Becoming a Nutrition Specialist: Job Description & Salary Info

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Get the truth about a nutrition specialist's salary, training requirements and career prospects. Read the job descriptions and see the pros and cons of becoming a nutrition specialist.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Nutrition Specialist

Nutrition specialists work to prevent disease and promote wellness through eating healthfully. Learn about the pros and cons of a nutrition specialist career to decide if it's the right career for you.

Pros of a Career as a Nutrition Specialist
Above-average job growth (21% increase from 2012-2022)*
Diversity in work settings (hospitals, schools, food companies)**
Low unemployment rates**
Ample opportunities for advancement (credentials, specialty certifications, etc.)***
Work to enhance others' health and well-being*

Cons of a Career as a Nutrition Specialist Career
May need to meet specific state criteria (licensing, certification or registration)*
May be exposed to disease or illness if working in a medical center****
Some jobs require additional credentials to qualify**
May be challenging to change people's dietary habits****

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Boston University, ***Commission on Dietetic Registration, ****Iseek.org.

Essential Career Info

Job Description

As experts in dietary nutrition, nutrition specialists work with individuals to assess their level of health and nutritional needs. They provide dietary advice and guidance, evaluate the effectiveness of diets and engage in activities designed to educate the public about nutrition and healthy living. They often connect food with specific health risks and teach others how to use food to help prevent disease and maintain long-term health.

Career Paths

While all nutrition specialists have the ultimate goal of promoting health through nutrition, duties can vary according to work setting. As a community nutrition specialist, you may work for the government, non-profit organizations, public health centers or similar settings to educate the public on the importance of health. If you want to work in food service and plan meals and order food, you may want to be a management nutrition specialist.

If focusing on the medical aspects of food therapy interests you most, you can become a clinical nutrition specialist and work in hospitals, outpatient facilities and long-term care centers. Additionally, you can specialize even more by focusing on a specific medical condition or aspect of nutritional therapy, such as oncological nutrition, sports dietetics, pediatric nutrition, renal nutrition and gerontological nutrition.

Salary Info and Outlook

As of May 2014, the median salary for dieticians and nutritionists was about $57,000, and the top 10% earned more than $80,000, reported the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Between 2012 and 2022, the BLS estimated that employment for nutrition specialists should grow at a faster-than-average rate of 21%. As more people continue to make their health a priority, more nutrition specialists should be needed.

Training and Education Requirements

To become a nutrition specialist, you typically need at least a bachelor's degree in nutrition, dietetics or a closely related field, and practical training through hands-on courses or an internship, according to the BLS. If you plan to become a Registered Dietitian (RD), look for bachelor's programs that are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) since this is a requirement for earning the RD credential.

Licensure and Certification

According to the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), most states require nutrition specialists to be licensed, registered or certified. In addition, nutritionists who wish to provide counseling services must also be licensed in their state, according to the CDR. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics further reported that while not all states regulate the nutritionist title, some define the scope of work a nutritionist can and cannot perform. States that do regulate the profession through licensure or certification typically require a bachelor's degree in the field, a certain amount of supervised training and a passing score on a qualifying exam.

What Employers Are Looking for

Nutrition specialists in any type of work environment should possess certain traits to excel in the profession. Since most nutrition specialists work directly with patients, they should possess good people and communication skills. A passion for health and a genuine concern for others' well-being are also essential.

Based on job postings, the qualifications employers often look for can vary depending on the work setting and specific industry. Some examples of jobs that were posted in May 2012 are provided below to help you get a feel for the various skills and qualifications required.

  • A food processing company in Rhode Island was hiring for a nutritional development specialist with knowledge of U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines and experience in nutrition labeling to ensure regulatory compliance of their product line.
  • A Colorado grocer was hiring for a nutrition specialist with a nutrition degree and knowledge of specialty diets to assist customers with their health and nutrition goals.
  • A community health center in Arizona advertised for a certified nutritional education specialist with the ability to deliver presentations to various groups, apply quantitative information to everyday situations and define nutrition education program objectives.
  • A medical center in Maryland was hiring for a clinical dietitian specialist to provide nutrition assessments and advice to patients. The position required an ACEND-accredited bachelor's degree, state licensure and registration as a dietitian. Certification was also preferred.
  • A New Jersey medical center was looking for an RD to deliver nutrition information and council patients. Qualified candidates had exceptional customer service and clerical skills.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Become a Registered Dietitian

Some nutritionists may choose to become RDs through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. RDs are considered food and nutrition experts who have met strict qualifications in the field. Becoming an RD may open up more employment opportunities for you. For instance, RDs typically qualify for clinical jobs in medical and health care settings as well as jobs in research, industry and private practice. The designation requires an ACEND-accredited bachelor's degree, an accredited supervised training program and a passing score on a national exam administered by the CDR. Continuing education is mandatory to keep the credential valid.

Get Certified

You can further demonstrate your expertise and professional competence in the field by earning certification. Certification can also be a good way to earn the confidence and trust in patients and clients. The Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists (CBNS) offers the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential to nutrition professionals with advanced degrees, relevant work experience and passing scores on the certifying exams. Recertification through continuing education credits is required every five years.

Another option is earning the Certified Nutrition Support Clinician (CNSC) credential offered through the National Board of Nutrition Support Certification, Inc. (NBNSC). According to the NBNSC, this credential can facilitate greater job mobility, increase employability and may lead to higher pay.

If you're interested in a particular field, you may consider earning specialty certification. The CDR offers several specialty certifications for nutritionists and dietitians who have earned the RD designation and who have gained experience working in a specialty area. Specialty certifications are offered in gerontology, pediatric, renal, sports and oncology nutrition. According to the CDR, specialty certification typically requires you to have been an RD for at least two years and have at least 2,000 hours of documented work experience in the past five years in your chosen specialty.

Continuing Education

The nutrition field is diverse and pursuing continuing education can help demonstrate your competency and dedication to the field to both employers and the public. Several organizations offer continuing education opportunities for nutrition specialists, including the American Society for Nutrition and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Alternative Careers to Consider

If the process of meeting specific state regulations does not appeal to you, consider working as a health educator. These professionals work in health care settings, schools, health departments and non-profit organizations to create and amend health programs. However, some employers do require these professionals to earn the Certified Health Education Specialist credential. Health educators can expect excellent job prospects, with a 37% expected job growth rate between 2010 and 2020, reported the BLS. The median salaries of health educators were about $48,000, according to 2011 BLS data.

Alternatively, if you're interested in all aspects of health, you might consider a career as a registered nurse. The BLS estimated a rapid 26% job growth rate for registered nurses from 2010-2020. Moreover, the BLS stated that many of these workers receive signing bonuses, flexible schedules and other incentives to accept jobs. BLS data from May 2011 showed the median annual salaries for registered nurses were nearly $66,000.

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