How to Become a Certified Nutrition Specialist® ™

As nutritional science continues to reveal how diet impacts health, metabolism, athletic performance and disease resistance, it’s more important than ever to identify nutritionists who have put in the time to gain the experience and education necessary to become experts in the field.

The Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists℠ (BCNS℠) created two designations to allow top professionals to display advanced standing in the field of nutrition:

  • Certified Nutrition Specialist®™ (CNS)
  • Certified Nutrition Specialist-Scholar®™  (CNS-S)

These esteemed credentials are reserved for nutrition professionals who have achieved an advanced level of education and experience, and who have met specific examination and continuing education requirements.

What is a Certified Nutrition Specialist®™?

A Certified Nutrition Specialist®™ is a nutrition professional that is proficient in science-based advanced medical nutrition therapy, education, and research in any number of job settings, including:

  • Clinics
  • Hospitals
  • Private practices
  • Academia
  • Industry
  • Community

The CNS® credential denotes a healthcare professional with an advanced degree who specializes in nutrition.  This may be a clinical nutritionist, a physician, an advanced practice registered nurse, a physician assistant, a pharmacist, a dentist or other healthcare professional with an advanced degree that has met the requirements necessary to earn the credential. Because the CNS® credential is available to nutrition specialists from a variety of different backgrounds, healthcare professionals are able to achieve the designation through one of three certification pathways:

  • CNS® for Nutrition and Health Professionals: For advanced clinical nutrition professionals, including APRNs, PA, NDs, DDSs, and pharmacists
  • CNS® for Physicians (MDs and DOs): For physicians seeking an advanced nutrition clinical nutrition specialty
  • CNS-S®for Scholars: For scholars, educators, researchers, product developers, and scientists seeking a professional designation in clinical or applied nutrition science

Education and Experience Requirements to Become a Certified Nutrition Specialist®™

These designations have earned a reputation for being the most rigorous professional certifications in the field of nutrition.

The CNS® for Nutrition and Healthcare Professionals

Nutritionists and health professionals, such as APRNs, DCs, DDSs, PAs, NDs, and pharmacists, pursue the CNS® when seeking state licensure or competency as an advanced practitioner in clinical nutrition.

Education Requirements

To qualify for the CNS® designation, candidates must possess one of the following advanced degrees from an accredited college or university:

  • Master of Science (MS) or doctoral degree in nutrition or a related healthcare field like public health, biochemistry, or physician assistant
  • Doctoral degree in a clinical healthcare field, such as an MD/DO, DC, DDS, Doctor of Nursing, NS, or Pharm-D

In addition to one of the above degrees, candidates must have completed coursework in the following areas:

  • Nutrition (at least 9 semester credit hours)
  • Biochemistry (at least 6 semester credit hours)
  • Physiology or anatomy/physiology (at least 3 semester credit hours)
  • Clinical or life sciences (at least 12 semester credit hours), which may include a combination of courses in these subjects:
    • Biology
    • Microbiology
    • Chemistry
    • Organic chemistry
    • Botany
    • Nutrition

The following bachelors and Master’s programs offer career-focused instruction delivered by trained nutritionists with experience in the field. Find out more what each individual course of study offers through the locations below.

Featured Nutritionist Programs

Experience Requirements

Candidates must complete at least 1,000 hours of supervised practice in nutrition. Qualified supervisors must meet at least one of the following requirements:

  • Hold the Certified Nutrition Specialist®™ designation
  • Possess a Master of Science or doctoral degree in nutrition along with a state license or certification
  • Be an MD or other doctoral-level licensed practitioner whose scope of practice includes nutrition, or who otherwise has training in nutrition

The required supervised experience must encompass at least 200 hours in each of the following areas:

  • Nutrition assessment
  • Nutrition intervention, education, counseling or management
  • Nutrition monitoring or evaluation

The supervised practice may be in any number of settings:

  • Internship, residency, or clinical rotation
  • Community setting
  • Institutional setting
  • Clinical practice

The CNS® Credential for Medical Doctors (MD) and Doctors of Osteopathy (DO)

MDs and DOs pursue the CNS® to denote specialization in nutrition.

Education Requirements

Candidates for the CNS® designation must possess the following:

  • An degree from an accredited medical or osteopathy school
  • A current license to practice medicine in the U.S. (or in their country of practice)

In addition to the above requirements, candidates must complete at least 9 semester credit hours or 135 continuing education equivalents (1 semester hour equals 15 CE equivalents), which must include:

  • At least 4 semester credit hours (or 60 CE equivalents) in foundational nutrition courses, covering the Foundational Nutrition Coursework Topics, including fundamental principles of nutrition and the role of nutrients in human health
  • At least 5 semester credit hours (or 75 CE equivalents) in advanced nutrition attained through one of the following, or a combination of the two:
    • For-credit graduate coursework
    • Nutrition professional continuing education credits achieved through an eligible fellowship or certificate program, or other activity that addresses CNS® competencies
  • At least 5 semester credit hours of for-credit coursework in biochemistry
  • At least 15 credits hours (including at least 3 semester credit hours of anatomy/physiology) of for-credit coursework in clinical and life sciences included in a medical school curriculum

