How to beef up your fitness resumé with a formal nutrition education and a professional license.
Fitness professionals are hungry for knowledge, and most are chomping at the bit to share what they learn with their clients. Unfortunately, this can be a recipe for disaster: Too often, group fitness instructors and personal fitness trainers (PFTs) exceed their professional scope-of-practice boundaries by counseling clients on specific foods or “prescribing” dietary supplements.
Still, there is no denying that consumers are starved for information about food and that they look to fitness professionals for answers. “Group fitness instructors and personal fitness trainers recognize this demand and frequently inquire about how they can become a dietitian,” says Jenna A. Bell-Wilson, PhD, RD, LD, assistant professor in medical dietetics at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to serving as the nutrition contributing editor for IDEA publications, Bell-Wilson frequently presents nutrition sessions at fitness industry conventions. “There is definitely a trend toward expanding expertise in both nutrition and fitness,” she says.
According to the 2006 IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Survey, 55% of facilities surveyed currently offer nutrition assessment, 48% provide nutrition coaching and 35% have weight management classes (Ryan 2005). These programs are offered in a variety of settings, ranging from hospital/corporate wellness programs to multipurpose/fitness-only health clubs to personal training gyms and clients’ homes.
While the majority of registered dietitians (RDs) work in a clinical setting, there is a growing need for trained professionals in both the food and fitness industries (Baldwin 2002). “The job [of an RD] is moving more into programs to reach more people,” says Cheryl Baldwin, PhD, RD, senior research scientist and program leader at Kraft Foods in Glenview, Illinois. “One of the key benefits of working as a nutritionist in the fitness industry is following the client’s progress and seeing and guiding improvements.”
Jill Lynch is a certified PFT and president of Beach Girls Fitness Inc. in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, and is currently considering a second career in nutrition. “My main reason is that I get clients exercising, then watch how hard it is for them to make good food choices,” she explains. “Nutrition has become so confusing that it gets stressful. Being a fitness expert doesn’t seem to be enough anymore. Since I can’t go home with clients and make their meals, I need to be able to offer them a solid knowledge of nutrition.”
While many see the fusion of fitness and food as a natural progression, others caution that the first rule should be to do no harm. “Do not try to go into a career in nutrition without an appropriate degree,” cautions Amy Paturel, MS, MPH, a science writer based in Seal Beach, California, whose master of science degree is in nutrition. “Not only is that unfair to your clients, but you are doing yourself a disservice as well, in terms of ethics. There’s enough confusion out there about nutrition. Having unlicensed, unqualified individuals trying to dispense advice only compounds the problem.”
“It can be tempting for fitness professionals to take a short course in nutrition ‘coaching,’” says Susan Kundrat, MS, RD, LDN, owner of Nutrition on the Move in Urbana, Illinois. “However, this would be similar to someone taking a short course in physical therapy and then providing that service without the proper licensing. If your goal is to do one-on-one nutrition counseling (meaning you assess your clients’ diets and make specific nutrition recommendations), then obtaining a degree and becoming licensed is necessary and the ethical thing to do.”
The question for many fitness professionals is whether obtaining the education and credentials required to become a nutrition expert is going to pay off in the long run.
Fear not: The future is bright for dietitians and nutritionists, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). “Employment of dietitians is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2014 as a result of increasing emphasis on disease prevention through improved dietary habits” (BLS 2006). The BLS attributes this growth to the aging population, public interest in nutrition, increased emphasis on health education and regular attrition as older workers leave the field.
The BLS projects that nutrition experts will be needed most in outpatient care centers, as contract providers of food services and in physicians’ offices. In light of the obesity epidemic and the growing likelihood that Medicare coverage will be expanded to include medical nutrition therapy, dietitians with special knowledge of obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes, will be especially in need (BLS 2006). For a look at other nutrition-related positions, see “Job Opportunities in the Nutrition Field” below.
According to the American Dietetic Association’s (ADA) 2005 Dietetics Compensation and Benefits Survey, half of all RDs in the United States who have been working in the field for 5 years or less earn between $35,000 and $46,000 per year (ADA 2006a). Salaries tend to increase with years of experience and areas of specialization, so many RDs—especially those in management—earn more than $72,000 per year. Median yearly wages for RDs in 2005 varied by practice area, as follows (BLS 2006):
- business/consultation: $53,800
- food/nutrition management: $60,000
- education/research: $60,200
- clinical nutrition: $48,800–$50,000
- community nutrition: $44,800
Savvy nutrition experts can augment their salaries in a variety of ways. “Many dietitians utilize their entrepreneurial skills to enhance their salaries,” notes Bell-Wilson. “The field of dietetics offers vast opportunities and flexibility to maximize your earnings.”
Fitness professionals who branch out into a nutrition-related job position will be a double threat to their competitors. Christopher Mohr, PhD, RD, LDN, was a certified PFT when he enrolled in the nutrition sciences department at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. He later attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he earned his master’s degree in nutrition science, and capped that off with a PhD in exercise physiology, specializing in weight loss strategies. He now owns Mohr Results, a nutrition and exercise consulting firm in Louisville, Kentucky. His dual knowledge of exercise physiology and nutrition science has afforded much diversity in his career.
“I now consult with corporations, individuals and media outlets to provide nutrition information,” Mohr says. In addition, he currently serves as a sports dietitian at the University of Louisville; a content developer for Discovery Health television programming; a contributing editor for fitness magazines, including Men’s Fitness; and a researcher for product development companies. His education enables him to serve on the faculty of several associations, including the National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association (NESTA); and he is a member of the executive committee for SCAN, a dietetic practice group for the ADA’s Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists. In Mohr’s “spare” time, he presents on nutrition and exercise topics for various industry conventions.
“Most states require that you be an RD, which means completing an accredited undergraduate program, gaining practical experience, passing the national examination for RDs and keeping current on your state’s continuing education credit (CEC) requirements,” says Kundrat.
Milton Stokes, MPH, RD, chief dietitian at St. Barnabas Hospital & Nursing Home in the Bronx, New York, and a spokesperson for the ADA, says that an RD credential is essential if you plan to practice in a clinical setting and that this credential can also be useful for those in the fitness industry. “While it is not usually required in a wellness or fitness environment, it could certainly distinguish you from your peers and could help grow your business,” he says. “Increasingly, consumers are recognizing the RD credential and expect to see that in a professional.”
RDs need at least a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, nutrition science or a related area, whereas registered dietetic technicians (RDTs) usually need at least an associate’s degree, according to the ADA (ADA 2006a). In terms of required undergraduate course work, RDs study a variety of subjects, ranging from food and nutrition science, culinary arts, physiology and anatomy to chemistry, biochemistry and microbiology (ADA 2006a).
As of 2004, there were an estimated 227 bachelor’s and master’s degree programs approved by the ADA’s Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education (CADE) (BLS 2006). Kundrat advises contacting the ADA for details on a program near you. “The ADA has a wealth of information on dietetics programs on its website (www.eatright.org),” she says. For advice on obtaining student aid in the United States or being considered for reciprocity if your degree was earned in another country, see “Additional Resources” below.
When it comes to licensing, requirements vary from state to state. Of the 46 states and jurisdictions that currently have laws governing dietetics, 31 require licensure, 14 require certification and one requires registration (BLS 2006). But these numbers are subject to change, which is why many of the experts interviewed for this article recommend first checking with your state ADA branch to determine what is required for a license (contact www.eatright.org for details). For a look at the education and licensing requirements for different types of nutrition experts, see “Defining Nutrition Titles & Credentials” below.
One way to test the waters is to take a few related college courses, says Cathy Leman, RD, LD, founder and owner of NutriFit Inc., a nutrition consulting firm in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. “Classes in biochemistry, food science and other nutrition topics provide a good, solid foundation,” she says.
Baldwin recommends that fitness professionals who are considering a nutrition career first “try out the job.” “Talk to nutritionists in your area and see if you can shadow someone for a day,” she advises. “Nutrition is a broad field. Find out what nutritionists do on a daily basis, what their background is, how they got their job and what they see as the trends in their area of expertise.”
