Nutritional Counseling Careers

Overview

By Dylan Jones, M.S. RD, CD, CES
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 are experts of behavioral change and nutritional knowledge. They guide clients toward their goals by developing a plan that promotes healthy eating while also strengthening their clients’ motivation.

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

Professionals who offer nutritional counseling but do not have training as a registered dietitian are sometimes known as “nutritionists”. Often, nutritionists have basic training in a niche area such as fitness, herbology or holistic nutrition. While these professionals typically don’t have the credentials necessary to bill insurance for their services, they may be able to provide advice in a small niche area that another professional could not.  Another option is to become a certified nutrition specialist, a professional who holds advanced degrees and relies more exclusively on evidence-based practices, as Dietitians do.

Many physicians, nurses, chiropractors, and pharmacists receive education in nutrition as part of their training and offer nutritional advice along with their care. However, they are not qualified to test for the Registered Dietitian credential.

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 even extend patients’ lifespans. Nutritional counseling plays an important role in preventing chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes, which currently account for 75% of health care spending. New research is also showing that certain diets can even help to reverse these conditions when patients stick to the plan. This underscores the importance of nutritional counselors in helping patient populations confront their conditions.

Work Environment

Many nutritional counselors are employed full-time in hospitals, nursing homes and outpatient care centers. As the field of “health coaching” grows, nutritional counselors are also finding opportunities to work for health insurance companies, on job sites for employee health and with governmental organizations to form public policies.

In 2012, about 11% of nutrition professionals worked as self-employed consultants in various sectors. Dietitians and certified nutrition specialists with advanced degrees have the option to teach at the university level or conduct research.

Nutrition professionals who work in medical centers have the greatest stability and job security. Those in private practice have more freedom to set their own schedules, but often have to spend time marketing their services.

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. More job information can also be found through the Commission on Dietetic Registration.

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 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. The internship requirements include completing supervised hours in medical practice, community care and often food service as well.

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 Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS).
  • The certified clinical nutritionist (CCN) credential is administered by the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB).

Many states require licensure of practicing dietitians and nutritionists as well, which requires a separate state qualification. This licensure mandate is expected to spread to all states in the future.

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. Encouraging behavior change in lifelong dietary habits can be difficult, so nutritional counselors must have abundant patience and empathy in order to earn patients' trust and convince them to try new regimens and behaviors.

Nutritional counselors are heavily encouraged to receive training in behavior change counseling techniques such as Motivational Interviewing as well as Positive Behavior Support. These tools are essential in helping a patient/client identify motivations and make successful change.

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 and Job Outlook

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the median salary for dietitians and nutritionists is $27.38 hourly and $56,950 yearly. The highest salaries of $79,840 and higher are often seen among dietitians working in food management and business settings.

The future looks bright as well; the BLS reports that employment of dietitians and nutritionists is expected to grow by 21% from 2012-2022, a faster rate than the average for all occupations.

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Further Reading

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