From juice cleanses to “ancient” grains, these days it can be hard to figure out what foods are truly good for you and which diets are simply passing fads. Nutritionists provide some much-needed clarity on these subjects for their clients. Unfortunately, there’s very little regulation when it comes to who can call themselves a nutritionist. For example, many fitness gurus also market themselves as experts in nutrition. This is why it’s more important than ever to make the distinction between a “nutritionist” and a “clinical nutritionist.”
Clinical nutritionists earn degrees, are trained in the most up-to-date research, and are qualified to work in a variety of environments, including hospitals, outpatient medical offices, and government agencies. They also complete internships and obtain licenses that provide them with credibility. If you are looking to make an impact in the nutrition field, and become a clinical nutritionist, these are requirements you must check off. So, how long does it take to become a nutritionist? All in all, becoming a clinical nutritionist takes about six years to complete from start to finish.
Bachelor’s Degree (Average of 4 Years)
While it is technically possible to label yourself a nutritionist after receiving a bachelor’s degree in an area such as Health Science, a master’s degree is preferred for candidates interested in becoming licensed professionals. Either way, you must start with a bachelor’s degree. For your undergraduate program, it is suggested that you major in health science, nutrition, dietetics, or food science. After completing your degree, you will be qualified to sit for an exam administered by the American Association of Nutritional Consultants, the passing of which will designate you a “Certified Nutritional Consultant.”
However, if your goal is to work in a clinical environment, you should continue on to a master’s program. In this case, you may prepare for a Nutrition master’s program by majoring in health science, biology, or a related field. After your four-year bachelor’s degree, you’ll be ready to begin your graduate-level coursework. It should be noted, however, that it is possible to pursue a master’s degree in Nutrition, even if your undergraduate degree is not science-related. In this case, you’ll just need to complete science prerequisite courses such as anatomy, physiology, biology, and nutrition before beginning your graduate program.
Master’s Degree (+/- 2 Years)
A master’s in Nutrition will prepare you for a career working closely with patients to help them prevent and manage disease. This level of degree will also provide you with the knowledge you’ll need to work in nutrition education and health promotion. A master’s program is typically two years in length, though some online MS in Nutrition programs allow students to complete their degree in as little as 23 months. These programs also provide flexibility to students who wish to complete their degree at a more measured pace. Typically, students have up to five years to complete their master’s degree.
During the course of your master’s program, you’ll be expected to complete foundational courses in physiology and biochemistry. You’ll also be asked to complete courses such as:
- Pathophysiologic Basis of Metabolic Diseases
- Evidence-Based Nutrition
- Biochemistry of Nutrition
- Assessment of Nutritional Status
- Lifelong Healing w/Food
In addition to graduate-level coursework, prospective clinical nutritionists must complete supervised experience hours in order to qualify to sit for the Certified Nutrition Specialist exam. The Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS) requires both a graduate degree as well as 1,000 hours of supervised experience. These hours can be completed in the context of internships or in coursework. For example, the University of Bridgeport’s unique Virtual Clinic course provides students with real case study and clinical management experience. This clinic is eligible for 255 hours of supervised experience credit.
Licensing and Certification (-/+ 2 months)
As of 2019, only nineteen states require licensing for clinical nutritionists. However, nutritionists who lack a license are less likely to find employment in a medical setting or in a research facility. Instead, graduates should consider obtaining a license as either a Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN) or a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS). Those interested in earning the CCN licensure need only to complete a bachelor’s degree and pass a 150 question exam. Those who graduate from a master’s program and complete the prerequisite supervised clinical hours are eligible to sit for the CNS licensing exam. As a CNS, you can work in advanced medical nutrition therapy and nutritional research. For both exams, you can expect to wait several weeks to receive your results and obtain licensure.
Becoming a clinical nutritionist requires dedication, hard work, and a passion for health. While it is technically possible to refer to yourself as a “nutritionist” without licensure or a degree (in some states), those who are serious about providing well-informed care to their patients should consider pursuing a master’s degree in Nutrition. When all is said and done, those two extra years of education will make an impact on both the quality of care you can provide, as well as the job opportunities open to you.
Interested in pursuing a career in clinical nutrition? Contact us online to get more information about University of Bridgeport’s M.S. in Nutrition.