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How to Become a Nutritionist: RD vs. CNS Pathway

Nutritionist uses a digital tablet to conduct an online consultation with his patient

Nutrition and health education have become a part of a large movement to encourage healthy eating and exercise habits. On the forefront of this movement are doctors, nurses, educators, dietitians, and nutritionists.

Nutritionists fill positions in hospitals, schools, athletics, and offices.  These professionals provide clients and patients with practical knowledge and advice for eating well and taking care of themselves. A nutritionist or dietitian can be highly specialized, working with a certain group or set of patients. For example, one might choose to work exclusively with dialysis patients. But a nutritionist can also have a more broad career, working within a hospital setting to plan meals, or working within schools to teach children the importance of healthy habits.

So what is a nutritionist?  What kinds of choices does an aspiring nutritionist have when it comes to certification, education, and licensing?

This career path is directly responsible for improving the health and wellness of patients. A nutritionist will become familiar with their clients, their needs, and how to best assist them in their journey to become healthier and happier people.  Check out the rest of this GetEducated article to find out how to pursue a career as a nutritionist today!

Types of Licensed Nutritionists

A career in nutrition is full of opportunities, and the first step in becoming a nutritionist is deciding which type of nutritionist you would like to become.  To begin, check out the following accrediting organizations which cover nutritionist certification:

  • Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS)
  • Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics Education (ACEND)
  • Accreditation Council for Nutrition Professional Education (ACNPE)  

The term ‘nutritionist’ is broad, encompassing diverse jobs and certifications. It is an unregulated title held by those with variations in experience, education, and credentials. This can be particularly confusing for prospective clients, let alone aspiring professionals. Simply put, a nutritionist is a dietary expert who evaluates and advises clients on how to meet specific dietary needs. A nutritionist, in its broadest terms, does not need to be certified with the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS) or the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics Education (ACEND).

However, in today’s competitive marketplace where health and nutrition are a growing societal trend, it can pay to become registered, certified, and licensed to be a better candidate for the job you want.

Registered Dietitian (RD)

A Registered Dietitian is a dietary specialist who is certified with The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics Education (ACEND). RD’s must have an ACNPE-accredited master’s or doctoral degree, complete an ACEND-accredited internship, pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s exam, gain state licensure, and keep up to date with any evolving education.  Again, being certified and licensed provides higher-paying positions and greater opportunities for advancement and upward mobility.

Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS)

A Certified Nutritionist Specialist is certified with the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS). Depending on the state, the Certified Nutrition Specialist credential offers an alternative route to licensure than the RD. In some states, nutritionists with the CNS credential can accept insurance and work in a hospital setting. 

The steps to becoming a CNS include earning an ACNPE-accredited master’s or doctoral degree, completing a BCNS-accredited internship, passing the Certification Examination for Nutrition Specialists, and applying for recertification when necessary.

No matter which type of nutritionist you choose to become, each offers unique and satisfying career options. Becoming a Registered Dietitian or a Certified Nutritionist requires more effort, but the titles offer higher earning potential and advancement opportunities in the long run. Any nutrition credential that is not recognized by the state government in which you reside is risky as eventually, it may become illegal for you to practice without proper accredited education and licensure. 

PRO-TIP: A ‘holistic nutritionist’ is similar to a classic nutritionist, but with a fine-tuned focus on how to use food and diet to both heal and maintain a healthy body. Holistic nutritionists work with patients, considering the person as a whole when evaluating their dietary needs. When creating a dietary plan, these professionals would use that evaluation to build appropriate goals and expectations for clients. It should be noted that finding an accredited holistic nutritionist program is challenging. This terminology is not regulated by the government and is therefore not eligible for taking insurance.

The Steps to Become a Licensed Nutritionist

The path to becoming a nutritionist varies depending on which type of career path you’d like to follow. However, the following steps remain more or less the same.

  1. Earn an accredited bachelor’s in dietetics or master’s degree in clinical nutrition;
  2. Gain practical experience through internships and supervised work (at least 900 hours, depending on desired credential);
  3. Pass RD (Registered Dietitian) or CNS (Certified Nutrition Specialist) certification exams;
  4. Find a job in a hospital, school, restaurant, or private practice;
  5. Stay competitive and maintain certification by earning continuing education credits.

A Breakdown of Steps Required to Become a Licensed Nutritionist

Education

To become an RD, you must complete a minimum of a master’s degree from an ACNPE-accredited program. The CNS credential requires a minimum of a master’s degree as well. The following majors are widely accepted for careers in nutrition:

  • Nutrition
  • Dietetics
  • Food Science
  • Biochemistry
  • Physiology
  • Microbiology
  • Chemistry
  • Sociology 

Degrees or majors with an emphasis on the natural sciences, research, and critical thinking are strongly encouraged.

Work Experience

Certification with either BCNS or ACEND provides increased earning and advancement opportunities. Becoming certified requires completing a supervised internship or work experience. To be certified with BCNS, applicants must complete a certain number of hours of supervised work experience. And in order to be certified with ACEND, applicants must complete an ACEND-approved internship with a length between 6 and 12 months, between 900 and 1200 hours, depending on the state.

Certification

To become an RDN, you must pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s exam, an exam administered by ACEND. In order to become a CNS, you must pass an exam, the Certification Examination of Nutrition Specialists, administered by the BCNS. Both are multiple-choice, timed exams with a pass/fail scoring system.

Job Search

From 2020 to 2030, the number of jobs available for dietitians and nutritionists are expected to grow by 11% or around 7,800 positions (Bureau of Labor Statistics). This growth is faster than average, which is likely the result of an aging population and an increasing interest in nutrition as a preventative healthcare measure. With a renewed emphasis on healthy habits, this career is growing fast. Jobs for nutritionists exist in hospitals, schools, restaurants, wellness programs, public outreach programs, and research labs, just to name a few. Both public and private sector jobs exist.

Continuing Education

For registered dietitians and certified nutritionists, continuing education credits are required as part of certification. The number of hours necessary for RD’s differs depending on the state in which they practice. For most states, a registered dietitian will complete around 75 continuing education credits every 5 years. However, each state differs in renewal cycle and hours required within that renewal cycle.

As a certified nutrition specialist, you must complete continuing education credits at the rate of 75 credits per 5-year period in order to maintain your certification.

Licensing, Certification & Specialization

Licensing is not necessarily required to work as a nutritionist. However, whether you have to be licensed or not depends largely on what state and what type of practice you’ll be working in. To have the most opportunity in earning power, upward mobility, and advancement, licensing and certification are strongly encouraged.

Licensing and continued education for certified nutrition specialists are regulated by BCNS. Certification requires a master’s or doctoral degree in nutrition or a related field. Find out more information by checking out the BCNS website.

Licensing with ACEND requires a bachelor’s degree, though the accrediting board communicates that by 2024, the minimum degree requirement will be a graduate degree. To maintain your certification with ACEND, you must earn continuing education credits (CEU) which are regulated state-by-state. Take the following states for example:

  • Maryland: you can expect to complete 30 continuing education credits biennially, or every two years.
  • Arkansas: you can expect to complete 12 continuing education credits annually, or every year.
  • Puerto Rico: you can expect to complete 42 continuing education credits every three years.

For more information, visit the ACEND website or contact your state regulatory board.

Nutrition School Accreditation Requirements for Licensing

To become an RD, programs must be programmatically accredited by The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics Education (ACEND).

In order to become a CNS, you must graduate from regionally accredited undergraduate and graduate programs (the gold standard of accreditation).

There are online nutrition degree options for completing undergraduate and graduate programs in nutrition and health sciences. Because certification with ACEND requires completion of certain on-campus science labs, it is not possible to complete a degree exclusively online, so most programs are hybrid or blended degrees. It is possible, however, to earn a master’s in clinical nutrition degree online that will qualify you to sit for the Certified Nutrition Specialist exam.

Specializing Your Career as a Nutritionist

Nutritionist specializations open the door to many career opportunities. No matter which aspects of health and wellness are of interest, there’s a specialization ready and waiting. The following nutritionist specializations are high in patient interaction and require certification with ACEND:

  • Pediatric
  • Gerontological
  • Renal
  • Oncological
  • Sports

For specializations with less patient interaction, you might consider:

  • Research
  • Education
  • Food Service
  • Business
  • Community Health

When you become licensed and certified as a nutritionist or dietitian, you’ll gain first-hand experience through supervised work requirements and internships. If possible, gain experience in the specialization to the one you’d like to pursue.

Changing careers is a promising possibility for nutritionists and dietitians. With a background in health sciences, you can look at careers in nursing, education, and consulting.

