Exploring Careers: Nutrition Coach vs. Nutritionist

Nicole Golden
Nicole Golden
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Picture a tale of two clients…

Maria (client A) has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. She is about 5 weeks post-mastectomy and is currently undergoing chemotherapy. She is seeking some help with nutrition planning to help her stay strong during her cancer treatment. She is also asking for help regarding which vitamins and supplements are safe to take at this point in her therapy.

Maya (client B) has been told by her doctor that she has high LDL cholesterol, high triglycerides and her fasting glucose numbers fall into the pre-diabetic range. Her doctor has advised her to make some lifestyle changes to improve her insulin sensitivity and overall health.

Which client is a good fit for a nutrition coach and which client should be referred to a nutritionist? The answer to this question is important for the well-being of both clients. Although both professionals can provide guidance nutrition, it is important to note that a nutritionist is qualified to work in a clinical setting, while a nutrition coach is meant to focus on behavior change for clients seeking to improve their lifestyle habits.

If you are interested in working directly with clients or patients in the field of nutrition, there are two primary career paths available to you. This blog will dive into the details of the scope of practice and educational requirements for each pathway.

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What You Need to Know about Becoming a Nutrition Coach 

Simplistically speaking, a nutrition coach is a professional who guides clients towards developing sustainable healthy habits (both in nutrition and lifestyle) using a blend of nutrition science and behavior change science to direct practice. Nutrition coaches provide education, accountability, goal setting, and empowerment for a wide variety of client types.

Though a nutrition coach can be quite useful for aiding in weight management, nutrition coaches can also work with athletes to enhance performance and optimize recovery. Nutrition coaches are most useful working with clients that do not have significant medical conditions but may need some help making better lifestyle choices (i.e., Maya).

A nutrition coach plays a pivotal role in empowering individuals to make positive dietary and lifestyle changes:

  • Behavioral Transformation: Guiding clients through lifestyle changes, focusing on dietary habits and choices.
  • Cultivating Positive Habits: Addressing detrimental dietary behaviors, steering clients towards healthier options.
  • Supplement and Strategy Insights: Offering valuable insights on supplements and nutrition strategies.

  • Small Group Endeavors: Running small classes or seminars on healthy eating, food choices, and weight management.
  • Online Coaching: Providing online nutrition coaching and support for clients seeking virtual guidance.

How to Become a Nutrition Coach 

Although there is no licensing process to becoming a nutrition coach, a solid educational foundation is critical for establishing a healthy coaching practice or to attain an employed position. A nutrition coach needs to have a strong understanding in nutrition science as well as substantial knowledge of psychology, especially as it relates to goal setting, the stages of change, developing self-efficacy, and establishing habits. 

Becoming a nutrition coach involves these key steps:

1. Enroll in a reputable nutrition certification program. NASM’s Certified Nutrition Coach course provides learners with the knowledge and skills to effectively coach a variety of clients through an evidence-based curriculum. The course covers nutritional science, behavioral change strategies, integration with fitness, and specific nutrition coaching strategies to help clients make reasonable food and lifestyle choices while dealing with life stresses, weight loss plateaus, and how to navigate fad diets and popular media. 

2. Develop expertise through structured education or self-directed study. This involves staying up to date on the latest research in both nutrition science and behavior change. 

3. Thoroughly prepare for and successfully pass the certification exam.

4. Utilize accumulated knowledge to facilitate clients' journeys toward healthier lifestyles.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Nutrition Coach?

The path to becoming a nutrition coach varies highly from individual to individual based on how much prior knowledge they have and how much time they have to dedicate to study. The NASM CNC course allows learners 1 year to complete the course and pass the exam. The learner gets three attempts to pass the exam. I have personally known fellow fitness professionals who had strong prior knowledge of nutrition science and behavior coaching who studied for and passed the exam after 3 months. I have also known others who took nearly the full year.

Once the learner has passed the exam, it is a good idea to spend some time practicing newly acquired nutrition coaching skills on friends and family members or learn under a seasoned coach before taking on paying clients. A seasoned certified personal trainer who may be starting with a basic understanding of nutrition principles and behavior coaching who may have a robust client base, can likely be ready to go in 3 to 6 months. However, a learner with very limited experience should plan on 6 to 12 months of study and practice before taking on paying clients.

