Cert VS Degree: What Type of Nutrition Credential is Best?

Cert VS Degree: What Type of Nutrition Credential is Best?

Quality nutrition and consistency are the keys to health and wellness. Purposeful eating and getting a good balance of minerals, vitamins, protein, carbohydrates, fat, and water are challenging for most people. A nutrition specialist or health coach should be educated and trained to teach clients about these six elements of nutrition and develop a plan for effective eating habits. Specialists come in the form of a certified nutritionist, a licensed nutritionist, or a dietitian.

As a personal trainer looking to expand their knowledge and services for clients or someone interested in nutrition, you will need to weigh the different pathways to credentialing. There are many different options!

The Outlook for Nutrition

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that jobs in the field of nutrition are increasing by 11% year over year and the average nutrition and dietetics worker makes $60,000 per year. The top 10% of earners in this field make more than $80,000. There is a growing need for educated nutrition professionals to work with clients of all ages.

Certification, Degree, or License? What’s the Difference?

There are so many ways to gain the knowledge need to understand nutrition, digestion, absorption, and nutrition therapies. Outside of the education about food, counseling clients and nutrition programming requires its own set of learned skills. Personal trainers go from a fitness coach to a health coach when they can train the whole individual for success!

Certifications are the shortest programs of the options while degrees take the longest and cost the most. Degrees can be an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree with distance (online) programs available. Licenses are also an option after higher education. Let’s explore the differences as well as the benefits and drawbacks of each.


There are several recognized certification options for nutrition coaching and nutrition specialist that take 8-24 weeks to complete. Most of these programs come with a physical book that is mailed to you as well as online resources, practice exams, and videos. The certification exam is usually completed online and, once earned, the certification will not expire. 

Certification programs range in cost from $499 to $999 and cover the essentials of nutrition, coaching clients, and community health. One can even become a holistic nutritionist with the correct program.

Certified nutrition professionals can counsel clients with food choices, meal planning, and provide tools for nutritional success regardless of their fitness and health goals. 


  • Shorter program
  • Lower cost of completion
  • Gain general nutrition knowledge


  • Not as detailed as a degree or licensure
  • More may be required for certain employment opportunities

Learn more about the ISSA nutrition certification and get started on the first step today! ISSA Certified Nutritionist


Associate degree: a 2-year program that allows the student to complete their prerequisite and basic college coursework with 12-20 of the 60 credits of coursework geared towards the subject of their choice. No concluding exam required. 

Cost: $10,000 - $25,000

Bachelor’s degree: a 4-year program, typically 120 credits including the completion of prerequisite basic coursework and 30-45 credits worth of nutrition, dietetics, or nutrition counseling courses. There is no exam to complete a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and the degree may meet the requirements to sit for the Registered Dietitian exam if completed through an accredited program.

Cost: $20,000-$75,000

Master’s degree: an additional 2-4 years of study beyond the bachelor’s degree in the nutrition field with 40-60 credits of coursework specific to the field and practice of nutrition. Most accredited master’s degree programs require completion and defense of a thesis in the field prior to graduation. The master’s degree is currently not a requirement to sit for the Registered Dietitian exam, but, as of January 2024, a master’s degree will be required.

Cost: $30,000-$50,000

Doctoral degree: another 4-6 years more of intensified and specific nutrition study. While the cost and time spent for a doctoral degree versus the other degrees are much higher, the average income for a nutrition job with this background, according to the BLS, is the same. However, the opportunity for high level (higher paying) science and nutrition positions is open for a Post-doctoral individual.

Cost: $20,000-$40,000


  • Very detailed education
  • Accepted for any employment option


  • Longer programs (4-6 years)
  • Presentation of research thesis prior to graduation with master’s or higher (versus certification exam)
  • Much higher cost of programming (especially for distance or online programs)

Online education is a much more accessible form of learning for students as long as they have a computer and access to the Internet. As previously mentioned, online programs are typically more expensive than campus-based programs. There are 213 approved campus programs making students eligible to sit for the registered dietitian exam and only four approved colleges for online learning (bachelor’s degrees only).

Currently, there are no approved online master’s programs and eight approved campus-based master’s programs. With the change in the requirements coming in 2024, more programs are sure to be added to the list.


Most licenses require a bachelor’s degree or higher, with some states also requiring 900 or more hours of supervised experience with a specific nutrition focus. After meeting all education and experiential requirements, the student can sit for the licensure exam. Licenses are renewed with continuing education credits every 2-5 years.

Licensed individuals come away with in-depth knowledge of nutrition counseling and therapy in a clinical environment. 


  • Students can dive into post-degree experiential training
  • Very detailed and specific education


  • Takes 4-5 years to complete all components
  • Licensure may not be required in your state

Certified Clinical Nutritionist

This is the most prominent of the licensed nutrition programs available. Like the licensed dietitians, licensed nutritionists will complete an accepted degree. They complete a 56-hour post-collegiate course series educating them on clinical nutrition prior to taking the Certified Clinical Nutrition Exam. They come away with detailed knowledge of specific nutrition therapies like homeopathy, naturopathy, and detoxing. These therapies are typically not explored in a certification or a degree and registered dietitian credential.

Every 2 years, continuing education units must be submitted to maintain the credential followed by a recertification exam every 5 years. 

Choosing the Ideal Option 

Most students will opt for the certification while working towards a degree to pursue the registered dietitian credential or licensure. This allows them to begin working with clients while continuing their education. The hands-on experience is a great resume builder!

A great place to start is with your ISSA Certified Nutritionist credential!