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!


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