Nutritionist and Dietitian Career Guide

There is an overwhelming amount of information available about how to live a healthy lifestyle.

Yet, despite the $72 billion weight loss and dieting market, obesity-related conditions remain the number one cause of preventable death in the United States. With nearly 42 percent of Americans living with heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, who can people trust to help them eat well and live long and happy lives? Enter nutritionists and dietitians.

Their credentials commonly refer to them as as RDs (registered dietitians) and RDNs (registered dietitian nutritionists), nutritionists, and dietitians. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) simplifies this: “every registered dietitian is a nutritionist, but not every nutritionist is a registered dietitian.” In other words, only dietitians can choose to represent themselves with the registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) credential.

By comparison, nutritionists can use the certified nutrition specialist (CNS) credential offered by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists, which is affiliated with the American Nutrition Association.

Medical science provides general information about nutrients, but nutritionists determine how this applies to an individual. They translate health data and personalize it for patients, providing tools like diagnostic health assessments and individualized meal plans. Nutritionists counsel their patients on how to take care of their health through dietary counseling.

Given the alarming statistics on obesity and food-related illnesses in the United States, it’s not surprising that nutrition is one of the fastest-growing occupations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), demand for this job will rise 7 percent nationwide over the next decade, resulting in about 5,100 new jobs between 2021 and 2031 (BLS 2022).

Nutritionists and dietitians are allied health professionals with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in nutrition and dietetics. In January 2024, the minimum educational requirement to enter the profession will be a master’s degree. In addition, nutritionists and dietitians must be licensed in most states which requires graduating from an accredited program and earning 1,000 to 1,200 hours of supervised clinical internship.

Read on to learn what it takes to become a nutritionist and dietitian, including sample accredited educational programs and internship requirements to earn certification and state licensure.

Nutritionist & Dietitian: Similarities and Differences

Not all states require nutritionists to be licensed, meaning anybody can self-identify as a nutritionist. In states that don’t regulate this title, a nutrition enthusiast with a food blog or social media account can call themselves a “nutritionist.”

However, self-identified and uncertified nutritionists often don’t have the breadth of education and experience needed for medical nutritional therapy. Therefore, people seeking nutrition counseling are advised to seek an individual’s certification credentials, such as a certified nutrition specialist (CNS), before accepting medical therapy advice from a nutritionist.

By comparison, a “dietitian” is a nutrition specialist who has completed educational, internship, and licensure requirements. The credentials RD (registered dietitian) or RDN (registered dietician nutritionist) are interchangeable, and people with certifications can choose how they refer to themselves. In addition, those with RD and RDN credentials have met state-specific requirements for this career.

Here are short descriptions for each title, including salary, credential information, and certifying organization.


A nutritionist may have a variety of professional qualifications and training in nutrition. Before an individual can use the term “nutritionist,” specific requirements must be satisfied in over a dozen states. Accredited credentials, such as certified nutrition specialist (CNS), provide titles that certify nutrition knowledge.

In states requiring nutritionists’ licensure, the CNS credential can be used by health professionals who have completed degrees, sought out additional coursework, supervised practice hours, and passed an exam overseen by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists.

  • Salary: $49,634 per year (Payscale, Dec. 2022)
  • Certification: There are several; e.g., the Certified Nutrition Coach Certification (CASM-CNC); Certified Nutritional Consultant (CNC)
  • Certifying organization: There are several; e.g., the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM); American Associaton of Nutritional Consultants (ANCC)


Dietitians are board-certified food and nutrition experts who have undergone rigorous training in nutrition and dietetics. They use this knowledge to provide evidence-based medical nutrition therapy and nutritional counseling tailored to an individual’s needs.

Dietitians can practice in hospitals, outpatient clinics, research institutions, and local communities. After obtaining degrees and entering the field, they can specialize in a specific sub-area. Specialization areas include pediatrics, eating disorders, or dietetics for athletes. The four primary domains of practice are clinical, food service management, community development, and research.

Those serious about entering this profession are encouraged to pursue career pathways that include graduating from an accredited program, internship hours, and taking a board certification exam.

