Nutritional Counseling Careers

Overview

Counselor offering advice to a patient

Nutritional counseling professionals help clients to master one of the most important prerequisites for good health: a balanced diet. Whether patients hope to lose weight, compete in a triathlon or manage a chronic illness, their eating habits can mean the difference between failure and success. Nutritional counselors guide clients toward their goals by developing a plan that promotes healthy eating while taking into account each person’s unique health status and lifestyle.

Nutrition counseling is generally provided by professionals called dietitians who are experts in food chemistry, disease process and biology. Dietitians usually work in clinical settings such as hospitals or nursing homes developing individualized meal plans for patients. They also oversee food service operations in institutional settings such as schools or correctional facilities. Community agencies and outreach programs often employ dietitians to educate the public about the importance of nutrition and healthy eating. 

Professionals who offer nutritional counseling but do not hold a registered dietitian credential are known as nutritionists. Often, nutritionists have basic training in a niche area such as fitness or holistic nutrition. However, some (notably Certified Nutrition Specialists) hold advanced degrees, have conducted peer-reviewed research and rely exclusively on evidence-based practices. Many physicians, nurses, chiropractors, pharmacists and dentists are also educated and credentialed as nutrition professionals and are qualified to provide nutritional counseling to their patients.

Nutritional counselors of all backgrounds provide an important service for patients, caregivers and society. Their work helps to prevent and alleviate suffering due to illness, improve quality of life and can even extend patients’ lifespans. Nutritional counseling also plays an important role in combatting preventable chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes which currently account for 75% of health care spending.

Work Environment

Many nutritional counselors are employed in hospitals, nursing homes and outpatient care centers. In 2010, about 15% worked as self-employed consultants. Dietitians and nutritionists with advanced degrees have the option to teach at the university level or conduct research.

Nutrition professionals in salaried positions enjoy greater stability and job security, while those in private practice have more freedom to set their own schedules and pursue their clinical interests. Some dietitians and nutritionists combine independent consulting with part-time employment in the health care industry.

Requirements

Education

Most nutritional counselors hold (at minimum) a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, nutrition or food service management. Regardless of the major they choose, they need in-depth knowledge of nutrition, anatomy, physiology, chemistry, human biology, biochemistry and microbiology to serve clients effectively and meet licensure and credentialing requirements. 

Students interested in working in clinical settings as registered dietitians must first earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited training program. The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics maintains a list of approved institutions on its website.

Earning a master’s degree or doctorate in nutritional science can greatly increase a candidate’s job prospects and opportunities for advancement.

Training

Nutritional counselors in training typically undergo several hundred hours of supervised clinical experience. Most bachelor’s degree programs in nutritional science include an extended internship that fulfills this requirement.

Licensing and/or Certification

A number of certifications are available for nutrition professionals:

  • Registered Dietitians (RDs) are certified by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). This credential is strongly preferred by employers and recommended for professionals who wish to practice in clinical and acute care settings. 
  • Certified Nutrition Specialists (CNSs) generally hold advanced degrees in nutrition or another health discipline and are credentialed by the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists (CBNS). 
  • The Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN) credential is administered by the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB).

More states require licensure of practicing dietitians and nutritionists. 

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Nutritional counseling requires excellent organizational and analytical skills. These professionals must be able to listen and communicate effectively with patients, caretakers and other members of the treatment team. Changing lifelong dietary habits can be a long and difficult process, so nutritional counselors must have abundant patience and empathy in order to earn patients' trust and convince them to try new regimens and behaviors.

Opportunities for Advancement

Earning a graduate degree in the field often increases a nutrition professional’s earnings, opening up opportunities for advancement as a professor, researcher or independent consultant.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to pursue a nutritional counseling career, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median 2010 salary for dietitians and nutritionists was $53,250, with 80% earning between $33,840 and $71,490.

Job Outlook

Employment of dietitians and nutritionists is expected to grow by 20% between 2010 and 2020, according to the BLS. This is considered faster than the average for all occupations.

Related Careers

Also, check out our Health Careers page for more career guides.

Further Reading

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