What "Dietitian" Means & How to Become a Certified Nutrition Specialist

Two women and a boy in a garden looking at fresh vegetables and explaining what the term dietitian meansYear over year, Google searches for “dietitian” tend to slow in December. We get it: no one wants to think about diet and wellness when there’s turkey and chocolate fudge to be had! However, there’s no better time of year to consider nutrition-related career goals for the coming new year. Today, we’ll answer some of the most common dietitian questions, explain a few different types of dietitians, and explain why becoming licensed—especially as a Certified Nutrition Specialist—can give your career some additional momentum.

What is a dietitian and what do they do?

A Dietitian is a professional who aims to improve one’s quality of life through food- and health-related research and counsel. Furthermore, a Registered Dietitian (or RD) is a Dietitian who has completed a number of licensure requirements. RD responsibilities may involve:

  • Assessing nutritional data and making recommendations for improvement
  • Refining and monitoring special diets for people with unique nutritional needs
  • Developing and presenting educational resources on nutrition and wellness

Dietitians often focus their expertise on one of two areas: on an individual level or a population level.

On the individual level, a Clinical Dietitian works on improving clients’ nutritional knowledge and habits in a one-on-one setting. Clinical Dietitians assess an individual’s nutritional needs based on their family and medical history, lifestyle, and laboratory tests before providing counsel on their client’s diet and nutrition plan. In contrast, a Public Health Dietitian works to improve nutritional habits in an overall population or targeted group, and may also be known as a Community Health Dietitian or a Population Health Dietitian. These positions may be better suited for those who feel inclined more towards analytics and legislative work on a broad scale.

Read more: The Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) Credential

Another way to practice nutrition counseling is by earning licensure as a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS). A CNS is recognized as being proficient in advanced medical nutrition therapy, education, and research, and is eligible to “engage in science-based advanced medical nutrition therapy, research, education, and more, in settings such as clinics, private practice, hospitals and other institutions, industry, academia, and the community.” (Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists) The CNS is recognized by both federal and state governments, including the U.S. Department of Labor and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.

To become a CNS, professionals need to earn a graduate degree in the field of nutrition from a regionally accredited university, complete specific coursework, and undergo 1,000 hours of supervised experience.

Quick note: Each state has its own laws and regulations concerning nutrition licensing, so aspiring dietitians should always check on the certification requirements in their state before committing to any program.


The Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (or BCNS) is the certifying body for the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential; this simply means that they set the education and experience standards for the certification, create and administer the exam, and evaluate each candidate individually. Overall, BCNS’s intent is to encourage improved human health through high standards of science-based nutrition.

By naming UNE Online’s Master of Science in Applied Nutrition as a BCNS-approved program, the Board recognizes that the MSAN curriculum provides all the academic requirements (including the graduate degree and/or other courses) students need to take the CNS exam and become certified nutrition professionals.

Why is UNE Online’s nutrition curriculum ideal for those interested in becoming a CNS?

UNE Online’s Master of Science in Applied Nutrition is designed to provide both advanced knowledge and practical opportunities where students can apply that knowledge. There are two career-oriented aspects of the program:

First, the MSAN program employs project-based learning, which is a student-centered way of teaching that prompts students to actively explore current challenges and issues in their field of study. By getting this hands-on experience, students are prepared to both apply their new knowledge to their current position and advance in their career through use of these skills.

Second, students in the program assemble an ePortfolio. The MSAN ePortfolio is a public repository of the work and research a student completes throughout their program, and can be a vital resource when pursuing a promotion or new career opportunities, interfacing with clients and/or patients, engaging with their colleagues and peers in the field, applying to doctoral programs, or otherwise demonstrating their specific skill sets, experience, and expertise. Examples of documents that students may include in their UNE ePortfolio can be found on our DUNE website.
A Certified Nutrition Specialist with a female patient in her office with fruits and explain how she became a certified nutrition specialist

This active, hands-on engagement with course content is part of the reason that the program is called “Applied Nutrition”; students directly and immediately apply the knowledge they gain from their advanced studies to challenges and opportunities in the field of nutrition. Through this constructive and applied approach, UNE’s MSAN program builds on students’ professional skills and prepares them to achieve the CNS credential.

For more information on how UNE Online’s M.S. Applied Nutrition can support your path to becoming a CNS, check out our overview of CNS requirements. Feel free to use this overview as a checklist as you complete each step to become licensed as a Certified Nutrition Specialist and start providing nutrition counseling!