Read on for a step-by-step guide to becoming a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN).

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)

Purdue Global
Arizona State University
Winthrop University
American University

Step One: Earn a High School Diploma or GED (Four Years)

To earn admission into a bachelor’s degree program in nutrition, high school students should keep their grades high and take as many courses as possible in science and math. Other recommended courses are human anatomy and physiology, psychology, nutrition, and physical education. In addition, students can pursue internships or volunteer opportunities in local clinics or hospitals.

Step Two: Earn an Associate’s Degree (Two Years; Optional)

For those who aren’t sure if becoming a nutritionist is the right career for them or prefer a two-year versus a four-year degree program, becoming a dietetic technician is a great way to gain experience and try out a career path. Dietetic technicians work under the supervision of dietitians, making meal plans, teaching community nutrition classes, and co-counseling patients.

For example, Merritt College offers three two-year degree programs: an associate of science in nutrition and dietetics for transfer (AS-T), an associate of science in dietetic technology, and an associate of science in dietary management. These ACEND-accredited programs prepare graduates for dietetic technician careers and four-year degree programs should they choose to apply credits to a future bachelor of science in nutrition.

These programs require a recent physical examination, including required immunizations, pre-requisite courses in nutrition and dietetics with a grade of “C” or higher, and computer skills, including word processing, email, and internet searching.

  • Location: Oakland, CA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
  • Tuition: $552 per semester

Step Three: Complete an ACEND-Accredited Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree (Two to Four Years)

Graduates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nutrition science and dietetics are eligible for entry-level positions and licensure pathways. As of September 2022, the minimum educational requirement to become an RDN is a bachelor’s degree, but beginning January 1, 2024, the Commission on Dietetic Registration will require a master’s degree in nutrition or dietetics to be eligible to take the RDN credentialing exam.

Here are four sample programs in nutrition and dietetics at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

University of Arizona – BS in Nutritional Sciences

The College of Agriculture & Life Sciences at the University of Arizona offers a bachelor of science in nutritional sciences. This online 120-credit program provides students with two program specializations to choose from: dietetics or nutrition.

Students who pursue dietetics can apply for dietetic internships and become registered dietitians through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Those with the nutrition emphasis, on the other hand, will find an array of doors opened for them in terms of careers such as nutritional biochemistry, dentistry, nursing, physical therapy, or veterinary medicine, or they can opt to continue their education by going into graduate studies related to nutrition or food science.

  • Location: Tucson, AZ
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
  • Tuition: $525 per credit

Texas Woman’s University – BS in Nutrition (Dietetics)

Texas Woman’s University offers a BS in nutrition with a concentration in dietetics. This program includes the dietetic internship that prepares students to take the national RDN exam and apply for a license from the Texas State Board of Examiners of Dietitians.

In Texas, dietitians are not required to be licensed. However, to be considered for admission, applicants must complete 60 credits of 100-200 level biology, chemistry, mathematics, and psychology courses to be considered for admission with a “C” or higher.

  • Location: Houston, TX
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
  • Tuition: $234 per credit (residents); $642 per credit (non-residents)

Northeast College – MS in Applied Clinical Nutrition

At Northeast, the applied clinical nutrition program teaches graduates to use their knowledge and skills to become committed clinical nutritionists. The online curriculum offers an accelerated 16-month or two-year option and focuses on a science-based, whole-food approach to disease prevention, performance optimization, and health maintenance. A background in healthcare is not required to join the program.

  • Location: Seneca Falls, NY
  • Duration: 16-24 months
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Tuition: $4,674 per trimester

Johns Hopkins University – MSPH in Human Nutrition

The MSPH in international health (human nutrition – dietitian) program was created through the joint effort of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Dietetics Education Program at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

Students in this program can earn the MSPH degree in human nutrition and complete a 38-week dietetic practicum in public health nutrition to obtain the registered dietitian credential. The competitive program only accepts eight students annually and prepares graduates for careers in public health, research, clinical dietician, and nutrition specialists.

