If you want to become a nutritionist, you might first inquire how long the entire process will take. The answer to this question is dependent upon whether you intend to become a licensed nutritionist, a registered dietitian nutritionist, or a non-licensed nutritionist. State regulations vary on the licensure and certification requirements for nutritionists. Those who employ nutritionists, however, generally seek candidates with licensure or certification of some sort. Although this might seem confusing, it just means that becoming a nutritionist can take anywhere from six months to seven years of study.
Becoming a non-licensed nutritionist requires the shortest amount of time. If you want to determine whether your state allows non-licensed nutritionists to practice, there are two resources you may consult. One is this list from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which enumerates licensing requirements per state for nutritionists and dietitians. The other handy resource is the list of Nutrition Practice Laws by the Council of Holistic Health Educators.
(An important point to keep in mind is that if you wish to work as a non-licensed nutritionist, you may not become a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). RDNs must always be licensed and certified, no matter where they practice, and their process takes much longer, as we will explore further below.)
If your state allows non-licensed nutritionists to work, you may opt to pursue online education and earn a certification through an organization such as the National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association (NESTA), the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), or the American Fitness Professional Association (AFPA). These certifications are available through online study and examination and take from six months to one year to earn.
If you wish to work as a nutrition coach or assistant, other options available to you are to take a certificate or associate degree course at your local college or university. Nutrition certificates that may be available through colleges or universities focus on healthy living, nutrition, and lifestyle management. These certificates may take up to 18 months to earn.
An associate degree in nutrition is also a good entry into the nutrition field, if you are unsure whether you’d like to ultimately become licensed or not. Examples include an Associate of Science in Nutrition, Associate of Arts in Nutrition, and Associate of Applied Science in Nutrition. These programs typically take two years to complete.
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)
One of the most recognizable licensed nutritionist credentials is the RDN, which is bestowed by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). Earning this credential requires graduating with a master’s degree (which is a new requirement that goes into effect January 1, 2024). This degree must come from an ACEND-accredited program (ACEND stands for the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics). A master’s degree typically follows a bachelor’s degree, so the total study time for becoming an RDN is at least six years.
A typical course of study for prospective RDNs would include a bachelor’s degree such as a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics, Bachelor of Science in Nutrition, or Bachelor of Science in Dietetics; followed by an ACEND-accredited master’s degree program. This program must include an experiential internship. Some examples of such degrees are Master of Clinical Nutrition, Master of Dietetics and Nutrition, and Master of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics.
Once you have completed your ACEND-accredited master’s degree program, before you may practice as an RDN, you must pass the certification examination given by the CDR. This entire process, from bachelor’s degree to examination, usually takes at least six years.
Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN)
If you don’t want to become an RDN, but still wish to work as a licensed nutritionist, another option available to you is to become a Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN) through the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB). This is a post-graduate credential that is offered to students who already hold a bachelor’s degree. Studies are completed through an online program, and an examination must be passed after completion of studies. If you already hold a master’s degree in nutrition, you may be exempt from the online studies and may proceed to take the exam. The total time to earn a CCN includes four years of bachelor’s degree, and one year of study through the CNCB, for a total of five years.
Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS)
The Board of Certification for Nutrition Specialists (BCNS) of the American Nutrition Association offers the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential. To earn this credential, you must graduate from a master’s degree nutrition program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Nutrition Professional Education (ACNPE). As of 2023, there are just two programs accredited: the Master of Science in Human Nutrition at the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut; and the Master of Science in Nutrition and Integrative Health at the Maryland University of Integrative Health in Laurel, Maryland. You must then complete 35 hours of relevant graduate coursework in personalized nutrition practice, 1000 hours’ supervised nutrition practice, and pass a credentialing examination. The total time to earn the CNS credential averages seven years.
To Sum It Up
As you can see, the amount of time it takes to become a nutritionist varies depending upon many factors:
- Do you want to be a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)? If so, this will require completion of graduate studies and will take approximately six years to achieve.
- In which state would you like to practice? This is important due to licensure and/or certification requirements, and affects the amount of time you must study.
- Are you seeking other credentials, such as NESTA Certified Sports Nutritionist or AFPA Nutritionist? These credentials can be obtained online in as little as six months.
- If you are not seeking RDN certification but want to be a practicing clinical nutritionist, you may opt for the credentials CNS or CCN. Both of these credentials require completing graduate studies, and may take from five to seven years to obtain.