A nutritional therapist may provide nutritional assessments, education on what to eat and not to eat, scientific explanations, meal planning ideas, lifestyle changes, and counseling.
A nutritional therapist may also refer to themselves as a holistic nutritionist, nutritionist, clinical nutritionist, or health coach. Nutritional therapists work with patients to modify their behavior when it comes to food choices (nutritionED). A nutritional therapist may provide nutritional assessments, education on what to eat and not to eat, scientific explanations, meal planning ideas, lifestyle changes, and counseling. Nutritional therapists may work in hospitals, schools, fitness centers, at a functional medicine practice, with a naturopath, or their own private practices.
It is important to know the different types of nutritionists because some nutritionists have no formal training at all.
However, most states do require that they be licensed to practice, but most states do not enforce regulations.
What is a Clinical Nutritionist? (Level 0)
Anyone with a nutritional interest and some knowledge can label themselves a clinical nutritionist. Only about 15 of the United States have strict licensing requirements for Clinical Nutritionists. You can view licensing by state here. States requiring licensing will require certification through the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB). Nutritional Therapists must pass an exam to receive this licensing.
Anyone interested in nutrition may be able to call themselves a clinical nutritionist. They may have some education around nutrition, but if they are labeling themselves as a “clinical nutritionist,” they likely don’t have a degree or a certification.
What is a Certified Clinical Nutritionist? (Level 1)
They are required to have at least a Bachelor’s Degree from an accredited university. Employers typically prefer nutritionists to have at least a Bachelor’s Degree if not a 2-year Associate of Science in Applied Nutrition.
What is a Certified Nutrition Specialist? (Level 2)
A Certified Nutrition Specialist will have a Master’s Degree in nutrition. Those who earn the CNS board certification pass the most rigorous standards of any nutritional professional (University of Bridgeport). They also need over 1,000 hours of supervised experience. Not only that, in order to keep that certification, they must complete 75 continuing education credits every five years. They may work in schools, clinics, the community, research, or government agencies.
A good nutritional therapist should have a solid understanding of diseases, nutritional deficiencies, and food allergies.
A nutritional therapist will often take into account other reasons for poor nutrition, and may ask about bowel habits, sleep, and other health considerations.
Some therapists may use tools such as Lingual-Neuro Testing (LNT). LTN is a biofeedback tool that can be used to determine whether a nutritional supplement is right for a client. Other therapists may do a functional evaluation with physical assessments to determine how well a person’s body is functioning (absorbing & digesting food).
Nutritional therapists can help with digestive issues including bloating and constipation, hormonal imbalances, joint pains, depression, anxiety, stress, fatigue, weight management, autoimmune conditions, and other chronic health conditions. However, they do not provide medical advice, and can diagnose or claim to treat any health condition.
Nutritional Therapy often can lead to positive results beyond what is expected. Proper nutrition may cause someone to have clearer skin, more energy, better mental focus, a sharper memory, etc. Sometimes given proper nutrition with the right lifestyle changes the body can heal itself from certain health conditions, but a nutritional therapist can’t guarantee anything.
Why Nutritional Therapists Are Needed
Western diets tend toward deficiencies in fruits and vegetables and excessive amounts of processed meat, refined grain products containing starches (e.g., commercially baked foods), sweet sugary foods, caffeine and alcohol causing an imbalance of essential fatty acids and the production of pro-inflammatory mediators (Philpot, 2019). Certain foods are known to cause inflammatory responses and chronic pain. Diet play a huge role in diseases and chronic health conditions, so nutritional therapists are becoming more common as the need for them is growing.
Dieticians can diagnose and treat illnesses. If you have a diagnosis from a health practitioner that is diet-related than you will typically be referred to a dietician. This would be health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney or heart disease, eating disorders, poor growth, or even cancer. They will prescribe special diets to help with issues such as problems with the body absorbing nutrients, along with providing supplement recommendations or resources. Dietitians work in private and public healthcare, education, corporate wellness, research, and the food industry (Medical News Today).
All levels of nutritional therapists can’t provide medical advice unless they are also a dietician. So they can’t legally prescribe certain diets, or claim to treat certain health conditions. However, they can make recommendations on diets or foods to eat to help with a client’s mental and physical health goals. They may tailor suggestions around symptoms, health concerns, or weight loss goals. Nutritionists are also great at helping people with any behaviors that need to be altered related to a person’s diet.
Education of a Nutritionist vs a Dietician
A nutritionist is not required to have the education and licensing that a dietitian has. As mentioned under the types of nutrition therapists, they all have different levels of education. It is advised for nutritionists to have at least a Bachelor’s Degree, and then some also obtain a Master’s of Science Degree in Nutrition. It is also a possibility to obtain a doctorate in nutrition.
Dieticians are required to have a bachelor’s degree in addition to a certification, a state-issued license, and around 1,200 hours of supervised training. Currently, registered dietitians need only a bachelor's degree from a university accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to practice legally (Public Health Degrees). Registered dietitians study subjects including food and nutrition sciences, foodservice systems management, business, economics, computer science, culinary arts, sociology, communications, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, anatomy and chemistry (KU Medical Center).
Often dieticians also refer to themselves as nutritional therapists. A dietician might also call themselves a “Certified Nutrition Specialist” if they obtain a Master’s Degree.
In 400 B.C. the Greek physician Hippocrates, the "Father of Medicine" said, "Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food (natural healers)."
Foods were not only used in Greece as medicine, but also Asia, Europe, and other countries. Ginger was used for metabolism, and garlic was used for athlete's foot.
British Navy physician, Dr. James Lind used food to help with a deadly bleeding disorder known as scurvy in 1747. Sailors were coming down with scurvy on long voyages. He decided to test what food could help by feeding one group vinegar, the second group salt water, and the third group limes. The group that ate the limes didn't get scurvy. It was due to the Vitamin C, even though Vitamin C wasn't actually discovered until the 1930s. The experiment however changed how physicians thought about food, which helped created a market for nutrition careers.
If you are serious about your nutrition or have a serious health condition, make sure you view the types of nutritionists and find one with a proper education.
Personal trainers, chiropractors, health food stores, or even general family doctors may have some nutritional training, and they can be very knowledgeable and may help improve your health. However, they are not going to have the expertise of someone with a 4-year degree in nutrition.
You also want to find a nutritionist that is certified. There are many people out there giving nutritional advice, and it is often contradictory. There is continuous new research on the web with regards to what is healthy and what is not healthy, and a nutritional therapist needs to be able to sort through that noise.
Lastly, it is advised to find someone who has experience working with your health concern (IBS, gut health, bloating, healthy aging, thyroid, eating disorder, etc.).
What type of nutritionist is right for you? It will ultimately depend on your health condition and what your goals are.
Here are some other certifications in nutrition: Certified Nutrition Professional, Certified Clinical Nutritionist, Nutrition Therapy Practitioner, Certified Nutritional Consultant, Certified Nutrition Coach, and Board Certification in Holistic Nutrition.
Here are some directories for finding a nutritional therapist:
Nutritional Therapy Association
Find a Therapy
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Public Health Degrees/Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: Degree and Careers Comparison. (2021, September) Retrieved from:
Terry, Christa. (2020, January 14). Nutritional Sciences/Dietitian vs Nutritional Therapist: What's the Difference?
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