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Whether you’re looking to become a nutrition professional or work with one, there’s an important question to ask: “What’s the difference between a nutritionist certification vs degree?” 

You’ll often hear people say that you should only take nutrition advice from registered dietitians, but that’s not necessarily true. There are qualified nutrition professionals who may not have degrees or registered dietitian credentials. Of course, the keyword here is “qualified” and there are different paths you can take to get there.

Here, we’ll discuss the differences between a nutritionist certification and a degree to help you decide which path you want to take—or which professional you’d prefer to work with.

RELATED: NASM Nutrition Certification Review

Medical disclaimer: This article is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. For health advice, contact a licensed healthcare provider.

What Is a Nutritionist Certification?

Nutrition certification is a pretty broad category, and certification requirements can vary. In general, you’ll complete a course or a series of courses. When you complete those courses, you might need to pass a certification exam after which you’ll be given your certification. Then you’re done.

There are many nutrition certification programs out there, and most of them require only a high school diploma, GED, or equivalent as a prerequisite. (Keep in mind there are some exceptions here for more advanced certification courses). Most certification courses are also online programs.

The scope of nutrition certifications can vary widely, from basic nutrition to sports nutrition and holistic nutrition to functional nutrition. They generally dive into nutrition science, but may not be as clinical as a nutrition degree (more on that later).

After obtaining a nutrition certification, you’re qualified to develop meal plans and provide general nutrition care. Some common jobs in the general field of nutrition include:

  • Health coach
  • Private nutrition counseling
  • Writer/editor
  • Nutrition assistant
  • Holistic nutritionist
  • Community nutritionist
  • Corporate wellness
  • Supplement distribution
  • Nutrition and public health education

Keep in mind that there are so many nutrition certification courses out there and they’re not all created equally. Some are accredited and some aren’t, and while this isn’t the only thing to consider, it can help you narrow things down.

The bottom line is that you should be very discerning about which one you choose.

Nutritious meal of vegetables and grains - NASM nutrition certification review

What Is a Nutrition Degree?

A nutrition degree is formal, college-level schooling from an accredited program in nutrition. This means it follows federal guidelines to ensure it meets a certain level of educational standards.

You can get an associate, bachelor’s, graduate, or doctoral degree in nutrition, but not all degree programs make you eligible to become a registered dietitian (more on that later, too).

Nutrition degree programs include three main areas: clinical nutrition/medical nutrition therapy (MNT), food service, and food science. In addition to nutrition courses, they require you to have a deep understanding of various sciences, including biochemistry, organic chemistry, and microbiology. This sets you up for a more clinical career path.

You can get a nutrition degree in person or online, but if you want to get a registered dietitian credential, you’ll have to do an in-person internship at some point.

What Is the Difference Between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist?

“Nutritionist” and “dietitian” are terms that some use interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Nutritionist is a broader term that can encompass dietitians, but not all nutritionists are dietitians.

In order to call yourself a dietitian, you must meet three criteria outlined by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR):

  • Complete a didactic degree program in nutrition that includes very targeted coursework
  • Complete a clinical internship that’s accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) 
  • Pass a federal exam 

While a certification and/or a degree is sufficient for helping people with their eating habits and overall health and well-being, the RD designation is generally required for providing clinical nutrition advice. This means putting together diets for people with health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and/or kidney disease.

You may also need an RD to work in certain clinical settings like hospitals, nursing homes, and other inpatient care facilities.

RELATED: How to Become a Health Coach

Nutritionist Certification vs Degree: Length of Schooling

As a general rule, certification programs are shorter than degree programs, and they can last from several months to a couple of years. 

Pile of fresh, healthy foods

For example, nutrition certification programs through the National Council on Strength and Fitness range from eight to 16 weeks, while the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) designation through the American Nutrition Association can take up to two years (on top of a bachelor’s degree in a related field). 

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Most often though, you can become a certified nutritionist within six months to a year. 

As far as nutrition degrees go, there are several options. You can get an associate degree, which will take about two years to complete. There are also four-year bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees, which will take about six years to complete. Some nutrition programs offer a doctoral degree, which can take another three to five years.

