How to Become a Nutritionist: Career Opportunities and How They Differ from Dietitians


If you’re passionate about good health, delicious food, and overall well-being for yourself and others, becoming a nutritionist might be a career option to consider. 

What is a nutritionist

“A nutritionist is somebody with knowledge about the interaction of food and health,” explained Marianne Shuster, an instructor at the UC San Diego Division of Extended Studies Integrative Nutrition Program. “They promote food as a major component of health and can guide people in finding what's right for them.” 

A nutritionist’s everyday work may involve helping clients assess dietary needs, creating meal plans, and giving dietary advice.

Yet, while this might seem straightforward, the legal and professional definition of a “nutritionist” is more complicated than that. 

Unlike becoming a dietitian, which is a licensed and regulated role that requires an advanced degree and certifications, the term "nutritionist" is often used broadly and can refer to a range of roles in health and wellness. 

“There are some requirements, but compared to the training of a registered dietitian, they are much less stringent,” said Dr. Gordon Saxe, physician, epidemiologist, and director of the UC San Diego Center for Integrative Nutrition. “A lot of people even call themselves nutritionists without any significant training.”

Some ‘nutritionists’ are health coaches or wellness consultants who may or may not have a degree or certification in the field. Other nutritionists might be highly qualified, yet not to the point of the advanced qualifications of a dietitian. Other nutritionists still might be licensed nurses or physicians with an extra focus or specialization in nutrition.

This broad use of the term can sometimes lead to confusion about the actual qualifications and expertise of individuals in this role. In some states, there can be little to no regulation, while in other states the qualifications for giving professional nutritional advice can be very strict. 

This variability means it is important for both aspiring nutritionists—and those seeking their services—to verify the necessary credentials, training, and expertise. This will ensure that professionals and consumers are on the right track.

We talked to Shuster, Dr. Saxe, and Kathleen Bundy, a registered dietitian with the Center for Integrative Nutrition at UC San Diego Health, to get some clarity on what it might mean to become a nutritionist or dietician, the relative merits of each, and the potential paths for someone looking to make nutrition a key part of their professional pursuit. 

Dietitian vs Nutritionist: What Path to Choose

One of the most important distinctions to address upfront is the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist. The key contrast lies in the education and scope of practice of each professional path. 

For those aiming to become registered dietitians (RDs), the path involves completing a master's degree in dietetics or nutrition, followed by a supervised internship and passing the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam. Maintaining credentials as a dietitian also requires ongoing education to stay current with the latest research and practices in the field. 

By contrast, nutritionists may have a variety of educational backgrounds. These can range from certifications or degrees in nutrition-related fields to life experience. The most rigorous standards for a certified nutritionist generally require a bachelor's degree and certification with a recognized certifying agency. 

Another major difference between the two is that dieticians are often involved in clinical settings, where they calculate the nutritional needs of hospital patients, provide specialized dietary advice for specific medical conditions, and participate in treatment plans alongside other healthcare professionals.

“If you've ever been to a hospital or known someone [who's] had a surgery, most likely there was a dietitian on the team,” said Bundy. "[The dietitian] may have provided nutrition education to a patient, or they could have been in the ICU calculating nutrition for an IV or tube feeding. It can be very specific and require a lot of training.” 

Bundy notes that dieticians often extend their expertise beyond food to include overall health and well-being.

"We might also touch on aspects like sleep, stress, and physical activity to get an overall picture of a person's health and wellness,” said Bundy.

Nutritionists on the other hand are more likely to work with clients in a private practice, either by running their own business or as part of a team at a wellness center. They could coach clients individually, or perhaps work with a group of people to improve nutrition or eating habits.

It's important to note that for tasks a nutritionist is qualified to do, a dietitian is likely even more qualified.

“‘Nutritionist’ is like a catch-all phrase,” said Bundy. “All dietitians are nutritionists but not all nutritionists are dietitians.”

This distinction does not mean that a nutritionist's expertise is invalid, but it is a key point to note–for both consumers and those seeking to enter the wellness field.

“I have known people who were nutritional therapy practitioners or nutritionists who were very good at what they did,” said Bundy. “But you still might want to ensure the professionals you work with have that extra certification or licensure.” 

While the dietician path may be more rigorous, the role generally offers greater stability and higher earning potential. 