Here are a few professions closely related to nutrition:

  • Registered Nurse – A nurse, like a nutritionist, works with their patients to support and encourage health and wellness.
  • Health Educator – Health educators work in a variety of settings to teach healthy habits, like good diet and exercise, to the public.
  • Rehabilitation Counselor – Rehabilitation counselors work with individuals to overcome a variety of physical and/or mental obstacles.

What to Expect in the Nutritionist Job Environment

Due to the wide range of career paths available to nutritionists and dietitians, your opportunities are limitless. It’s likely that you will work in an office setting unless you’re a traveling consultant. There isn’t much opportunity to work from home or work remotely. However, that’s not to say those opportunities can’t be found or created.

  In this career, you’ll be responsible for a variety of tasks, including:

  • Evaluating patient/client diet and dietary needs
  • Monitoring clients
  • Remaining current on dietary science and research
  • Case management
  • Writing evaluations and reports

Overall, nutritionists enjoy a low-stress office atmosphere. Dietitians and nutritionists are not typically on call and are not expected to respond to patient emergencies. This career is also very flexible, making it possible to find an ideal work-life balance.

Continued education is required to be licensed as a certified nutritionist or as a registered dietitian. If you’re not licensed or certified, it’s still a good idea to gather CEU’s. Nutrition is an ever-changing field; new dietary research is released every day. For this reason, it’s a good idea to make a habit of reading respected dietary magazines and newsletters in addition to attending seminars, continued education classes, and conferences.

As of May 2020, the median salary for a nutritionist was $63,090 (BLS). Outpatient care centers paid a median salary of $69,660. Health diagnosing and treating practitioners had a median annual salary of $84,430

The lowest 10% earned less than $39,840 and the highest 10% earned above $90,000.

The need for dietitians and nutritionists is expected to grow by 11% from 2020 to 2030 (faster than average), adding a total of 7,800 jobs to the market. Due to an aging population and skyrocketing obesity rates, nutritionists and dietitians are in increasing demand.

Is This Career Path Right for Me?

To succeed as a nutritionist, the following traits and skills are highly regarded:

  • Reading comprehension – Between reading new research and patient charts, nutritionists need to be able to quickly understand and synthesize new information.
  • Active listening – When meeting with patients, the ability to listen, ask questions, and work together is a must.
  • Critical thinking – Though the same basic dietary requirements need to be met by most people, nutritionists will need to think critically about their patients to find solutions that best fit their dietary needs and lifestyles.
  • Analysis and evaluation – While working with patients, nutritionists monitor and evaluate progress and diet.
  • Communication – Nutritionists most likely need to interface with several patients a day or a week. They often need to work closely with doctors and nurses, so having strong written and oral communication skills is a must.

Being a dietitian or a nutritionist comes with its ups and downs.

Pros:

  • Flexible – This career is more flexible than average, meaning there’s ample opportunity to work as much or as little as one would like, making it easier to build a life around this lucrative career.
  • Low Stress – Even though this is a medical profession, nutritionists are not expected to be on call. They typically won’t be dealing with emergencies and are able to go home at the end of the workday.  Though the job may call for nontraditional hours, such as weekends or evenings to accommodate patient schedules.
  • Opportunities for advancement – As you become licensed and gain continuing education credits, you will have opportunities for advancement.
  • Helping People – In this career, you have the opportunity to truly help others to improve their lives.
  • Many career opportunities – This career is growing faster than the national average. Not only are nutritionists and dietitians in high demand, but they’re also needed in many different industries and medical areas.

Cons:

  • Unclear requirements –  In order to be a licensed nutritionist or dietitian, you need to meet certain requirements. But depending on which state and what type of nutritionist, these requirements can require more research.
  • The reward-work ratio is high – The amount of schooling and money required to become a nutritionist isn’t always rewarded with an equitable salary.
  • Hard work for little pay – Along the same lines as a high reward-work ratio is that nutritionists often have to work hard for low pay. Though a nutritionist may not always be working with patients, they will still be expected to complete large quantities of paperwork.
  • Information overload– The field of nutrition is always changing. New research is released every day. So in order to stay current, you have to sift through dynamic new research and information, then decide which information is good and which information isn’t.

Your Nutrition Career Begins Today

Once you’ve got clarification on your state’s requirements for licensing, you’re ready to begin researching degree programs. GetEducated is here to provide nutrition degree online programs holding proper accreditation for you to search!

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