What is a Nutritionist? What Does a Nutritionist Do?

If someone calls themselves a nutritionist, what does that mean? Does it mean that they are a Registered Dietitian? Does it mean that they hold certain credentials? Depending upon the state in which a person works, calling oneself a nutritionist can mean different things. Here, we will examine what a nutritionist really is, what a nutritionist does, where nutritionists work, and various types of nutritionists.

An image of a Nutritionist at work

What is a Nutritionist?

A nutritionist is a trained health professional who educates others about general nutrition, food, diet, lifestyle, and ways in which the consumption of food affects health. Nutritionists may offer guidance to people with specific medical concerns, those trying to lose weight, those trying to improve their diets for overall health reasons, and others. Nutritionists may or may not have a college degree (this is largely dependent upon state requirements, as we will discuss below).

According to the American Nutrition Association, nutrition encompasses and includes:

  • An ecosystem that includes farmers, scientists, academics, healthcare professionals, governmental policymakers and more
  • Includes all people, as all people should have access to healthy food and nutritional knowledge based on science
  • A core part of our healthcare system that should be factored into consideration by all healthcare professionals
  • Medicine that can help to prevent and even reverse disease
  • Personal, based upon the individual’s body composition and lifestyle factors
  • Science, as science has proven how nutrition greatly impacts our health

All Registered Dietitians are Nutritionists, but all Nutritionists are NOT Registered Dietitians

All Registered Dietitians are Nutritionists, but all Nutritionists are NOT Registered Dietitians. Does this statement sound confusing to you? The Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), which is the regulating body for Registered Dietitian Nutritionists, is the only national agency in the United States that bestows credentials upon Registered Dietitian Nutritionists, also known as RDNs. RDNs must have a master’s degree, fulfill certain experiential requirements, and pass an exam. We will look further at what RDNs do in a separate article. But, for the purposes of this article, we will talk strictly about nutritionists who are not RDNs.

Credentialing vs. Licensure of Nutritionists

Another potentially murky area when it comes to nutritionists is the idea of credentialing vs. licensure. Nutritionists may or may not be credentialed by a variety of national credentialing organizations, including, but not limited to:

Nutritionists do not need to be credentialed by any agency, particularly if they work in a state with no regulation of nutritionists.

Licensure requirements for nutritionists vary by state. If a state regulates its nutritionists and requires them to be licensed in order to practice there, you must follow that state’s regulations regarding how much education and experience is necessary to practice, as well as whether or not you need any of the above-mentioned credentials (or others). Not every state requires that nutritionists become licensed in order to work in that state. This is discussed further on our Licensure vs. Certification page.

According to information provided by the National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP), states in which nutritionists do not need to have a license or certification in order to provide nutrition advice, as of 2024, include:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Indiana
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington

So, we now know that a nutritionist may be licensed, or non-licensed, and certified, or non-certified. As the rules and regulations are changing, it’s always a good idea to consult with your state board of regulation before committing to work as a nutritionist in that state. We have a handy guide on this page as well that you may also wish to consult regarding state licensure of nutritionists.

What Does a Nutritionist Do?

Again, depending upon state laws, the duties of a nutritionist may vary. In certain states, nutritionists may be permitted to:

  • Evaluating clients’ nutritional needs
  • Offer nutritional counseling or advice
  • Diagnose and/or treat health conditions
  • Provide medical nutrition therapy
  • Creating nutritional plans for clients
  • Conduct community nutrition education sessions
  • Advise clients on matters of food, menu, nutrients, and nutrition
  • Promote active, healthy lifestyles
  • Research health issues and provide recommendations
  • Provide follow-up support to clients
  • Teach consumers and other healthcare professionals about nutrition
  • Consult with licensed practitioners in the treatment of a client

What Skills Should a Nutritionist Have?

In order to work effectively as a nutritionist, you should be able to:

  • Write (reports, treatment plans, nutrition plans, etc.)
  • Use good judgment
  • Teach others
  • Speak in public easily
  • Solve problems
  • Make decisions
  • Listen well to others
  • Critically think and reason
  • Comprehend what you read
  • Be sensitive to the feelings and reactions of others
  • Be flexible in your thinking

Where Do Nutritionists Work?

Where a nutritionist works is also largely dependent upon the practice laws of the state in which they work. Depending upon the state in which you work, job settings may include:

  • Inpatient health care center
  • Outpatient health clinic
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Senior centers
  • Research centers
  • Universities and colleges
  • Schools (K-12)
  • Community health clinics and centers
  • Health maintenance organizations
  • Holistic health centers
  • Recreation and fitness centers
  • Beauty spas and salons
  • Public health agencies
  • Governmental agencies
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Corporations’ wellness centers
  • Manufacturing
  • Industry
  • Retail
  • Private practice or in conjunction with other healthcare practitioners

What are the Various Types of Nutritionists?

Nutritionist is such a broad term that encompasses healthcare professionals who focus on using food and nutrition to treat health issues and improve lives. There are many types of nutritionists, each of which works with a different population or target group. Some of the types of nutritionists include, but are not limited to (click on the link for each to discover more about that nutrition career):