For many professionals, a move across state or country lines can throw a significant kink in their career goals. There are a variety of industries that require licensure for practice; those licenses are often dependent on geography as well as educational background and academic competence.
Becoming a registered nutritionist in the US can seem like an intimidating process, particularly for those with a non-traditional path or place of education. Paying attention to the right steps for licensure, as well as any required or desired nutritionist certifications, is an important part of pursuing a career as a nutritionist.
Dietitian vs. Nutritionist
Though the terms are often used interchangeably, in the US a dietitian and a nutritionist are not the same things. As you explore licensing as a nutritionist, it is important to understand their differences.
Dietitians: A career as a dietitian is more regulated than a career as a nutritionist. To become a registered dietitian (RD), professionals must complete an undergraduate degree at a program accredited but the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Professionals must also have completed an ACEND approved practice program, typically 6-12 months in length and passed the national exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). Continuing education for RDs is also required.
Beginning in January 2024, the CDR will change the degree requirement for RD eligibility from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s degree. Click here for more information related to this upcoming change.
Nutritionists: Technically, in the US there are no certification or educational requirements to become a nutritionist. The term nutritionist is usually used more broadly or more generally. Nutritionist is not at “protected” title (like doctor), so it can be used freely used regardless of one’s educational background. Many practicing nutritionists do have a similar educational path as an RD, but that does not guarantee that they are a licensed dietitian.
A certified nutrition specialist (CNS) is a protected title and does have requirements and experience attached to it. It is discussed in further detail below.
Nutritionist Certifications and Credentialing
Certified Nutrition Specialist
For the nutritionist who wants a protected and recognized certification, the pursuit of a CNS license is important. The Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS) offers two designations for nutrition professionals, a certified nutrition specialist (CNS) and a certified nutrition specialist-scholar (CNS-S).
CNS: To achieve a CNS credential, candidates must possess an accredited advanced degree in a clinical or healthcare related field, like MD/DO, public health, or biochemistry. Candidates must also complete 1000 hours of supervised practice in nutrition. Supervisors must meet certain requirements to be considered qualified as well. Candidates must also pass the CNS exam. It can be taken before all requirements are complete, but certification is not granted until all educational and scholastic requirements have been accomplished. Recertification is required every five years after the completion of 75 continuing education credits.
CNS-S: Candidates for this credential must possess a doctoral degree in a related field. They must also have completed (at least) three years of full-time professional experience in the nutrition industry, academia, writing, research or clinical practice. Lastly, they need to have completed any combination of these five achievements: publication in peer-reviewed journals, written chapters in nutrition texts or references, established nutrition related patents, written a non-professional nutrition book that has been approved by the BCNS credentials council, or other comparable scholastic works. Candidates must also pass the CNS exam. It can be taken before all requirements are complete, but certification is not granted until all educational and scholastic requirements have been accomplished. Recertification is required every five years after the completion of 75 continuing education credits.
Either of these credentials opens the door to work in a wide variety of settings for nutrition professionals, including hospitals, private practice, clinics, academia, and community health.
NASM Certification (FNS & CNC)
This is a common certification pursued by many nutrition professionals. The NASM certification is offered by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. These certifications focus on health and nutrition as they relate to fitness, sports performance, and sports medicine.
The CNC certification, which is a newer option, is considered the “better” option. It combines both nutrition and health coach information and requires recertification every two years.
Holistic Nutritionist Certification
Because this is a newer field of nutrition, many states do not regulate the use of this title. However, one can proceed through the following holistic nutritionist credentialing steps.
- Complete an educational program approved by the National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP)
- Acquire at least 500 hours of work experience in holistic nutrition
- Pass examination by the Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board
AFPA Health & Wellness Certification
This certification by American Fitness Professionals and Associates teaches its students how to apply nutrition information for best fitness, weight management, and overall health maintenance. There is an AFPA examination at the end of the program, however, there are no required prerequisites to sign up for the exam. The certification can be completed 100% online.
ISSA Nutritionist Certification
This certification, offered by the International Sports Sciences Association, is relatively new. The certification educates on both nutrition and the science and psychology behind nutrition coaching. Typically, students complete a combination certification in both certified personal training (CPT) and nutrition.
International nutrition professionals do have some considerations they must take into account. First, they must understand the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist. In the US, any professional may make the claim of “nutritionist.” However, if an international individual would like to be an RD, their training and education may allow them eligibility for the US RD credentialing examination without any additional hours, education, or work needed. This situation is most common if the two countries have professional reciprocity with each other.
If there is no reciprocity, an international professional needs their academic degree validated as equivalent to a US degree program. They must also complete the required ACEND supervised practice for eligibility. Once eligible, these professionals must pass the RD examination like anyone else.
Making Choices and Moving Forward
There are a variety of factors that will play into the decisions you make in pursuit of a career in nutrition. Your passions, your existing education, your finances and your place of academic origin will all play a role in deciding how you want to define yourself and how you want to make that happen. As you make your decisions, stay aware of the US’s proper use of terms, accreditations, and credentialing examinations to ensure you are appropriately on track for the professional title you want.
Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA) | Sacred Heart University
Associate’s Degree of Nursing (ADN) | North Seattle Community College
Bachelor of Business Administration (B.B.A.), Marketing, Sales | University of Washington (Seattle)
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