It may seem rather simplistic at first glance (eat this, not that), but a career in diet and nutrition is far more complex and multifaceted than first meets the eye.
Nutrition is a science that investigates the metabolic and physiological responses of the body to food and diet and the role of nutrients in the cause, treatment, and prevention of disease.
In layman’s terms, this means that professionals in diet and nutrition do more than push fruits and vegetables. Their understanding of the relationship between diet, health, and disease allows them to teach and counsel people on healthy food selection, food preparation, and good eating habits.
A career in nutrition will allow you to serve as a credible expert—a guru of good health and nutrition, if you will—who creatively applies these science-based principles to food and nutrition.
The primary professional titles in the field of nutrition and dietetics are:
Non-Licensed Nutritionists may have little to no formal college education, while technicians are required to have an associate’s degree or higher. Registered Dietitians hold a bachelor’s degree at minimum, and often a master’s degree.
Settings in which food and nutrition careers can be found include schools, hospitals and other medical facilities, long-term care facilities, corporations, food manufacturing industries, community and public health organizations, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. Other job locations are also open to registered dietitians, dietetic technicians, licensed nutritionists and even non-licensed nutritionists, including retail stores, holistic healing centers and alternative medicine clinics.
Regardless of the type of career in food and nutrition one chooses, possessing certain skills is vital to becoming an effective professional in dietetics. Chief among these is the ability to advise and teach others, good judgment and decision-making skills, active listening skills and patience, good public speaking skills, flexibility and open-mindedness, good problem-solving skills, and the ability to assess and perceive others’ feelings and reactions correctly.
Much of the educational requirements of nutrition and dietetics careers depend upon the setting in which these professionals work as well as the individual expectations of employers. And even after becoming a dietary professional, there is no shortage of professional education opportunities. It’s always possible to learn more, as the field of food and nutrition is constantly growing and expanding as research brings to light new facts and new ways of thinking about how and what we eat.
Although any number of medical professionals may counsel individuals in diet and nutrition, the true pros of nutrition are undoubtedly the ones that hold credentials as registered dieticians (RD) and nutritionists.
Registered dietitians and nutritionists are clinical experts whose work often takes them to hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and other healthcare facilities. But a career in nutrition doesn’t have to be bound by the four walls of the clinical setting.
Outside of clinical practice, careers in nutrition include performing research at colleges, universities, and governmental/private research facilities, helping governmental and private agencies set policies used to develop and administer nutrition programs, and overseeing product development and quality control in private food companies/corporations.
Dietitians have a more focused scope of practice than their nutritionist counterparts, and their work is often focused on traditional medicine.
Dietitian Job Scope
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Scope of Practice for the Registered Dietician, an RD’s scope of practice focuses on food and nutrition and related services that:
Only RDs are permitted to perform MNT, a cost-effective and essential component of nutrition care. A variety of diseases and conditions may be prevented, delayed, or managed through MNT. Some of the job duties of RDs performing MNT include:
Some of the medical conditions treated through MNT include:
Most RDs work in healthcare settings, where they address wellness, prevention, and nutritional management of diseases and medical conditions. They also work collaboratively as members and leaders of interdisciplinary healthcare teams.
RDs provide nutrition counseling and education as components of preventive, curative, and restorative healthcare. Some of the job duties unique to RDs include:
Nutritionist Job Scope
A hallmark of nutritionist jobs is the focus on holistic nutrition and care.
According to the Center for Nutrition Advocacy, nutritionists can use a variety of nutrition tools to improve the health of their clients, including:
There are few professions as easily confused/substituted/interchanged for one another as dietitians and nutritionists. Most of the confusion between these two professions lies in the fact that in many states, one or both titles aren’t protected through registration or licensure.
Dietician Education and Training
In general, dietitians can be distinguished from nutritionists by the depth, scope, length, and type of formal education they must complete. The registered dietitian (RD) has become the standard credential among dietitians and is required for state licensure in many states. To become an RD, you must:
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Board of Directors and the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), recognizing the confusion and ambiguity between nutritionists and dietitians, now allow RDs to use the registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) credential. RDs who want to emphasize the nutrition aspect of their credential may use the RDN credential. The RDN credential is identical to the RD credential and indicates the same level of education and training.
About half of all RDs choose to pursue a graduate education, and many pursue CDR Board Certification in specialized areas of practice, such as diabetes education, pediatric nutrition, and senior nutrition.
Nutritionist Education and Training
Unlike the dietitian profession, there is no uniform definition for a nutritionist. Even in states that define nutritionists, statutes and regulations vary.
It is important to keep in mind that in 16 states, only RDs can perform nutrition counseling and in another 10 states, only RDs can obtain a state-issued credential. This has created significant barriers to practice for nutritionists in many parts of the country. You can read more about the push to recognize and license nutritionists here.
The path to becoming a nutritionist is less well-defined and less rigid. Most employers and most states that license nutritionists require nutritionists to: