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Nutritionists can develop personalized plans for people with special dietary needs.

Nutritionists work with people to establish healthy diets and eating habits. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Nutritionists work with people to establish healthy diets and eating habits.


Nutritionists, also known as dietitians, help individuals and businesses develop and follow proper dietary guidelines. Many of their clients are patients in a hospital or elderly and living in a nursing home. Nutritionists also work with individuals who are obese or have medical conditions that require diet modifications. Other nutritionists work with individuals, families and groups in their community who need counseling on healthy eating. Some nutritionists work in a management capacity, providing expertise to a variety of health- or food-related businesses, including food service facilities. Launching a career as a nutritionist requires specialized training, licensing or certification, and an interest in providing dietary information to individuals or businesses.

Nutritionist Training

High school students wishing to become a dietitian or nutritionist should take biology, chemistry, communications, health and mathematics. A nutritionist should then obtain a bachelor's degree in a related area, such as dietetics or food service systems management. Many colleges also offer graduate degrees in nutrition. This program of study should require courses in biology, chemistry, microbiology, physiology, foods, institution management and nutrition. Additional courses may include business, computer science, economics, mathematics, psychology, sociology and statistics.

Nutritionist Licensing and Certification

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 35 jurisdictions in the United States require dietitians and nutritionists to be licensed in order to work in their field. There are 12 jurisdictions that require certification. One jurisdiction requires only registration and allows unregistered people to work as a dietitian or nutritionist.

Nutritionists must complete a supervised internship in order to become certified. This requirement may be satisfied by completing a program that combines academic coursework and supervised practical experience. The Commission on Dietetic Registration must approve the program. As of 2007, there were 53 such programs that each required four to five years to complete. The internship requirement may also be satisfied by completing one of the 265 accredited internships. These programs consist of 900 hours of practical experience, and the full-time program requires six to 12 months to complete.

The Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists (CBNS) administers an examination for nutritionists with an advanced degree who wish to distinguish themselves from other nutritionists. Nutritionists with a master's degree who pass the examination are required to complete 1,000 hours of supervised experience if they do not already have this level of professional experience. A nutritionist who passes the exam with a Ph.D. or D.Sc. degree must complete 500 hours of professional experience. The applicant is granted the certified nutrition specialist (CNS) credential upon completion of the required professional experience.

The registered dietician (RD) credential is another excellent way for nutritionists to distinguish themselves. This certification is awarded by the Commission on Dietetic Registration to nutritionists who complete the required coursework, participate in a supervised internship and pass an exam. RDs must complete at least 75 hours of continuing education every five years to remain certified.

Nutritionists Working in Health Care

Nutritionists who work in health care typically provide their services to patients in a hospital or nursing home. They may work directly for the health care facility under a contract or they may be in a private practice. These nutritionists assess the nutritional needs of the patients, implement nutrition programs and evaluate the results. According to National Institutes of Health, they also perform nutrition screenings for their patients and suggest diet modifications for medical conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity.

Nutritionists Working in Communities

Nutritionists also work in home health agencies, such as public health clinics or health maintenance organizations (HMOs). They may evaluate an individual's nutritional needs, develop dietary plans and provide instructions on grocery shopping to individuals and families. Community nutritionists also give advice on food preparation for children, the elderly and individuals with special needs.

Nutritionists Working in Business

Nutritionists in business work in company cafeterias, health care facilities, prisons or schools. They oversee large-scale meal planning, develop menus and provide expertise to food service managers. Management nutritionists also supervise other nutritionists and food service workers, plan budgets, and purchase equipment, food and other supplies. They also enforce regulations on safety and sanitation as well as prepare records and reports.

The increased interest in nutrition has also led to opportunities for nutritionists in advertising, food manufacturing and marketing. They may also work for a nutrition-related business, such as sports teams, supermarkets and wellness programs. In this capacity, nutritionists analyze foods and prepare nutritional data for publication. This can include information on dietary fiber, the nutritional content of recipes and vitamin supplements.

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