Nutritionists work with patients to help them develop healthy eating plans. They may focus on many different branches of health care and nutrition, including weight management, allergies, or care and maintenance of illnesses. Some nutritionists work in hospitals or schools, where they develop and oversee nutrition programs. Others may work with food manufacturers, overseeing product development or food safety. To become a nutritionist, one must complete a degree in dietetics, nutrition, or a related field. This is usually followed by supervised work experience and some form of licensing or certification.
Nearly every state has some form of licensing requirement for those pursuing careers in this profession, though qualifications vary slightly by state. Most of these states require nutritionists to be licensed, which requires a Bachelor's degree, on-the-job training, and a written exam. Some states require certification, which has similar requirements to licensing. In these states, nutritionists who choose not to be certified can still work in the profession, but can't use professional titles or designations. A few states simply require nutritionists to register with the state, but have no licensing requirements. A link to a list of licensing requirements organised by state can be found in the Resources section of this article.
American Dietetic Association Licensing
Many nutritionists choose to pursue nutritionist credentials offered through the American Dietetic Association's Commission on Dietetic Registration. Those who complete the requirements are awarded the title of Registered Dietitian. Qualifications for this designation include a bachelor's degree in nutrition, 900 hours of supervised experience, and a written exam. While states have their individual requirements, most closely mirror those of the ADA. In the majority of states that require licensing, applicants who have been certified through the ADA are automatically awarded state licenses without following the state application and exam process.
To qualify for state or ADA licensing, applicants must complete a bachelor's degree in nutrition, dietetics, or food management. The degree must be awarded by a school or program that is accredited by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 281 accredited programs in the US in 2007. Most programs that are accredited by the Commission offer internships along with educational components.
There are a number of personal factors that can make some people more qualified that others for careers in nutrition. The interest and desire to keep abreast with new research and development in the field is critical. One should also be prepared to work with patients with a large variety of health concerns, ranging from weight problems to serious heart diseases. Flexibility is also key, as finding the right nutrition plan that a patient will stick to can be a challenge. Like all medical fields, one must also possess compassion for patients, as well as a real desire to help patients and the public.
While licensing or certification (depending on the state) is sufficient for independent practice, there are additional qualifications required for advancement in the field. To advance in areas like nutritional research or public health, a master's degree is usually required. Advanced degrees can also help nutritionists and dietitians advance in other areas, especially when it comes to achieving management or director status in a medical or educational setting. Some nutritionists may also pursue speciality training programs to help them qualify for specific fields, such as sports or paediatric nutrition.