Knowledge is power, says Stokes. “Take a class in nutrition or medical nutrition therapy,” he suggests. “Find out about employment opportunities in your area by talking to local RDs. Make an appointment with the director of dietetics at your local university or college. Ask questions like ‘What do you like and dislike about your job?’ Attend professional conferences, such as the ones IDEA puts on, and network with people who are working in both fitness and nutrition.”
Kundrat has worked directly with several fitness professionals who were in training to become RDs. “Some have shadowed me in my consulting practice,” she says. “That practical experience, combined with a degree in dietetics, is a perfect match for fitness professionals who want to further their careers.”
Another way to get started in a nutrition career is to pursue an internship at a university or hospital. After completing his undergraduate degree in dietetics, Stokes was appointed to the Yale-New Haven Hospital Dietetic Internship Program in New Haven, Connecticut, where he was later honored as the ADA’s Outstanding Student in a Dietetic Internship Program. He highly recommends taking this route when starting out. “The internship was fiercely clinical, challenging and rewarding,” he recalls. “Once finished, you can call yourself a ‘nutritionist’ and you can sit for the national registration examination to become an RD. This credential opens up many more job possibilities.”
To help fledgling nutritionists, Stokes now serves as a new-member liaison for New York State Dietetic Association. He says the most important thing when considering a career in the nutrition field is to remain open to all the possibilities. “You may discover after graduation that you prefer being in food sales and marketing instead of fitness-related nutrition counseling,” he says. “You never know!”
Bell-Wilson says the need for reputable nutrition information is unlikely to fade in the future. “Whether a fitness professional pursues an RD credential for him- or herself or partners with an RD, access to sound nutrition advice from a reliable source raises the bar for the fitness industry and ultimately benefits our clients,” she says.
According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), one of the most frequently asked questions posed on the ADA website (www.eatright.org) centers on the different job titles in the field of nutrition. Here are the ADA’s explanations of what each job requires in the way of education and credentials.
Registered Dietitian (RD). Anyone wishing to earn and maintain an RD credential must complete specific academic and clinical practice requirements; successfully pass a registration examination; and maintain the requirements for periodic recertification. Academic degrees can include a bachelor’s or master’s degree that combines classroom and supervised practical experience in a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education (CADE). Some RDs also complete an internship in areas such as clinical practice, food service, community nutrition, legislation or counseling. Extensive continuing education credit (CEC) is required to maintain an RD credential.
Registered Dietetic Technician (RDT). To become credentialed as an RDT, an individual must complete an associate degree plus the specific curriculum requirements of an RDT program accredited or approved by CADE. The candidate must also pass the Registration Examination for Technicians.
Nutritionist. Some RDs and RDTs bill themselves as “nutritionists,” but this is a very nebulous term often used by people with little or no education. Some states have licensure laws that define the practice guidelines for someone using the “nutritionist” designation.
Employment opportunities abound for those interested in pursuing a career in nutrition. According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), here is just a sampling of employment settings—including some in health care, business and industry, public health, education, research and private practice—that are usually seeking registered dietitians (RDs):
- hospitals and other healthcare facilities: RDs are needed to educate patients about nutrition and to administer medical nutrition therapy as part of a healthcare team. Food service operations are another job performed by RDs in these settings.
- sports nutrition and corporate wellness programs: RDs educate clients and employees about the connection between proper nutrition and good health.
- schools, daycare centers and correctional facilities: RDs are needed for food service operations and education for children and inmates.
- food- and nutrition-related industries: RDs are sought by companies to work in communications, research, consumer affairs, public relations, marketing and product development.
- private practice: Working either alone or under contract with a healthcare or food company, RDs provide various services to food service or restaurant managers, food vendors/distributors, athletes, nursing home residents or company employees.
- community and public health settings: RDs teach the public how to improve the quality of their diet and eating habits.
- universities and medical centers: RDs educate other healthcare providers, including doctors and nurses, on the science of food and nutrition.