Tags: | |

5 responses to “What "Dietitian" Means & How to Become a Certified Nutrition Specialist”

  1. Sarah says:

    What is the difference in the degrees for the CNS and RD? If you were to get your CNS certification and later wanted to add the RD certification, would you have to do another degree or could you supplement courses with the original degree?

    • Hi Sarah,
      Yes, if you were to get your CNS certification and later wanted to add the RD certification, you would have to do another degree. The MSAN at UNE has non-dietetic focus areas that are not accredited by ACEND as you would have to have taken the internship SEL hours concurrently. You may transfer in a maximum of three classes.

      Please don’t hesitate to reach out to a specialized enrollment counselor via email at nutrition@une.edu or by phone by calling 1(855) 751-4447 if you were to have any questions.

  2. Tia says:

    Hello Allison,
    Some of your information about RDs/RDNs is incorrect. I am an RD/RDN. We have a choice, but I go by RDN (registered dietitian nutritionist). First, we have specializations well beyond what the narrative in this web page explains. AND (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) has a variety of practice groups for sub-disciplines, including dietitians/nutritionists in integrative and complementary nutrition. It is not true that RDs have to hold a BS in nutrition. Regardless of which degree an individual holds, what has to be completed are the rigorous didactic or coordinated program course requirements established by ACEND, the1200 dietetic internship rotation hours and a passing score on the RD/RDN board exam. Since nutrition is an extremely multidisciplinary profession, I find that our most well-rounded RDs have at least one of their degrees or an additional certificate in a different but related area (i.e., public health, exercise science, personal trainer, chemistry, psychology, sociology, business, health informatics, healthcare administration, culinary arts, etc.).

    In addition, experienced RDs in clinical practice and those with the Advanced Practice or Certified Nutrition Support Clinician (CNSC) certification do practice advanced and evidence-based medical nutrition therapy. To this day, I haven’t been able to find an accredited hospital or long term care facility that is legally allowed to hire a CNS regardless of state differences in credentials. They operate off their own standards set by Joint Commission and CMS. For validated information about the RD/RDN credential, please check the ACEND/CDR website (https://www.cdrnet.org). Some of what are professional association promotes may be politically influenced, but that’s a reality of the world we live in and we’re still not a monolithic group of people. I have no problem with anyone promoting the CNS credential as long as it is not at the expense of reporting false information about registered dietitians. It would be best to either be completely truthful or not mention RDs at all when discussing the CNS credential. Thank you.

  3. Amber says:

    What is the major difference between an RD and CNS? Correct me if I am wrong but it seems that an RD takes a more scientific based approach towards nutrition whereas a CNS take a more “food it medicine” holistic therapeutic based approach. I am looking into different programs and can’t seem to find a distinct answer to this question.

    • Hello Amber! Here’s a quick breakdown of the similarities and major differences:

      First, the terms nutritionist and dietitian are often interchanged, so it can be difficult to understand where the differences between the RD and CNS exist. Both CNS and RD are legally-protected titles and are earned through different organizations (BCNS and ACEND, respectively). Someone with an RD or CNS may be referred to as a nutritionist. However, while “RD” and “CNS” are both legally-protected titles, “nutritionist” is not, so not all “nutritionists” are also an RD or CNS. “Dietitian” (in most cases) only refers to RDs.

      Both designations require a foundational understanding of science and biology (relative to nutrition) so that you can provide research- and evidence-based education to patients.

      Each state will enforce different requirements to practice nutrition for legal purposes. Some states require those who practice nutrition to obtain the RD credential. Again, since the general term “nutritionist” is not a protected title, it can apply to a variety of career goals with less strict state requirements to practice. (You can find more information about states’ requirements here: https://online.une.edu/applied-nutrition/nutrition-state-certification-requirements/)

      The RD credential requires nutrition education to begin at the undergraduate AND graduate level. Someone seeking the CNS credential, on the other hand, can hold a bachelor’s degree in any field but must earn a master’s level degree in nutrition, which offers an advantage to those looking to change careers or break into the field. Becoming a nutritionist with a CNS offers varied career options with the most popular settings being clinical, community, media, consulting, and healthcare.

      Career opportunities for both RD and CNS professionals are limitless and, in general, determining which is most appropriate for you depends on your personal career goals and your state’s legal requirements.

      Let us know if this helps clear it up, or if you have further questions!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *