How to become a nutritionist
Are you passionate about nutrition and helping others maintain a healthy lifestyle? If so, you might want to become a nutritionist. In fact, this profession connects food, health, and well-being.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are around 74,700 nutritionists and dieticians in the United States. This is an in-demand job with an expected growth rate of 7% from 2021 to 2031.
But before you start working in the wellness and food industry, you'll need to tick a few boxes. There are training programs, certifications, and work experience that every nutritionist should plan to undertake.
In this article, we'll tell you everything you need to know about becoming a nutritionist. From the education requirements to the top skills required for the position, you'll find it all below.
What is a nutritionist?
Nutritionists are food experts. They give people general diet advice and help them lead healthier lives. They also create meal plans, educate clients, and support others in managing various diseases.
The duties nutritionists are allowed to perform vary between states. Certified nutritionists with a master's degree, for instance, will have more responsibilities than those with a bachelor's degree.
How does a certified nutritionist compare to a dietician? There are some differences.
While dieticians can do all of the same tasks as nutritionists, they can also diagnose and treat illnesses and chronic diseases.
Dieticians can also provide care to patients with complex needs. For example, they can support patients who have eating disorders or drug addictions.
However, both nutritionists and dieticians often specialize in a niche practice.
Where do nutritionists work?
Nutritionists can be found in a range of settings. They commonly work in private clinics, and many of them are self-employed.
Some nutritionists work in hospitals and outpatient services as part of a healthcare team. For example, they can work with physiotherapists, surgeons, and nurses to give patients all-around care.
Nutritionists can also work in nursing homes ensuring that residents have healthy diets.
And sometimes, these health professionals work for local governments in public policy departments. They may promote good nutrition in their communities, visit schools, and organize health surveys.
Nutritionists may speak to their clients in-person or online via video chat.
Most nutritionists work full-time, but part-time employment is also an option. They typically work during weekdays, along with the occasional Saturday.
How much do nutritionists make?
In the U.S., the average salary of those working in the nutrition and dietetics field is $61,650 per year or $29.64 per hour.
The median salary can vary between industries. For example, nutritionists in outpatient services have an average annual salary of $74,640. Compare this to hospital settings, where the average salary for nutritionists is $61,820 per year.
Your location also matters:
California, the highest-paying state for nutritionists, offers an average salary in that state is $82,380 per year
In the District of Columbia, the average salary is $80,600 per year
Nutritionists in Hawaii hover around $75,020 per year
The yearly salary for nutritionists in New Jersey is around $74,850
Finally, nutritionists in Rhode Island make an average of $74,080
So where does the variance come in? You’ll be pleased to learn that your experience, education, and unique skills can all significantly (and positively) impact your final annual wage.
Steps to becoming a nutritionist
If you want to work as a nutritionist, you'll need to complete a few steps. Here's how you can get started on this career path:
1. Start with the basics
The first step is to get prepared. In most states, the minimum age for becoming a nutritionist is either 18 or 21.
You'll need a high school diploma or equivalent, and you may also need a high grade point average (GPA) — although the requirements will depend on where you want to study.
If you're still in high school, consider taking health, biology, and anatomy classes.
Think about whether a nutrition career is right for you. Are you genuinely interested in healthy eating? Do you like working with people? Speak to others in the industry, and take our career quiz to see if your personality matches the job.
Before you enroll in college, think about what you'd like to specialize in. For example, do you want to work in pediatric nutrition or sports nutrition? And do you want to be a nutritionist or a dietician? These questions will help you make important decisions down the road.
2. Complete a degree
Next, you'll need to complete a bachelor's degree. There are different options to choose from, but make sure you look for something that's relevant to nutrition.
For example, you can obtain a Bachelor of Health Science or a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition degree. If you want to work as a clinical nutritionist, you'll have to study for a Bachelor of Clinical Nutrition.
An undergraduate degree will usually take around four years to complete — or longer if you study part-time.
A master's degree isn't essential for this position, but it's highly recommended, as it will expand your knowledge and open up additional career opportunities. And, if you do want to get certified (we'll go into the details about this later), a master's degree is a must-have.
Doctoral programs are also available. If you're not sure, you should check with your college or university for the right pathway.
3. Get work experience
Hands-on experience will give you the confidence you need to work with patients and you'll gain additional skills. Furthermore, it's usually a requirement for certification.
Aim for at least 500 hours of work experience, but keep in mind that you may need more than 1,200 hours to become certified as a dietician.
Some degrees come with supervised practice. For example, if you want to work as a clinical nutritionist, you'll need to get practical experience in a hospital setting.
Alternatively, there are internships available that you can do while you study or after you graduate.
During this period, it’s wise to begin building your network of professional connections. Get to know others in the field because they might help you get a job in the future.
4. Think about certification
The certification requirements can vary between states. But even if it's not mandatory, certification is still beneficial, as it can improve your chances of getting a job.
There are different types of certifications, and the right choice will depend on your career goals. Here are four popular professional organizations that offer certifications:
Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists (CBNS)
Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB)
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)
Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD)
Each of these organizations has unique requirements. Most require a master's degree and work experience.
Here's an example of the Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN) certification requirements from the CBNS:
You can also expect to take an exam. Exams are done in-person or online and come with a small application fee.
Once you've met the criteria and got a passing score, you can get your certification. If you don't pass, you'll be able to retake the test at another time.
There are also steps you'll need to take to maintain your certification. For example, you may need continued professional development and training. Some organizations will expect you to pass an exam every two to five years, and there can be ongoing renewal fees.
5. Start your career
You've finished your degree in nutrition, gained work experience, and become certified. Now, it's time to start your career.
You can browse nutritionist positions on our job board to see what's available near you.
But before you apply, you'll need to update your resume and put together your cover letter. Read each job description carefully for each position you apply for, and customize your resume to fit the role.
Most employers expect you to pass a background check. This process usually happens after your job interview but before you start work.
The background check will verify your work history and education. Plus, it'll flag any misdemeanors and felonies on your record. You can expect it to go back seven years or more.
6. Keep training
Even after you get a job, it's important to keep training to meet ongoing educational requirements and maintain your professional certification.
There are other advantages that come with continued learning. For example, you can upskill and branch out into other areas, such as diabetes management, sports nutrition, or food science.
Plus, you'll stay up to date with industry trends and innovations.
Top nutritionist skills
You'll need a few key skills to work in the nutrition field. Here are the top five:
Nutritionists work closely with clients and support them in making healthier lifestyle choices. Because they work one-on-one or in groups, they need excellent communication skills.
They should be able to make clients feel comfortable and ask them questions to complete their health assessments.
Nutritionists need to be confident and able to speak with a diverse range of people. For example, their clients may speak English as a second language, have a learning disability, or live in a long-term care facility.
Good body language, listening skills, and written communication skills are also essential for this position.
And don't forget that nutritionists also need to communicate with others in the health industry. This may include physiotherapists, fitness instructors, and physicians.
People visit nutritionists for different reasons. They may have specific health goals or need help with ongoing health issues, such as heart disease, vitamin deficiencies, or diabetes.
Alternatively, they might need support with weight management.
Clients may be vulnerable, scared, nervous, or embarrassed. To put them at ease, nutritionists need to be compassionate. They should never judge their clients; instead, they should always practice empathy.
A compassionate nutritionist will be able to create an achievable care plan. Clients usually return after their initial appointment, and they'll be more likely to trust someone who is understanding.
Another skill that nutritionists need is organization. They may have appointments throughout the day, so sticking to a schedule is essential.
Nutritionists need to manage calendars, update client files, and keep accurate records.
For example, they may use software to store client details. There may be records of contact information, nutrition plans, progress, and chronic conditions. Plus, if they work in a private practice, a nutritionist may bill clients, answer phones, and create rosters.
When a client visits a nutritionist's office, they expect it to be neat and tidy.
Nutritionists need to listen to clients to understand their needs.
If the client has seen a doctor, they might inform the nutritionist of detailed health issues the latter can work with. For example, a client may have the results of a blood test or a food allergy test.
Nutritionists need to use their analytical skills to create personalized plans. If someone is lactose-intolerant, for instance, they'll need to eliminate dairy from their diet. Or, if a client has high cholesterol, the nutritionist might recommend a diet that is low in saturated fats.
The nutritionist must come up with a care plan that the client can maintain at home.
Because nutrition is a health-related field, computer skills are essential. Nutritionists need to type up reports, use computer-based calendars, and compose letters and emails.
You'll also need computer skills to complete your degree program and board certification exams.
Successful nutritionists are confident using Google Workspace, Microsoft Office, and email.
Healthcare facilities often use dedicated programs, so you should be tech-savvy and a quick learner. Fast, accurate typing is also important.
Where to find a job as a nutritionist
If you work in the nutrition and dietetics field, you can have a fulfilling career with plenty of job opportunities.
Ready to get hired? You can browse nutritionist positions on our job board. Just enter your keywords and your location to see what's available.
Or, if you're a certified dietician, you can browse dietician positions.
You can create a free Jobcase account to set up job alerts, join our community discussions, and use our professional resume builder.
Working as a nutritionist
Nutritionists are healthcare workers who specialize in food and nutrition. This is a field with positive job growth, as more positions are set to become available over the next few years.
You'll need a high school diploma or equivalent to work as a nutritionist. The next step is a bachelor's degree, and a master's degree is also recommended.
Certification isn't always essential, but it's preferred by most employers. You'll need to meet the minimum criteria to get this certification. For example, you'll have to complete supervised work experience and pass an exam.
You'll need a few key skills to be successful in this role, including communication, compassion, and organization. Nutritionists also need analytical skills and computer skills.