Is a Nutritionist a Doctor?

A licensed nutritionist is a health care professional specializing in nutrition and dietetics who has received credentials from a nationally recognized nutrition licensing organization. Although not all states require nutritionists to be licensed, many insurances won’t reimburse a nutritionist’s services unless they do hold a license and certification. While a nutritionist is not a doctor, it is feasible that a doctor could also be a licensed nutritionist.

Here we will discuss the similarities and differences between nutritionists and doctors.

What is a Doctor?

As you most likely know, a doctor is a qualified practitioner of medicine who has received a Doctor of Medicine degree (M.D.) or Doctorate (Ph.D.). Also called physicians, doctors may focus their practices on certain types of diseases or physical/mental impairments, one of which may be nutrition.

The duties of a doctor vary greatly depending upon their specialization, but may include assessing a client’s symptoms, diagnosing conditions in clients, prescribing and administering treatment to clients, providing follow-up care to clients, referring clients to specialists when necessary, collaborating with a team of health care professionals on a client’s treatment, prescribing medication, and staying current on medical technology and the latest research.

Doctors must go through many years of education, including undergraduate pre-med education, medical school, and a period of supervised practice known as residency or internship.

In general, doctors receive less targeted education in nutrition than nutritionists do. The American Academy of Family Physicians notes that most doctor training includes an average of 25 hours of nutrition training. Out of 99 medical schools that were surveyed, only 40 of these schools required aspiring doctors to receive at least 25 hours of education in nutrition. Less than 20 percent of medical schools require doctors to take even one course in nutrition.

What is a Nutritionist?

A nutritionist is a health care professional who specializes in the dietetic and nutritional needs of individuals.

Licensed nutritionists spend time assessing a client’s nutritional needs, providing clients with nutritional counseling and advice, creating a clinical nutrition plan for a client, educating the public and the community on nutrition, researching the effects of nutrition on health and fitness, and consulting with a team of other health care professionals in a client’s nutritional management.

Education for nutritionists includes a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a food and nutrition-related field, such as food and dietetics, nutrition, or human nutrition. Certification agencies for nutritionists require that education, experience and examination requirements be met before national credentials are granted. State licensure often overlaps with these requirements but may also mandate that a licensure test is passed before a nutritionist can practice in that state.

Courses that Both Doctors and Nutritionists May Take

Although doctors are not mandated to take nutrition courses in their training, some may choose to do so as elective courses and to broaden their knowledge.

In getting the necessary education for their profession, both aspiring doctors and aspiring nutritionists may encounter some of the same courses or types of coursework. These may include:

  • Microbiology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Organic chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Nutrition
  • Nutritional biochemistry
  • Food chemistry

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

Certification for Nutritionists that Doctors May Also Pursue

Nutritionist certification is available through different organizations, including the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board and the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists.

The Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists has a unique pathway to certification for those who are already medical doctors (MD) or doctors of osteopathic medicine (DO). This includes:

  • Holding an MD or DO degree from a regionally accredited medical school or osteopathy school
  • Holding current licensure to practice medicine in the US
  • Completion of 35 credits of coursework in the following five categories:
    • Graduate Nutrition Science courses (12 credits):
      • Foundational Nutrition
      • Advanced Nutrition
    • Graduate or Undergraduate Biochemistry Courses (6 credits):
      • Biochemistry or nutrition
      • Clinical Biochemistry
      • Medical Biochemistry
    • Graduate or Undergraduate Physiology or Anatomy/Physiology (3 credits):
      • Anatomy and physiology
      • Anatomy
      • Medical physiology
      • Physiology
      • Health and wellness physiology
    • Graduate or Undergraduate Clinical or Life Sciences (12 credits):
      • Biology
      • Botany
      • Microbiology
      • Nutrition science
      • Organic/inorganic chemistry
  • 1000 hours of clinical nutrition practice experience with hours distributed as follows:
    • 200 hours of nutrition assessment
    • 200 hours of nutrition intervention, education, counseling or management
    • 200 hours of nutrition monitoring/evaluation
    • Remaining hours in any of the above categories
  • Pass the Certification Examination for Nutrition Specialists, a 200-question multiple choice exam offered twice yearly
  • After passing the exam, you may use the credentials CNS (Certified Nutrition Specialist)

The Clinical Nutrition Certification Board is a post-graduate nutrition certification program for physicians and other health care professionals. Requirements for doctors to become certified through CNCB include:

  • Holding a professional, advanced degree in a licensed health care field
  • 56 hours of online training in clinical human nutrition
  • Passing the Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN) exam, a three-hour exam offered online

Expand Your Knowledge of Nutrition

As you can see from the information above, a nutritionist is not a doctor, but a doctor may be a nutritionist. Doctors who choose to become certified in nutrition can greatly expand their knowledge and abilities in dealing with clients’ food and nutrition needs, especially as they relate to overall wellness.

Until medical schools require doctors to receive more training in nutrition, becoming certified as a Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN) or Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) is highly recommended.