A nutritionist is a person who advises others on what to eat in order to lead a healthy lifestyle or achieve a specific health-related goal, such as losing weight or reducing blood pressure.
Most nutritionists work in hospitals, nursing homes, long-term care facilities, or medical offices, but you may come across them in many other settings as well.
Depending on the state they practice in, a nutritionist may be required to have specific qualifications, certifications, or a license. However, in some states, there are no such mandates—meaning anyone can use the title if they want to.
This article explains what nutritionists do, their areas of focus, and education requirements. It also covers the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist.
What Exactly Do Nutritionists Do?
Nutrition is an area of expertise with a broad array of real-world applications. There are two main areas of concentration that bring nutritionists in contact with the general public.
Clinical nutritionists work in inpatient or outpatient clinical settings. This is often done one-on-one with individuals, as well as with their families, in assessing, designing, and implementing dietary strategies and nutritional therapies.
Often the aim is to address a particular medical issue, which can include:
- Hypertension, or high blood pressure
- Diabetes, or conditions that result in too much sugar in the blood
- Obesity, which describes excessive fat accumulation that can lead to other health concerns
Clinical nutritionists are also called upon tocome up with a plan of action in situations where a treatment protocol, such as chemotherapy, impacts an individual's overall diet or creates particular food sensitivities.
Nutritionists may work in:
- Community health clinics
- Recreational centers
- Local, state, and federal government agency programs
- Health maintenance organizations (HMOs)
Often, in these settings, specific subgroups—for instance, children, older individuals, at-risk families—and their specific needs are targeted in programs designed to address specific nutritional issues.
When the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services unveils revised USDA Dietary Guidelines based on the latest scientific data, nutritionists are amongst those who help explain the implications, educate the public, and implement plans of action for achieving the new goals.
Is Nutritionist the Same As a Dietitian?
Dietitians and nutritionists are both nutrition experts who have studied how diet and dietary supplements can affectyour health. Both are considered healthcare professionals, but the titles should not be used interchangeably.
A dietitianis an expert in dietetics, a branch of knowledge concerned with diet and its effects on health. A dietitian is qualified to diagnose and treat certain medical conditions, and they will commonly alter a client's nutrition based on a medical issue and/or individual goals.
In contrast, nutritionists deal with general nutritional aims and behaviors.
Dietitians also tend to have more education and credentials, though that's not always the case.
While every dietitian can be called a nutritionist, not every nutritionist is a dietitian.
Training and Regulation
Nutritionists are not as regulated as dietitians, and even those who do not have any professional training can legally call themselves nutritionists.
With that said, many nutritionists have advanced degrees and will passnutritionist certification boards to obtain the protected title of certified nutrition specialist (CNS). This can be obtained through theCertification Board for Nutrition Specialists (CBNS).
Applicants must have a master's degree in nutrition (or similar field) and at least 1,000 hours of practical experience before they are allowed to sit for the exam.
Only those who have passed the CBNS boards and met the practical experience requirements can legally add the letters CNS after their names.
TheClinical Nutrition Certification Boardis another organization that offers certification for the title of certified clinical nutritionist (CCN).
In contrast, a registered dietitian has to complete and pass the following in order to gain certification:
- A bachelor's degree with coursework approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics
- A minimum of 1,200 hours of supervised experience at an accredited healthcare facility, community agency, or foodservice corporation
- A national exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration
Furthermore, a dietitian must meet continuing professional education requirements each year to maintain board certification.
Dietitians either have RD (signifying registered dietitian) or RDN (registered dietitian nutritionist) after their names.
Principles of Healthy Eating
Some nutritionists find an area of practice where they wish to focus their attention. To become a specialist, additional training and a deeper breadth of knowledge may be warranted.
Athletes and active adults may seek guidance from sports professionals to enhance their athletic performance. Sports dietitians are increasingly hired to develop nutrition and fluid programs catered to individual athlete or teams.
A unique credential has been created for sports nutrition professionals:Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics(CSSD). If you're looking for a sports nutritionist in your area, theInternational Society of Sports Nutritionoffers areputable online search directoryto assist you.
These specialists work to promote the optimal nutritional health of infants, children, and adolescents. The Commission on Dietetic Registration now offersBoard Certification as a Specialist in Pediatric Nutritionfor registered dietitians.
These specialists design, implement, and manage safe and effective nutrition strategies to promote quality of life and health for older adults. At a time when nutrition is becoming even more recognized as an essential component of healthy aging and disease management, these specialists have what's considered a "must-have" expertise.
Renal or Nephrology Nutritionist
Diet therapy is critical for individuals with chronic kidney disease (CKD), which describes the progressive loss of kidney function. It is considered vital for someone knowledgeable about the specialized dietary needs to assess and conduct individualized medical nutrition therapy (MNT) for people with this condition.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, MNT can delay CKD progression, prevent, or treat complications such as malnutrition, and improve quality of life. Additionally, MNT can lower healthcare costs.
What Is a Nutritionist's Salary?
The median pay is $61,650 a year.
Other Nutrition Professionals
Health coachesand holistic nutritionists, who also offer diet advice, don't require a training program that's as extensive as anything discussed above.
- Health coaches may only require several weeks of training through theAmerican Council on Exerciseor other reputable organization.
- Holistic nutritionists who specialize in functional nutrition will need to complete a nutritionist course approved by the National Association of Nutrition Professionals, followed by 500 hours of practical experience, before sitting for a certification exam administered by the Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board.
The requirements for licensure can vary by state. Some states only license registered dietitians, while others license nutritionists if they're certified by one of the above-listed boards.
Here's how you can make the most of your time with a nutrition professional:
Have a medical checkup first. A nutritionist needs to know your health status before providing dietary guidance. Your healthcare provider can share your blood pressure and information from blood tests, such as blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood glucose (sugar), hemoglobin, and hematocrit levels (a measure of the volume of red blood cells in the blood), among others. Some health problems are managed in part or completely by diet and perhaps physical activity.
Share your goals. If you seek nutrition counseling on your own, know what you want to accomplish. Do you want to lose weight? Gain weight? Have more energy? Think about your goals ahead of time and be sure to make them realistic.
Be prepared to answer questions. Expect to talk about your eating habits, any adverse reactions to food, dietary supplements, your weight history, food preferences, general medical history, family health history, medications, and your lifestyle habits. These insights can help a nutritionist customize food and nutrition advice to match your lifestyle and health needs.
Record your food intake. If you're asked to, write down everything you eat and drink for several days. Records the amounts (in cups, ounces, tablespoons, etc.) and how the foods were prepared, such as fried, grilled, or baked.
Forget miracles and magic bullets. A qualified nutrition professional will focus on changes in your lifestyle and food choices, not on quick results, miracle cures, or costly dietary supplements.
The services of licensed dietitians and nutritionists may be covered by your health insurance, including Medicaid and Medicare.
A nutritionist is an expert in the use of food and nutrition for managing various conditions and improving overall health. Nutritionists may work in a variety of settings, including inpatient or outpatient settings, schools, and health clinics.
A nutritionist may counsel individuals with general health concerns. Some may also have a certain specialty.
While the terms nutritionist and dietitian are often used interchangeably, they have different meanings, education requirements, and areas of focus.