- research centers: Food and pharmaceutical companies need the services of RDs to direct or conduct experiments in the realm of nutrition research.
Are you considering a second career in nutrition, but feeling unsure where to start? Here are some practical strategies to get you on course:
- Sign up for a general nutrition or medical nutrition therapy class at a local college or university to determine whether you want to pursue further education in the field.
- Take a close look at your long-term professional goals to determine which job position in the field is of most interest to you. Different positions require different credentials and levels of education. (See “Defining Nutrition Titles & Credentials” sidebar.)
- Contact the American Dietetic Association’s (ADA) Student Operations division at email@example.com for career guidance. This group can also answer questions about financial aid and reciprocity for dietetics students.
- Talk to registered dietitians (RDs) in your area and pepper them with questions. Ask about their education and career paths. Find out what they like and dislike about their current jobs.
- Spend a day shadowing a practicing RD to see firsthand the tasks and challenges he or she faces.
- Contact the ADA website (www.eatright.org) for a list of accredited undergraduate dietetics programs in your area.
- Attend professional conferences and speak with the presenters and your fellow attendees.
- Find an RD who is willing to mentor you. Cathy Leman, RD, LD, owner of NutriFit Inc. in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, is happy to serve as a resource for IDEA members in this regard; she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Consider an internship with a dietetics program at a local hospital or university.
- Investigate job possibilities in your area by checking out websites like www.nutritionjobs.com.
- Remain open to the many career avenues available to nutrition experts. (See “Job Opportunities in the Nutrition Field” sidebar for just some of the possibilities.)
For Financial Aid: Scholarships are available from the American Dietetic Association (ADA); contact the ADA’s Accreditation and Student Operations staff at email@example.com, or call (800) 877-1600, ext. 5400.
For International Inquiries: The ADA offers a fact sheet called International Inquiries: RD and DTR (www.eatright.org) to help individuals in other countries who want to become registered as dietitians in the United States.
For Career Guidance: Contact the ADA Student Operations at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Distance-Learning Opportunities: According to the ADA, two schools in the United States currently offer distance learning opportunities to become a registered dietetic technician. These are Pennsylvania State University and Central Arizona College.
For Job Postings: Check out www.nutritionjobs.com.
Talking about specific nutrients or dietary supplements can get tricky. You want to help your clients eat well, but giving advice can be a slippery slope: Too often, fitness professionals overstep their boundaries by counseling people on food restrictions or “prescribing” a particular diet.
When discussing nutrition topics with your fitness clients, always adhere to this section of the IDEA Code of Ethics for fitness professionals (IDEA Health & Fitness Association 2002):
“Recognize your limitations in services and techniques, and engage only in activities that fall within the boundaries of your professional credentials and competencies. Refer clients to other professionals for issues that fall beyond the boundaries of a personal fitness trainer’s profession or your current competencies.”
Diane Lofshult is a senior editor of IDEA Fitness Journal and writes the monthly Food for Thought column, which was recently nominated for a Western Publications Association “Maggie” award for best regularly featured column in a trade magazine.
American Dietetic Association (ADA). 2006a. RD Fact Sheet: Salaries and job outlook. www.eatright.org/cps/rde/xchg/ada/hs.xsl/CADE_748_ENU_Print.htm; retrieved Feb. 28, 2006.
ADA. 2006b. Frequently asked questions about careers in dietetics. www.eatright.org/cps/rde/xchg/ada/hs.xsl/CADE_2412_ENU_Print.htm; retrieved Feb. 28, 2006.
Baldwin, C. 2002. Food and fitness careers for dietitians. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 102 (11), 1611–12.
IDEA Health & Fitness Association. 2002. IDEA code of professional ethics. IDEA Health & Fitness Source, 20 (7), 109–11.
IDEA Health & Fitness Association. 2006. 2006 IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Survey. IDEA Fitness Manager, 17 (5), 3–11.
U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 2006. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006–2007 Edition. Bulletin 2600. www.bls.gov/oco/print/ocos077.htm; retrieved Mar. 15, 2006.