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Do you have a passion for healthy eating? Do you enjoy learning about the latest in nutrition research? Then you may find it satisfying to become a nutrition coach or nutritionist. For many, this career path involves earning their certification. We’ll talk about the benefits of taking this step, as well as certification requirements. But first, let’s get clear on what a nutritionist is.
A nutritionist creates personalized meal plans for clients. Typically, these plans are based on the client’s health goals. Maybe the client wants to lose weight, for instance. For them, a nutritionist might suggest a low-calorie plan. Perhaps the client wants to gain muscle instead. In this case, the nutritionist may increase the client’s protein intake. This can help better support muscle development.
A nutritionist also provides nutrition education. This helps clients learn how to make healthy food choices for themselves. It also improves their understanding of food science. They start to recognize how their body responds to certain food items. This makes it easier to identify what they need to eat and drink to move closer to their health goals.
It’s also common for clients with health issues to work with a nutritionist. If the client has high blood pressure, the nutritionist can structure a low-salt diet. Perhaps the client has an inflammation-based health condition. The nutritionist could develop a meal plan with anti-inflammatory foods.
The terms dietitian and nutritionist are often used as if they’re the same thing. However, there are differences between the two.
A nutritionist is anyone who offers nutrition counseling, nutrition coaching, or other nutrition care services. They are more of a generalist, offering basic nutrition advice. As such, they typically don’t need a degree.
Conversely, a dietitian often provides more specialized meal plans. They might work with clients who have eating disorders, for example. Or they may offer medical nutrition therapy. This requires advanced, specialized training. And it often requires a degree. In most states, a license or registration is also required. An example of the latter is a registered dietitian (RD).
There’s also a newer role. It is that of dietitian nutritionist. This professional has education and training in food and nutrition science. Once registered, their title is registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN).
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explains that an RDN must (1):
have a degree from an accredited dietetics program
complete a supervised practice
pass a national exam
engage in continual professional development, such as by taking continuing education classes
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that certification is not always required to work as a nutritionist (2). At the same time, many employers prefer this credential. Being a certified nutritionist says that you understand human nutrition principles. It also suggests that you know how to apply these principles. You’re able to devise menus based on individual clients’ situations and needs.
If you plan to work in a state that requires licensure, certification may help meet this requirement. Some states accept the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential in place of a license. The CNS designation is administered through the American Nutrition Association. It is offered via the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists.
Even if not required, earning your certification has many benefits. One is that it helps reinforce your nutrition expertise. It establishes you as an authority. It says that you understand applied nutrition strategies. It also sets you apart from nutrition professionals without certification.
If you are a personal trainer, nutrition certification can expand your services. As a trainer, you can create customized exercise plans for clients. As a nutritionist too, you can also provide your clients with personalized meal plans. This can help them achieve their fitness goals faster and easier.
A health coach can also benefit from a certification in nutrition. People with chronic health issues often have specific dietary needs. Helping them meet those needs can make it easier to manage their condition. It may even improve their quality of life. It can do this by giving their body the nutrients it needs to function optimally.
One of the big questions is whether you can become a nutritionist without a degree. The answer depends, in part, on the state in which you want to work. Here’s why.
Many states require licensure to work as a dietitian or nutritionist. This licensure generally requires having a degree. (It may also require supervised training and passing an exam.) You could satisfy the degree requirement by earning a bachelors degree. You might get your degree in dietetics or human nutrition. Another option is to get a degree in health sciences.
That said, some states allow certification to satisfy the licensure requirement. This could enable you to provide nutrition services without a degree. It might also allow you to bypass the supervised dietetic internship requirement. Neither is typically required for a certification program.
Because every state is different, it’s important to check with your state. Reach out to the professional regulation authority. For example, in Florida, this authority is the Dietetics and Nutrition Practice Council (3). This council ensures that every dietitian and nutritionist meets the state’s requirements.
California is different. In this state, you can provide nutrition care without being registered or licensed. But if you want to work as a dietitian in California, you can (4). Although, you must do so as a registered dietitian.
So, you want to become a certified nutrition coach. The next step is deciding where to obtain your certification. Your employer may dictate which accreditation council you choose. Otherwise, you can pick your own certification program.
Certification programs can differ in the information provided. Review the top nutrition certification to find the one that matched your needs and goals. For example, BarBend provides an in-depth round up of the top certifications to help you compare all of the options at once.
Some may focus more on holistic nutrition, for instance. This refers to how different elements of nutrition are interconnected. Others might have an integrative nutrition approach. This approach aims to connect nutrition elements for maximum health.
Choosing a program that aligns with your beliefs is helpful. It’s easier to provide nutrition advice to others when you follow the same advice yourself.
Certification programs can also vary in length. You can generally become a nutrition specialist within a few months. If you need a degree for a specific certification, such as to become a certified clinical nutritionist, the entire process could take years.
There are things you can do to be sure you meet the necessary certification requirements. One is to read the program information carefully. You can also sometimes find this information on the frequently asked questions page.
Another good resource is your state’s board. Review the board information. Check to see if a degree or certification is needed to practice in that state. This will tell you what you need to provide nutrition services.
If you’re ready to get started, ISSA offers Nutritionist Certification. This certification course teaches you how to create meal plans for your clients. You also learn how to help clients develop and sustain positive eating habits.
By becoming an ISSA Nutritionist, you'll learn the foundations of how food fuels the body, plus step by step methods for implementing a healthy eating plan into clients' lifestyles.
About RDNs. About RDNs. (n.d.). https://www.eatright.org/about-rdns-and-ndtrs
Dietitians and Nutritionists: Occupational outlook handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022, September 30). https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dietitians-and-nutritionists.htm#tab-4
Dietetics and Nutrition. Dietetics and Nutrition | Florida Department of Health. (n.d.). https://www.floridahealth.gov/licensing-and-regulation/dietetic-nutrition/index.html
California. American Nutrition Association. (n.d.). https://theana.org/california