Experience Requirements

Candidates must complete at least 1,000 hours of documented clinical nutrition experience while earning their degree, or after completing a qualifying degree program. Experience requirements must include at least 200 hours in the following areas:

  • Nutrition assessment
  • Nutrition intervention, education, counseling, and management
  • Nutrition monitoring or evaluation

In addition, candidates must submit at least 5 case studies in accordance with the CNS® Practice Experience for MD/DOs Case Study Report Instructions.
Candidates may satisfy their experience requirements through clinical practice or through a residency or fellowship in clinical nutrition (or as part of training in a related subspecialty that incorporates nutrition, such as nephrology, cardiology, gastroenterology, etc.).

The CNS-S® Credential for Scholars
Scholars, researchers, educators, scientists, and product developers pursue the CNS-S® when seeking distinction in clinical or applied nutrition science.

Education Requirements

Candidates must possess an accredited doctoral degree in nutrition or in a field of clinical healthcare (such as MD, SO, DC, Doctor of Nursing, ND, or Pharm-D).
Further, qualified candidates must have completed the following coursework:

  • 9 semester credit hours in nutrition
  • 6 semester credit hours in biochemistry
  • 3 semester credit hours in physiology or anatomy/physiology
  • 12 semester credit hours in clinical or life sciences

Experience and Scholarship Requirements

Candidates must possess at least 3 years of full-time experience in one or more of the following areas:

  • Nutrition industry
  • Academia
  • Writing
  • Research
  • Clinical practice

Further, they must have accomplished at least 5 of any combination of the following achievements:

  • Written nutrition papers published in peer-reviewed journals or trade journals
  • Written chapters published in nutrition textbooks or reference books
  • Established nutrition-related patents
  • Written non-professional nutrition book based on scientific research that has been reviewed and approved by the BCNS Credentials Council
  • Other comparable works of scholarship

Examination Required to Become a Certified Nutrition Specialist®™

Upon completing all necessary experience and education requirements, candidates must apply to take the Certification Examination for Nutrition Specialists℠ by completing the appropriate application:

The examination fee is $300, and the application fee is $50.

Candidates may take the exam before completing all necessary experience requirements; however, the CNS® is not awarded until completing and submitting all experience requirements.
The examination tests the knowledge and skills candidates acquire through education and experience. The examination consists of 200 multiple-choice questions that cover basic and applied nutritional science based on specific competencies. The exam groups competencies into domains, sub-domains, and tasks.

Candidates may choose their preferred examination site when completing their application. Currently, the examination is offered in the following cities:

  • Boston, MA
  • Bridgeport, CT
  • Chicago, IL
  • Clearwater, FL
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • New York NY
  • Portland, OR
  • Washington, DC

Recertification Requirements for the Certified Nutrition Specialist®™ Credential

All CNS® and CNS-S® credential holders must recertify every 5 years upon completing at least 75 continuing education credits. Individuals may achieve their continuing education requirements by:

  • Participating in professional and structured educational activities that include at least 50 percent nutritional content
  • Teaching nutrition courses at a regionally accredited institution
  • Authoring/co-authoring books and articles in the field of nutrition
  • Editorship of a professional nutrition journal
  • Organizing and chairing/co-chairing a scientific session

Salary Expectations for a Certified Nutrition Specialist®™

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) revealed that nutritionists earned an average, annual salary of $57,440, as of May 2014, with the top 10 percent earning an average salary of $79,840.  These salaries are only for those that identified themselves as nutritionists when responding to salary surveys. Since those that hold the CNS® and CNS-S® credentials are most often MDs, advanced practice registered nurses, physician assistants and other medical and healthcare professionals with advanced degrees, these salary figures are recognized as being lower than what would be expected for many in the field.

Given the demanding requirements to become a Certified Nutrition Specialist®™, nutritionists holding this designation are likely the top earners in this profession.
The top-paying industries for nutritionists include (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014):

  • Educational support services: $82,280
  • Federal executive branch: $69,450
  • Home health care services: $66,650
  • Insurance carriers: $65,680
  • Outpatient care centers: $61,850

The top-paying states for nutritionists include (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014):

  • California: $72,010
  • Maryland: $66,340
  • Nevada: $65,600
  • Connecticut: $64,970
  • New Jersey: $64,910

The median salary for medical and healthcare professionals that often hold the CNS® and CNS-S® credentials include (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014):

  • Physician Assistant: $97,280
  • Physicians and Sugeons: Equal to or greater than $187,200 a year
  • Nurse Practitioner: $95,350
  • Pharmacist: $120,950
  • Dentist: $154,640