The salary of a registered dietitian in the United States can range from $68k-$88k per year with room to grow into more managerial and administrative healthcare roles. 

Dieticians can typically charge insurance for their services whereas nutritionists often need to find private clients that will pay out of pocket. Additionally, dieticians have the ability to work in clinical settings, which ensures a steady flow of patients and doctor referrals that nutritionists generally won't have.

The earnings of a nutritionist can be quite variable with reported averages between $46k-$108k per year, likely due to the often entrepreneurial nature of the work. 

Laws and Regulations Around Being a Nutritionist

State regulations for practicing as a nutritionist and providing nutritional guidance are critical considerations for those interested in pursuing the profession.

“As far as someone looking to go into the field, it's important to know what the regulations and licensing are in your state. It might be easier or harder to practice as a nutritionist in some states than others,” explained Bundy.

In certain states, anyone can legally provide nutrition counseling services as a nutritionist, even if they aren’t certified or licensed. The flip side is that, generally, in those states, the services of nutritionists aren’t eligible for insurance reimbursement, meaning clients will need to pay out of pocket. 

Yet in other states, nutritionists are required to get licensure or certification in order to legally practice and perform specific nutrition counseling within that state. 

While each state has its own laws and anybody interested in pursuing a career as a nutritionist should carefully study the codes for their states, the distinctions generally fall into four categories. 

  1. In states like New York, Colorado and Arizona, anyone can legally perform nutrition counseling without certification or licensure, yet in these states it’s unlikely that the services can be reimbursed by insurance.
  2. In states like California, Oregon, and Texas, anyone can provide nutrition counseling, yet by law, only registered dietitians are eligible for insurance reimbursement in these states. 
  3. In states like Florida, Illinois, and Maryland, nutritionists are required to be licensed to perform nutrition counseling. Eligibility for insurance reimbursement can vary. 
  4. In states like Ohio, Georgia, and Wyoming, it’s a requirement to be a registered dietitian in order to provide any nutritional counseling at all. 

Full requirements are available here:

Moving to a state with no licensing requirements for nutritionists might seem appealing, but it means there’s no institutional referral system. As a result, nutritionists must market themselves, build their own businesses, and work with clients who pay out of pocket.

Education and Credentials: Navigating the Path

Even though it’s not always a requirement, having some sort of education or credential in nutrition can only help your career. 

“You need basic nutrition courses, understanding macronutrients and micronutrients, and education on assessing people nutritionally,” said Bundy. She also highlights the value of clinical training in devising individualized nutrition plans.

“The more education you can hang on your shingle, the more sought-after you will be,” added Bundy. 

Most nutritionists hold a bachelor's degree in nutrition, dietetics, or a related field. This education can provide a solid foundation in nutritional science, human anatomy, physiology, and food science.

Gaining practical experience through an internship or supervised program can also be valuable. These programs can last anywhere from 6 to 12 months and provide hands-on training in various aspects of nutritional assessment, counseling, and meal planning.

Options like the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) or additional certifications in nutritional therapy provide more credibility for those looking to enhance their credentials.

Some of the most well-regarded certifying agencies for nutritionists include the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS), the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB), and the American Clinical Board of Nutrition (ACBN). Although certification requirements may vary, they usually involve passing an exam and meeting specific education and experience benchmarks.

Building a Career as a Nutritionist

Building a successful career as a nutritionist involves more than just academic qualifications and nutritional knowledge. It also takes practical experience, the ability to network, and a variety of business and promotional skills. 

"In California, you have to do a lot of self-promotion, especially because without licensure, it wouldn't be covered under insurance," Bundy explained.

This means that nutritionists often need to build their client base through private practice or by working with alternative healthcare providers or wellness programs.

For this reason, the UC San Diego Integrative Nutrition Program, includes a business course, The Business of Integrative Nutrition, which teaches essential skills like setting goals and financial management.

“I think it's really valuable whether people are going into business or not,” said Shuster of the business course. “It's a lot of interpersonal skills, prioritization, and setting goals. Sometimes people do come in and say they're not planning on having their own business, but they end up really liking that particular course.” 

It may also pay off for nutritionists to pick a specialization. Choosing a specialization allows a nutritionist to develop a niche expertise that can set them apart from other nutrition professionals. 

Some popular specializations within the field of nutrition include sports nutrition, pediatric nutrition, community nutrition, and geriatric nutrition.

Incorporating Nutrition Knowledge into Other Careers

Nutrition knowledge can also be an asset in many professions beyond traditional or more standard nutritionist roles. 

Many who seek additional expertise in nutrition aren't necessarily taking that step to become full-time nutritionists themselves but rather to incorporate nutritional knowledge into their existing food, health, or wellness professions. 

Personal chefs with a background in nutrition can create healthier menus and educate diners on the benefits of healthier choices.

Health coaches or personal trainers can integrate nutritional guidance into their wellness programs, providing a more comprehensive approach to client health. 

Doctors with a stronger understanding of nutrition can incorporate the “food as medicine” approach to help coach their patients toward healthier nutrition and lifestyle choices. 

“We have graduates who are nurses, massage therapists, yoga instructors, and even high school teachers incorporating nutrition into their curricula," said Shuster. "It's a great supplement to what they're already doing.“

“We have many physicians, acupuncturists, naturopaths, chiropractors, and many other people with backgrounds in healing arts take the program,” added Dr. Saxe. “What they have in common is that they want to learn more about how to use food as medicine in their practice. This is a program that can provide that kind of education with the imprimatur of a high-powered research university behind it.”

Food as Medicine: A Growing Field

The Integrative Nutrition Program at UC San Diego Extended Studies has built a curriculum around the concept of "food as medicine." This perspective is especially important to Dr. Saxe. 

“I always wanted to develop an approach that could realize the goal of helping people to use food as medicine,” shared Dr. Saxe. “Typically in Western medicine we don’t attend to helping people take charge of their health and to employ perhaps the most critical element of well-being to their life, which is diet. [Our medical system] will pay homage to the importance of diet and nutrition, but nobody makes it practical.”

The ‘food as medicine’ approach is increasingly recognized as essential for managing diseases and conditions where lifestyle and diet play a pivotal role, such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. 

The curriculum at the Center for Integrative Nutrition at UC San Diego, where Dr. Saxe contributes, integrates the concept of food as medicine deeply into its teachings. 

“Many of the health challenges today are chronic issues where diet and lifestyle are Central to the situation,” said Dr Saxe. “Food can be medicine for almost every chronic condition. It will either address root causes or at least help to ameliorate conditions that might emerge. It's a very underrated aspect of helping patients. 

"I think more and more people are realizing how central proper nutrition is for well-being,” added Shuster. “The importance of the gut microbiome is a huge field of study right now, not just for physical health, but for overall mental health and well-being, too. Part of your gut microbiome is what you put into it. People being empowered to know how to make these decisions is a great reason to have this type of training.”

The Value of the Integrative Nutrition Program Curriculum 

For those aspiring to become nutritionists, the curriculum at Integrative Nutrition Program at UC San Diego Extended Studies offers a comprehensive approach to nutrition education, combining theoretical knowledge with practical skills. 

“We teach the science of nutrition, hands-on cooking skills, and how to effectively communicate and teach these principles to others,” said Shuster.

"Our program has as its signature a hands-on component where participants cook in their own kitchens, learning to prepare meals that are both nutritious and therapeutic," said Dr Saxe.

This practical approach helps students understand how to apply nutritional principles in real-world settings, making the concept of food as medicine accessible and actionable. 

The connection to a world class research university like UC San Diego is another important aspect of what makes the course unique. 

Many important research projects in the realm of food and nutrition are being led by Dr. Saxe himself. This connection gives the program access to some of the most cutting-edge research and understandings around the concept of “food as medicine” 

“We've got five different studies going on around diet and cancer. we've also got studies on rheumatoid arthritis, endometriosis, diabetes, glaucoma–and about how diet can play a role in all those conditions,” explained Dr. Saxe. “You name the condition, and we either have or have had a study looking at it. This creates an enormous evidence-based body of research that informs our program.” 


Becoming a nutritionist is a rewarding journey that combines education, practical experience, and a passion for helping others achieve better health. Whether through formal education, certification programs, or practical experience, aspiring nutritionists have numerous pathways to enter and excel in the field.

If you're ready to embark on your Nutritionist journey or need guidance along the way, reach out to experts within the UC San Diego Extended Studies Nutrition Program or Integrative Nutrition Program.

Posted: 6/20/2024 11:21:53 AM with 0 comments

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