A nutritionist is concerned with nutrients in food, how they are used in the human body, and the relationship between diet and health. A nutritionist is primarily concerned with manipulating diet to prevent disease and promote overall health, and works with people either as individuals or in groups. She may plan menus, evaluate current menus for efficacy and implement food-service strategies.
A nutritionist requires a minimum of a bachelor's degree to practice. This typically involves four years at the undergraduate level in college. A candidate can major in any subject, although popular choices for a potential nutritionist are natural health, dietetics, food service management, physiology, and health and fitness. Students should also take courses in mathematics, English and computer studies.
As of 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 46 states had legislation regarding the licensing of nutritionists: 33 confer licensure, 12 require statutory certification and one necessitates registration. Candidates are usually expected to supply proof of their educational achievements and pass a written examination to obtain licensure.
A nutritionist can apply for voluntary certification through the American Dietetic Association (ADA). This certification is not legally required but it validates the training a candidate has undertaken. Candidates must attend an ADA-approved training course and sit a written examination to gain certification. Employers look favorably on this certification as the ADA is considered a standard bearer for the profession. Membership will also enable nutritionists to access job boards and continued education materials and to network with fellow members.
Having completed her degree and obtained licensure, if required, a nutritionist may look for employment opportunities in a number of industry sectors. Hospitals, nursing care facilities, outpatient care centers and the private offices of physicians employ a large number of nutritionists. Opportunities may also arise in state and local government agencies, such as working in correctional facilities and health departments. Other options include private care services, such as educational institutions or services for the elderly, or food manufacturers and retailers. Academic research is another career path a nutritionist may consider.
At some point in his career, a nutritionist may wish to undertake further training. This could mean studying for a master's or doctoral degree, which would allow the chance to build up a body of knowledge concerning a specific area of study, such as sports nutrition, biotechnology or public health. A post-graduate degree is required if a nutritionist wishes to teach and undertake research within universities and colleges. He may also pursue training in a specific area of nutrition, such as pediatric nutrition or geriatric nutrition. The American Dietetic Association provides details of continued education courses and certification in specialities.
Besides the educational and licensure requirements, a nutritionist should endeavor to enhance certain personal skills that will help her to perform her role. A nutritionist needs to have good verbal communication skills, as she will interact with patients and clients, as well as other health professionals including physicians, nurses and social workers. Much of a nutritionist's work requires documentation on computer, so computer skills are necessary. A nutritionist may also oversee food preparation and service, so managerial and organizational skills would also be helpful.