Nutritionist, nutrition specialist, nutrition therapist—whatever you wish to call this health care professional, their responsibilities are the same: to instruct others in what foods they should eat in order to achieve a healthy lifestyle or a health-related goal. Credentialing is very important when it comes to nutritionists, as many states will not license one to work unless they are credentialed.
One of the main credentials for nutritionists is the Certified Nutrition Specialist, or CNS. This credential is offered by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS) of the American Nutrition Association. They also offer specialty certifications in Nutritional Genomics and Ketogenics. We will explore the Certified Nutrition Specialist Credential, and how you can achieve it, here.
What Do Certified Nutrition Specialists Do?
A Certified Nutrition Specialist is a nutrition professional who has advanced education and experience, and is proficient in research, education and advanced medical nutrition therapy. In addition to advising patients who wish to improve their overall health through nutrition, they also care for patients with various medical conditions.
Who Can Become a Certified Nutrition Specialist?
Any health care professional puts in the hard work to become educated and experienced can become a Certified Nutrition Specialist. Most commonly, the CNS credential is earned by Registered Dietitians/Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDs/RDNs), licensed nutritionists, physicians, physician assistants, advanced practice registered nurses, dentists, pharmacists, and others who meet the requirements.
Because the professionals who become certified as a CNS are so varied, different pathways to certification have been developed. They include:
- CNS Pathway for nutritionists and health professionals
- CNS Pathway for Registered Dietitians/Registered Dietitian Nutritionists
- CNS Pathway for Medical Doctors and Doctors of Osteopathy
- CNS Pathway for Naturopathic Doctors
There is also an option to become a CNS Supervisor, which involves supervising other CNS professionals.
Becoming a CNS professional demonstrates that you have advanced knowledge and skills in nutrition science and practice. It also may give you practice rights to obtain a license as a nutritionist in many states. You will be eligible for more jobs, and will become part of the American Nutrition Association family and community.
Where Do Certified Nutrition Specialists Work?
Certified Nutrition Specialists may be employed in a variety of settings, including but not limited to medical clinics, health care facilities, private practice, colleges and universities, childcare facilities, school systems, industries, and within the community.
What Do I Need to Do to Become a Certified Nutrition Specialist?
We will focus on the requirements that nutritionists and RDs/RDNs need to fulfill in order to become a CNS.
You must hold a master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited school in a field of nutrition or related field, which includes but is not limited to:
- Public health
- Health science
- Physician’s assistant
OR you must hold a doctoral degree in a clinical healthcare field including but not limited to:
- Doctor of Chiropractic (DC)
- Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS)
- Doctor of Optometry (OD)
- Doctor of Nursing
- Doctor of Naturopathy (ND)
- Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD)
OR you must hold a master’s degree from a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Nutrition Professional Education (ACNPE).
Regardless of your degree, your coursework must include 35 credit hours that provide knowledge in the core competencies necessary to practice effective personalized nutrition (i.e., that which is tested in the CNS examination). Examples of suggested coursework include:
- 12 semester credit hours in graduate nutrition science courses, such as:
- Botanical medicine
- Endocrine system therapeutics
- Therapeutic nutrition
- Nutrition assessment
- Micro/macro nutrients
- Metabolism of vitamins and minerals
- Developmental nutrition
- 6 semester credit hours in graduate or undergraduate biochemistry, such as:
- Medical biochemistry
- Clinical biochemistry
- Biochemistry of nutrition
- 3 semester credit hours in graduate or undergraduate physiology or anatomy/physiology, such as:
- Anatomy and physiology
- Health and Wellness Physiology
- Medical physiology
- 12 semester credit hours in graduate or undergraduate clinical or life sciences, such as:
- Organic/inorganic chemistry
- Nutrition science
- 2 semester credit hours in graduate or undergraduate behavioral science, such as:
- Foundations of health behavior and health education
- Principles and practices of health behavior and self-care
- Motivational counseling
- Motivational interviewing
You must complete 1000 hours of supervised practice experience as follows:
- 200 hours of personalized nutrition assessment
- 200 hours of personalized nutrition intervention, education, counseling, and ongoing care
- 200 hours of personalized nutrition monitoring and evaluation
- The remaining hours may be in any of the above categories
Hours must be supervised by a BCNS-approved supervisor with at least three years of clinical nutrition experience. You may obtain your supervised practice hours in an internship, clinical rotation, residency, clinical practice, institutional or community setting. Retail settings are NOT accepted.
After completing the education and experience requirements, you are eligible to take the CNS exam. It consists of 200 multiple-choice single-answer questions. The CNS examination is held twice a year, typically in June and December. Tests are given at ISO-Quality Testing, Inc. centers around the world. A fee of $78 must be paid to the test center. If you have met the above requirements, you must submit an exam application, two transcripts, two letters of recommendation, and your resume/CV, via the ANA’s Portal. You will pay the exam fee of $200 online. (Official transcripts must be submitted directly from the institution to [email protected], or mailed to BCNS, 211 W. Chicago Ave., Suite 218, Hinsdale, IL 60521.
- Fundamental principles of nutrition (25 percent)
- Nutrients and human health (14 percent)
- Nutrition assessment (14 percent)
- Clinical intervention and monitoring (35 percent)
- Public health (6 percent)
- Practice management (6 percent)
What Specialty Certifications are Available for Certified Nutrition Specialists?
Two specialty certifications are available:
Certified Ketogenic Nutrition Specialist (CKNS)
This certification means that you are a trained professional in the Ketogenic Diet. You must fulfill the educational requirements listed above for CNS, plus complete all six modules of the ANA’s Ketogenic Nutrition Training program. You must also complete one Personalized Nutrition Case Data Collection and one Personalized Case Report to document ketogenic case study. You must then pass the Certification Examination for Ketogenic Nutrition Specialists. After passing the exam, you have six months to submit your experience reports.
You must recertify your CKNS credential every five years, by obtaining 30 continuing education credits and paying a $125 fee.
Certified Nutritional Genomics Specialist (CNGS)
The CNGS credential means that you are a trained professional in Nutritional Genomics. You must complete the educational requirements for CNS, plus complete all five modules of the ANA’s Nutritional Genomics training program. You must also complete one Personalized Nutrition Case Data Collection and one Personalized Case Report to document nutritional genomics case study. You must then pass the Certification Examination for Nutritional Genomics Specialists. After passing the exam, you have six months to submit your experience reports.
You must recertify your CGNS credential every five years, by obtaining 30 continuing education credits and paying a $125 fee.
How Do I Maintain My Certified Nutrition Specialist Credential?
You must renew your CNS credential every five years. You can do so through obtaining 75 continuing education credits and submitting a $200 recertification fee with your recertification application through the portal. Information on approved continuing education can be found here.
What Salary Can I Earn with a Certified Nutrition Specialist Credential?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the U.S. Department of Labor says that as of May 2021, nutritionists earn an average median salary of $65,620 per year. Those earning in the top 25 percent make $77,430 per year; while those in the top 10 percent earn $93,740 annually.
The highest-paying industries in which nutritionists work as of May 2021 are:
- Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing $93,920
- Merchant wholesalers/nondurable goods $85,880
- Home health care $79,110
- Federal government $78,830
- Scientific research/development services $74,990