If you want to become a registered dietitian, you’ll need at least a master’s degree. As of January 1, 2024, educational requirements for registered dietitians are changing. Instead of a bachelor’s degree and an accredited internship, you’ll need to complete a master’s degree program and a qualified internship to become a registered dietitian.

These internships can take an additional eight to 24 months, depending on whether you do it part-time or full-time.

To put everything together:

  • You can get a nutrition certification in about six months to one year (usually).
  • A nutrition degree will take about two years to six years, depending on the type of degree.
  • Becoming a registered dietitian will require a graduate degree (about six years of schooling total) and up to another two years of an internship.

Nutritionist Certification vs Degree: Cost

Nutrition certifications are much less expensive than degrees. While the actual cost depends on which program and/or school you pick, a nutrition certification typically ranges from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. You can sign up for some top-tier nutrition programs for around $3,000.

Nutrition degrees are much more expensive. The cost depends on the level of education, but you can expect to pay1:

  • Associate’s degree: $4,000 to $17,000 per year 
  • Bachelor’s degree: $10,000 to $40,000 per year
  • Master’s degree: $15,000 to $50,000 per year

The TL;DR here is that nutrition certifications are considerably less expensive than degrees.

Nutritionist Certification vs Degree: Licensing Requirements

Licensing is another layer you might want to consider, and this largely comes down to what state you live in. 

how to become a health coach
Image by Freepik

In years past, you could only become a licensed nutritionist if you carried a registered dietitian credential. Now, however, some states are adding an “experience” prerequisite that you can use in lieu of an RD. That means if you’re not a registered dietitian, but have a certain number of years of relevant experience (i.e., working as a nutritionist in a doctor’s office), you may be eligible for state licensure.

To be clear, this licensure is not the same thing as the registered dietitian credential (as a reminder, this is regulated on a federal level), but licensure may be required to practice nutrition in your state. Even if not required, it can open up additional opportunities for those with certifications or degrees instead of RD credentials.

Again, licensure rules can vary widely. For example, in my home state of Massachusetts, you can apply for licensure if you have the following paid experience: three years of post-baccalaureate, two years of post-master’s, or one year of post-doctorate; or comparable experience satisfying the board that the applicant is competent to practice.

In other states, you still need a registered dietitian credential to be eligible for licensure. If licensure is important to you, you can look up rules and regulations for your state via the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR)2. Also, keep in mind that some states require a license to practice nutrition, so you’ll want to check on that too. 

Nutritionist Certification vs Degree: Final Thoughts 

Nutrition certifications are less intensive than degrees. They don’t take as long to obtain, and they’re considerably less expensive, too. But they can limit your scope of practice.

RELATED: ISSA Nutrition Certification Review

While a certification can make you qualified to give dietary advice, a degree dives deeper into nutrition and food science and qualifies you to give medical nutrition advice. A degree is also required to become a registered dietitian. There’s no clear answer about whether one is “better” than the other—it really comes down to what you want to do with it.

Nutritionist Certification vs Degree: Q&A

Is getting a nutrition certification worth it?

It certainly can be. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the mean annual income for nutritionists and dietitians ranges from around $65,000 to $84,0003 depending on your specialization. Of course, it’s not just about the money. If nutrition coaching is something you want to do, then getting a nutrition certification is worth it. 

Can anyone call themselves a nutrition coach?

Technically, yes. There are no official rules and regulations around the term, so even without a certification or a degree, someone could call t

What’s the difference between an RD and an RDN?

RD stands for registered dietitian; RDN stands for registered dietitian nutritionist.

These two designations are interchangeable and mean the same thing. In 2013, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (which is the credentialing agency for Registered Dietitians), announced that dietitians could use either the RD or RDN credential. The schooling and experience are the same, but the RDN just highlights the “nutrition” part of the dietitian credential.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any diseases.

References

1. National Center for Education Statistics. “Tuition costs of colleges and universities.” 2023.

2. Commission on Dietetic Registration. “State licensure.”

3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Dietitians and nutritionists.” 2023.

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