  • Location: Baltimore, MD
  • Duration: 19 months
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
  • Tuition: $1,270 per credit

Step Four: Complete an ACEND-accredited Internship or Residency (One to Two Years)

Some programs allow students to double dip by participating in internships that count towards their college credit hours and the 1,200 required supervised experience for a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) designation while earning college credits.

Here is an example intensive program that combines a master’s degree with an internship residency that meets the requirements to become an RDN.

University of Memphis – MS Nutrition/Dietetic Internship and Residency

The University of Memphis offers a 42-credit hour master of science in nutrition and a dietetic internship and residency program. This program is fast-paced and must be completed within 16 months. The program begins in mid-August and concludes with classes or supervised practice throughout the fall semester of the second year.

The supervised internship requires an additional 28 weeks of rotations. It focuses on adult clinical nutrition in patients with pediatric rotations, community rotations, and management rotations at various healthcare facilities around Memphis. Graduates from this program are eligible to work as RDs in Tennessee and sit for the RDN exam.

  • Location: Memphis, TN
  • Duration: 16 months
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
  • Tuition: $521 per credit (residents); $704 per credit (non-residents)

Step Five: Pass a National Board Exam (Timeline Varies)

Most states require nutritionists and dietitians to be licensed. The requirements for becoming a nutritionist vary from state to state. Many nutritionists opt to become registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) since the qualifications for licensing are often different.

Two organizations offer nutrition and dietitian credentials:

  • The Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR): RD and RDN designations
  • The Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists: CNS designation

Both organizations require candidates to graduate from accredited programs and meet minimum requirements for internship hours to be eligible to take certification exams.

The RD and RDN credentials are eligible for those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The CNS credential is available to those with master’s or doctoral degrees. See the certification and licensure section below for more detailed information about these credentials.

Nutritionist & Dietitian Program Accreditation

Nutritionists and dietitians must graduate from an accredited program to be eligible for board certification.

The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND), which is part of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and overseen by the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA), offers programmatic accreditation in dietetics.

In addition, the Accreditation Council for Nutrition Professional Education (ACNPE) provides accreditations for graduate-level nutritionist and dietitian programs.

ACEND is the most commonly sought accreditation path for RD and RDN certification, and most of the programs mentioned above are ACEND-accredited.

Nutritionist & Dietitian Certification & Licensure

The RDN credential is recognized nationwide and is administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. To become an RDN, one must complete a bachelor’s degree and 1,200 hours of supervised experience in dietetics.

Dietitians can achieve RDN certification by graduating from an accredited undergraduate, master’s, or coordinated program which offers a degree and supervised experience through internships. Please note: those who want to get their RDN credential starting January 1, 2024, will need to complete a master’s degree.

The Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) offers Registered Dietitian (RD) and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) credentials.

To earn the RD or RDN credential, an applicant must:

  • Graduate from an ACEND-accredited bachelor’s or master’s degree program (a master’s degree will be required starting January 1, 2024)
  • Complete a 1,200-hour internship residency
  • Take the RD exam

The Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists, the certifying body of the American Nutrition Association, offers the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential, which is accepted by many states. To be eligible for this credential, candidates must have:

  • A master’s or doctoral degree from a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Nutrition Professional Education (ACNPE) or equivalent
  • Specific coursework in biochemistry, human anatomy and physiology, life sciences, etc.
  • At least 1,000 hours of supervised practice experience
  • Pass the Certification for Nutrition Specialists exam
Rachel Drummond, MEd
Rachel Drummond, MEd Writer

Rachel Drummond has contributed insightful articles to since 2019, where she offers valuable advice and guidance for those pursuing careers in the healthcare field, combining her passion for education with her understanding of the critical role that healthcare professionals play in promoting physical and mental well-being.

Rachel is a writer, educator, and coach from Oregon. She has a master’s degree in education (MEd) and has over 15 years of experience teaching English, public speaking, and mindfulness to international audiences in the United States, Japan, and Spain. She writes about the mind-body benefits of contemplative movement practices like yoga on her blog, inviting people to prioritize their unique version of well-being and empowering everyone to live healthier and more balanced lives.