a nutritionist takes between one and five years of training. In the United States, becoming a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) takes five years of professional training and development. It is possible to practice nutrition before a period of five years, but without a certificate. However, in order to work with serious patients within the healthcare system, one needs to possess a bachelor’s degree, and to pass the national exam in order to obtain their credentials for work.
Depending on one’s personal goals, it is possible to become a nutritionist by attending short training courses where the basics of this discipline are taught. However, in that case, one becomes a nutrition counselor, and they are not allowed to treat serious patients within the healthcare system. Namely, in the U.S., the requirements for a licensed nutritionist vary by state, so, in some cases, it is possible to give advice on nutrition without a certificate. However, without adequate training, it is impossible to work as a certified nutritionist.
So, how to become a nutritionist? One can share dietary advice and call themselves a nutritionist, even though they do not possess formal training in this field. After high school, it is possible to acquire the basic knowledge through one-year courses, but this is not a professional level that enables one to treat patients, instead, they can only give advice on healthy diet and weight management. Distance learning options that enable the acquisition of online degrees are also available.
Associate’s degree in nutrition – this form of entry level education lasts two years and enables one to perform certain jobs, such as dietetic technician or food technologist. Students with this level of education can continue their training, and acquire a bachelor’s degree.
Bachelor’s degree in nutritional science – training lasts four years and is the most common choice for nutritionists and dietitians. To do this job at a certain level, one needs a college or university degree, i.e. attending undergraduate studies. Students who want to become dietitian nutritionists choose bachelor degree programs that focus on healthcare. Although it is not necessary, nutrition is a logical choice for a major, although students can also opt for other specialist courses, such as dietetics, food science, biology, etc.
Master’s degree in nutrition – it usually lasts 2-3 years and represents further training in the field of nutrition. A master of science in nutritional sciences is a common choice of students who want to expand their knowledge so that they could engage in research, education, or focus on clinical nutrition.
Doctor’s degree in nutrition – depending on the Ph.D. nutrition program, a doctor’s degree takes about four years. This level of education enables one to teach at university level, to work in the highest positions in the state administration, or engage in scientific research. Students with a doctoral degree are in high demand by the leading food companies in the world.
Obtaining a nutritionist certificate
Although the requirements vary from state to state, a serious career and the ability to work in healthcare institutions requires a certificate. Although there are several types of licenses, the first requirement is between 500 and 1200 hours of practice certified by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). It should be noted that many organizations insist on certificates, even though it is not mandatory in their home state. In addition, given the nature of the profession and the great responsibility of working with patients, work experience and continuous professional development throughout one’s career are recommended.
The minimum requirements for obtaining a license in most federal states include a bachelor’s degree and completing a dietetic internship. After that, students pass an exam that proves they have acquired the necessary knowledge. The test includes areas related to the analysis of the patient’s condition, creating an adequate dietary plan, monitoring patients, etc.
One of the most popular choices is the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) credential issued by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, a representative of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. After that, one needs a continuous education, i.e. collecting educational credits in order to extend their license every five years.
Another option is the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential, proof of a high degree of expertise. The requirement is a master’s or Ph.D. degree, 1000 hours of supervised work (practice experience), and taking the exam. The certificate is issued by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists, an accreditation body of the American Nutrition Association. Same as in the previous case, the license is renewed every five years.
In addition to the previously mentioned options, it is also possible to obtain the following certificates:
- Clinical Nutritionist
- Health Coach
- Sports Nutritionist
- Holistic Nutritionist
- Licensed Nutritionist
These certificates enable one to work in certain fields, and a possibility of continued professional development in order to achieve a successful career as a nutritionist.
Trained dietitians and nutritionists commonly specialize in a particular area. If they choose to work in a clinical setting, they will need additional specialization for working with patients with specific conditions (diabetes, digestive problems, various forms of cancer, etc.). On the other hand, many are interested in commercial areas, i.e. nutrition counseling (creating weight loss diets).
The job of a nutritionist can also involve planning adequate nutrition for large organizations, such as sports teams, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, corporate canteens, catering companies, etc. Possessing a master’s degree or a PhD enables one to work in college or university, or to engage in scientific research. A higher education degree also allows one to work for large corporations, both in research and managerial positions.
Some of the positions in this field include:
- eating disorder nutritionist – creating specific dietary plans for patients who suffer from anorexia, extreme obesity, bulimia, and other eating disorders which are often related to mental health issues.
- corporate wellness consultant – taking care of employees of certain companies through nutrition counseling and planning health and wellness programs.
- oncology nutritionist – working with oncology patients who require a special diet in line with the recommendations of medical professionals who monitor the patient’s condition.
- health coach – working with patients to improve their health by planning a proper diet and designing a healthy lifestyle.
- public health nutritionist – examining the general health of a larger population and creating plans for a healthier diet and better quality of life.
- food safety auditor – analyzing and controlling the quality of food production (in factories, farms, butcheries, restaurants, etc.).
- pediatric nutritionist – designing a healthy diet for children to support their proper development.
- nutrition therapist – identifying dietary problems and creating adequate solutions (vitamin deficiency, high blood pressure, anemia, etc.)
- sports nutritionist – working with amateur and professional athletes and sports teams. Planning a diet in line with their sports goals and potential restrictions (vegetarian, allergies, etc.)
- veterinary nutritionist – treating animals with nutritional problems.
How much does a nutritionist make?
According to the official data of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for nutritionists is $63,090. When it comes to the salary of full-time employees, it should be noted that there is a wide range of positions associated with nutrition, which is why the annual salaries in this field vary from $39.000 to over $90.000.
The encouraging news for this profession is that the interest in a healthy diet and lifestyle is growing among people, and consequently, so is the need for trained nutritionists. The quality of life has increased, and so has the standard of living, so health science is gaining in importance. As a result, the estimates say that in the coming years, there will be more and more job opportunities, and that the market will grow by 11 percent by 2030.