If you have just begun learning about nutrition, you might hear the word “nutritionist” and wonder, is a nutritionist a physician? The simple answer is, no, a nutritionist is not a physician, but a physician can be a nutritionist. A nutritionist is a licensed or unlicensed professional who gives others advice on which, and how much, food to eat to achieve a healthy lifestyle, fight a health issue or disease, or to gain or lose weight. As we have explained in these pages (link), “nutritionist” is a broad term used to encompass licensed nutritionists, unlicensed nutritionists, and registered dietitian nutritionists. Depending upon state regulations, a nutritionist may or may not need to be licensed or credentialed in order to call themselves a nutritionist. Although nutritionists are not doctors, let’s take a look at under what conditions doctors can be called nutritionists.
Why Aren’t Doctors Trained More Thoroughly in Nutrition?
Doctors do not routinely receive extensive training in nutrition while in medical school. David Eisenberg, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, noted that most medical students receive less than 25 hours of nutrition education over five years spent in American medical schools. Even worse, 20 percent of American medical schools only require one nutrition course for med students. Another study found that the nutrition education that medical students do receive focuses more on nutrients rather than working directly with patients in nutritional counseling or meal planning. Even if coursework in nutrition is added to the current curriculum for medical students, the doctors who are already practicing today still will not receive it, unless they pursue one of the following certifications or continuing nutrition education options available to them.
Certification Through the National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists
The National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists was founded in 1998 to increase nutrition literacy among physicians. Recognizing that physicians are not often well-trained in nutrition, this Board set out to create Physician Nutrition Specialists (PNS). A PNS is an expert in clinical nutrition, who may have a background in any area of medicine – including, but not limited to, pediatrics, family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, gastroenterology, critical care, cardiology, endocrinology, and nephrology.
Becoming a Diplomate of the National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists requires meeting standards of competency in evidence-based medical nutrition. In order to qualify, a physician must meet these requirements:
- Be currently licensed to practice medicine in the US or other countries
- Be certified by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS)
- Display demonstrated nutrition expertise in one of these ways:
- Has been mentored in clinical nutrition training
- Has served on a hospital multidisciplinary nutrition team
- Has conducted research and published nutrition information
- Has held a teaching position involving nutrition at an academic medical center
- Was a member and/or leader of a committee in a national nutrition society
- Has completed at least 150 hours of continuing medical education in clinical nutrition
- Has held a leadership role in nutrition that is recognized by peers
Eligible physicians must pass the NBPNS Examination, which tests knowledge of the general aspects of nutrition, wellness promotion, nutrients and integrative nutrition, nutritional status assessment, obesity, disease-specific nutrition, and enteral and parenteral nutrition support. Once certified, certification is valid for 10 years, and may be renewed either through re-taking the exam or by completing continuing medical education credits.
Certification Through the American Nutrition Association
Physicians who have the credentials of MD (Medical Doctor) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathy) may be eligible to earn the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) certification through the American Nutrition Association. In order to be eligible, a physician must:
- Hold a DO or MD degree from an accredited institution
- Be currently licensed to practice medicine in the United States
- Complete 35 credits of courses in these categories:
- 12 credits in graduate nutrition science courses
- 12 credits in graduate or graduate clinical or life sciences courses
- 6 credits in graduate or undergraduate biochemistry courses
- 3 credits in graduate or undergraduate physiology and anatomy courses
- 3 credits in graduate or undergraduate behavioral science courses
- Complete demonstrated practice experience in clinical nutrition after the above education requirements are met
- Pass the Certification Examination for Nutrition Specialists
Once a physician holds CNS certification, that certification must be renewed every five years. This is accomplished through completion of 75 credits of continuing education courses.
Certification Through the National Board of Nutrition Support Certification
Another option for physicians seeking nutrition certification is the National Board for Nutrition Support Certification (NBNSC). Passing their certification exam gives professionals the credential of Board Certified as a Certified Nutrition Support Clinician (CNSC). Any physician who is licensed as a DO or MD in the US or Canada may take this examination, which tests knowledge of:
- Nutrition assessment
- Clinical management
- Process management
- Professional practice
Once earned, certification must be renewed every five years. This is accomplished through passing the Certification Examination for Nutrition Support Clinicians again.
Certification Through the American Board of Physician Specialties
Physicians may also seek integrative medicine nutrition certification from the American Board of Physician Specialties (ABPS). Physicians must pass an examination to earn this certification. Examinations are given each May. Eligibility for this certification includes:
- Be currently licensed to practice medicine in the United States, its territories, or Canada
- Have completed a residency training program that has received approval by the American Osteopathic Association or by the Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education
- Hold board certification granted by an ABPS, American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS), American Osteopathic Association (AOA), or similar foreign board
- Have completed an academic fellowship in integrative medicine
Earning a Post-Graduate Certificate in Nutrition
Another option for doctors who wish to practice nutrition is to earn a post-graduate certificate in nutrition. These are available from many different academic institutions, including, but not limited to:
- Advanced Certificate in Nutrition for Healthcare Providers – New York Institute of Technology
- Certification in Health and Wellness: Designing a Sustainable Nutrition Plan- Harvard Medical School
- Nutrition and Healthy Living Certificate – Cornell University Online
- Precision Nutrition Online Graduate Certificate- University of Connecticut
Completing Continuing Medical Education in Nutrition
Doctors who wish to know more about nutrition but are not sure they want to go the certification route just yet might prefer completing nutrition continuing medical education. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, in conjunction with The George Washington University, offers free nutrition continuing medical education for health care providers at NutritionCME.org. These courses focus on how nutrition impacts heart health, brain health, obesity, diabetes and more, and are available free of charge to doctors online with no commercial sponsorship.
Another option for continuing nutritional medical education for doctors may be found through the Gaples Institute of Nutrition and Lifestyle Education. Recommended by the American Medical Association (AMA), CME activities and modules designed especially for physicians are available online.
The Stanford Center for Continuing Medical Education at Stanford Medicine offers an Introduction to Food and Health continuing medical education course for physicians. A study of doctors who took this course found that these doctors were more likely to discuss nutrition with their patients. This, in turn, created positive changes in their patients’ nutritional habits.
As you can see from the information above, while a nutritionist is definitely not a doctor, it is, indeed, possible for a doctor to be a nutritionist. With the right training, education and mindset, doctors can become well-versed in nutrition and pass their knowledge and expertise on to their patients, producing positive results.