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What Does a Nutritionist Do? Understanding the Education, Credentials, and Benefits

Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Published in Industry

10 min read

June 2, 2023
a photo of kara collier, vp of health at nutrisense
a photo of kara collier, vp of health at nutrisense

Are you curious about what a nutritionist does and what it takes to be able to call yourself one? You might be surprised to learn that in most states, it’s legal for just about anyone to call themselves a nutritionist. 

The nutritionist title can capture many different types of training and experience and not all of them are created equal. For example, you may have seen titles such as:

  • Licensed vs unlicensed nutritionists
  • Registered dietitians and dietitian nutritionists (RD/RDN)
  • Certified nutrition specialists (CNS)
  • Certified clinical nutritionists (CCN)
  • Functional nutritionists

That's why it's important to make sure you know who you're getting your nutrition advice from and what type of training your nutrition professional has had. So what do all these titles mean, and what’s the difference between each of these different certifications of nutritionists? Let’s find out.

Nutritionist vs Dietitian Nutritionist 

registered dietitian vs nutritionist credentials list

Though many may call themselves a nutritionist in most states, that’s not the case with other credentials such as registered dietitian nutritionist (RD/RDN) and certified nutrition specialist (CNS). So what’s the difference between these two types of nutritionists?

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

list of rdn qualifications

A registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) is a highly trained and qualified nutrition professional. The RD/RDN designation is administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

It requires completion of a minimum of a master’s degree in nutrition science or public health degree program with a nutrition focus and a Dietetic Internship (DI), which includes supervised experience. ACEND (Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics) requires that you gain at least 1200 hours of supervised pre-professional experience as the last step before being eligible to take the Registration Examination for Dietitians.

In order to maintain the RD/RDN credential, dietitians must complete regular continuing professional education credits within a designated number of years. 

Certified Nutrition Specialist

list of cns qualifications

A Certified Nutrition Specialist, or CNS, is another highly qualified and trained nutrition professional. The Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) designation is administered by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS), the certifying arm of the American Nutrition Association. 

Many states accept the CNS credential or exam for licensure purposes. To qualify for the credential, applicants must have at least a master’s degree, complete 1,000 hours of supervised experience, and pass an exam. 

To obtain a CNS, you may also be a licensed professional with an MD, DO, DDS, DPM, OD, DC, Pharm.D, DPT, or Doctor of Nursing degree and have 50 hours of continuing education hours in nutrition as well as passing the exam.

To maintain the CNS credential, these nutritionists must also complete continuing education credits within a designated number of years.

How To Become A Nutritionist 

If you’re thinking of pursuing a nutritionist career path, there are a number of options you may want to consider. If you want to ensure you are eligible to be licensed in your state and have a broader scope of practice, this will narrow the options a bit.

Licensing laws vary by state, but for those licensing nutritionists, registered dietitians (RDs/RDNs) and certified nutrition specialists (CNS) are two of the most common eligible credentials. Licensing may also allow you to add deeper clinical scope to your work, including offering customized nutrition or medical nutrition therapy counseling. 

Not everyone is legally eligible to provide counseling in nutrition or medical nutrition therapy, and having that scope may also allow you to access a wider variety of job opportunities. There are many online programs that allow you to gain a variety of other nutrition credentials. These might include:

other types of nutritionist qualifications

Unfortunately, however, none of these credentials listed above will be eligible for licensing nor involve the level of in-depth training in nutrition science and clinical nutrition counseling you might gain from the RD/RDN or CNS pathways, for example.  

Settings in Which Nutritionists Work 

Your scope of practice will dictate a lot about what type of job you will have as a nutritionist. These options may also vary by state. If you are legally able to provide medical nutrition therapy guidance or nutrition counseling, you may find job opportunities in places such as:

  • Hospitals and healthcare facilities
  • Community and public health settings
  • Food service management
  • Teaching in schools and universities, including conducting research
  • Private practice  

Hospitals and Healthcare Facilities

a woman talking to her doctor

In inpatient or outpatient clinical settings, scope of practice enabling you to provide medical nutrition therapy is extremely important. Most of these institutions will require a registered dietitian (RD/RDN) credential with training in acute care support, such as enteral or parenteral nutrition.

Community and Public Health Settings

These settings might include organizations such as public schools, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), or certain non-profit organizations. Depending on the employer, credential and work experience requirements may vary. 

Public health nutritionists are focused on understanding and supporting the health and wellbeing of larger populations. Though they may do some one-on-one counseling work as part of their role, they are typically guiding larger groups. 

Food Service Management

two women talking about a meal plan

Nutritionists working in food service management are often overseeing larger-scale food production and regulation. This might be within a hospital setting, community setting, or other organization. 

Understanding and interpreting state and federal food policies, manufacturing practices, and distribution is crucial. Many of these nutritionists might have additional culinary expertise, and often an RD/RDN credential is required. The types of credentials required for these roles depends on the state and employer. 

Education and Research 

As a nutritionist with an advanced level of education such as a master’s or doctoral degree in nutrition science or public health, you may also have the opportunity to teach or conduct research at a variety of institutions. 

Private Practice

State regulations related to who can practice nutrition in private practice may be lenient in some cases, depending on what services you provide. This can include services as a sports nutritionist, a nutritional consultant, or working as a clinical nutritionist.

If you are providing assessments, customized nutrition programs, meal plans, or personalized nutrition counseling, you’ll need to make sure you have the proper credentials, which might include an RD/RDN or CNS.  

5 Benefits of a Nutritionist Who is a Registered Dietitian or Certified Nutrition Specialist 

benefits of working with an rd or cns list

How can consulting a nutritionist benefit you? Nutritionists with the proper training and credentials can help you:

  • Assess your current nutritional status and dietary needs
  • Create customized meal plans that fit your nutrition needs, tastes, and budget
  • Connect the dots between your diet and risk factors for chronic diseases
  • Connect the dots between many symptoms you might be struggling with and potential dietary and lifestyle contributors 
  • Stay accountable and motivated to support you in reaching your health goals

However, if you are looking for a nutritionist with the ability to help you assess your nutrition status and create customized meal plans to boost your overall health, you’ll most likely want to find a registered dietitian (RD/RDN) or certified nutrition specialist (CNS). 

As time goes on, researchers uncover more connections between food and health. There’s really no question that what and how you eat can have a huge impact on your health and quality of life.

In fact, scientists have discovered associations between nutrition and conditions such as:

a list of conditions associated with a poor diet

Here are some of the main benefits of working with a certified nutritionist or registered dietitian.

Nutritional Assessment

If you are feeling overwhelmed by all of the nutrition advice you find floating around on the internet and unsure of the scientific credibility behind it, having a personal highly qualified nutrition professional in your corner can be a true relief. 

Additionally, having someone to help you personalize and customize the assessment can make the difference between trying yet another generic diet versus understanding what really works for your unique body to create a healthy eating plan.

Customized Meal Plans

someone writing out a custom meal plan

Nutritional assessment is personal and so is a meal plan. Generic nutrition information only gets you so far–and what works for one person may not work for another. 

Having a qualified nutritionist in your corner means that you can better understand what works and what doesn’t, tailoring your approach. If you want to find the right approach to weight loss, supporting hormone balance, improving energy, getting better quality sleep, and reducing your risk for chronic disease over time, customization is key. 

Your family and personal medical history, symptoms, and needs are unique, and your meal plan should reflect that. 

Understand Your Disease Risks

How are your current diet and lifestyle choices impacting your risk factors for disease over time? Instead of navigating complex research on your own, teaming up with a qualified nutritionist such as a registered dietitian or certified nutrition specialist can save you the hassle. 

It’s their job to know the research inside and out and to provide evidence-based education and insights. They can then recommend a diet based on your individual lifestyle.

Understand Your Symptoms

a woman holding a book while laying on a couch

Are you struggling with fatigue? Poor sleep? Digestive problems? Mood swings? All of these symptoms and more can have close ties to what and how you are eating. 

But interpreting your symptom patterns and connecting the dots to behavioral (including diet) triggers isn’t always easy. Working one-on-one with a qualified nutritionist can allow you to save time on the guesswork and cut to the chase. 

You can also learn how to set up customized experiments to gain deeper insights into what works best for your body. 

Stay Accountable and Motivated

Behavior change can feel hard sometimes. This includes making changes to your diet. It might also feel challenging to stay consistent and motivated over time with all of life’s ups and downs.

Your personal nutrition expert is there to not only help you stay accountable, but to give you pro tips to troubleshoot the bumps in the road and stay on track long-term. 

Nutrisense Nutritionists and Dietitians

a graphic of nutrisense dietitians and nutritionists

All of us at Nutrisense are firm believers in the power of one-on-one support from a qualified nutritionist. Our nutrition experts are all either registered dietitians or certified nutrition specialists with advanced training, experience, or interest in functional nutrition and metabolic health

Our nutrition team coaches thousands of members on their personal health journey and they understand that each person is unique. Check out what one member had to say about our personalized nutrition support and get started with us today!

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Jordyn Wallerius, MS, RDN, CD

Reviewed by: Jordyn Wallerius, MS, RDN, CD

Jordyn has a bachelor’s degree in biology, a graduate degree in Human Nutrition and completed a dietetic internship at the Memphis VA. She's a dietitian at Nutrisense, and has experience working as a clinical dietitian at a VA medical center specializing in oncology and at the Mayo Clinic, working with a wide range of patients ranging from neonates in the NICU to adult ICU.