Where do Nutrition Coaches Work?

There are many opportunities for both employed and contracted work for nutrition coaches. They can work in a variety of settings such as:

  • Charities and community outreach projects. Non-profit groups worldwide employ nutrition coaches to educate and aid underserved communities. They offer nutrition education, connect underserved individuals with health resources, and assist those affected by substance use disorders.

  • Fitness companies, gyms, and health centers. Gyms and small fitness studios will often seek to hire nutrition coaches to provide nutrition coaching services to group fitness class participants and/or personal training clients.
  • Independent practice, offering online nutrition coaching services remotely. This is the option is likely the most common work environment for nutrition coaches and has the highest income potential. Nutrition coaching can be provided remotely easily and has a very low overhead (expenses needed to operate the business).

How Much Does a Nutrition Coach Make?

Based on several sources, it appears that nutrition coaches earn on average 46,000 to 75,000 per year, this number is highly variable and dependent on the setting and skill of the coach (Ziprecruiter, 2023; Glassdoor, 2023). A more experienced coach that has strong marketing skills will have a much higher earning potential than an entry-level employed coach. Top earners working with hundreds of clients per month can earn upwards of 100,000 per year (Ziprecruiter, 2023; Glassdoor, 2023). 

What You Need to Know about Becoming a nutritionist

The title of nutritionist is generally not legally protected in each state, so in some areas anyone may refer to themselves as a 'nutritionist.' For this article, the role of a registered dietitian nutritionist is considered.

Becoming a nutritionist depends on what state laws govern practice where you reside. There are some states that have very strict practice rules and require any individual who calls themselves a “nutritionist” to hold a state license as a registered dietitian nutritionist (i.e., Montana, Wyoming).

Some states have alternate licensure for a nutritionist with appropriate credentials, but without a license as a registered dietitian (i.e., Florida, Texas). There are also states that have no laws governing practice as nutrition (i.e., Pennsylvania, New York, etc). It is important to be familiar with state licensure standards prior to committing to a career path (National Association of Nutrition Professionals, 2020).

What Does a Nutritionist Do?

A nutritionist’s role encompasses a range of activities aimed at promoting health and well-being:

  • Organizing and leading cooking classes in diverse settings, such as schools, community centers, and wellness events.
  • Coaching individuals on overall health and habits, offering tailored advice to foster positive lifestyle changes.
  • Assisting clients with food logging and encouraging adherence to fitness routines.
  • Delivering engaging health and wellness presentations in various contexts, including corporate settings, gyms, and public seminars.
  • Concentrating on improving general health and well-being, akin to the role of a health coach.
  • Working in schools to manage the food and nutrition services offered to students and ensuring they meet compliance standards.

  • Provides dietary/supplement prescriptions and meal planning services to patients with special health conditions in a clinical setting.
  • Provides dietary/supplementation prescriptions for sports teams.
  • Acts as part of the treatment team for patients with eating disorders (Jeffrey & Heruc, 2020).

How to Become a Nutritionist 

The path to becoming an nutritionist is quite a bit more involved than that of a nutrition coach. At minimum a nutritionist must:

1. Complete a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition and/or Dietetics from a nationally accredited program. However, effective January 1, 2024, the Commission on Dietetic Registration will require a minimum of a Master of Science degree to be eligible for certification.
2. Complete a 6 to 12 month accredited supervised practice program (internship). The student may have to relocate as these spots are often very limited. 
3. Pass a licensing exam through the Commission on Dietetic Registration.
4. Maintain state licensure in states that require it and/or maintain CDR through completing continuing education coursework (Commission on Dietetic Registration, 2023).

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Where Do nutritionists Work?

There is quite a bit of diversity in jobs that an nutritionist can hold and can find a niche in a variety of professional settings:

  • National and local government offices. Nutritionists can be hired to help shape public health information, educational campaigns, and regulations.
  • Schools, colleges, and universities. Nutritionists can work as sports dietitians for sports teams, in student healthcare centers as clinical dietitians, or as university faculty in nutrition or sports science departments teaching courses.
  • Food industry manufacturers and retailers. Food manufacturers may seek nutritionists to work on creating food products, advertising, and/or marketing. For instance, companies like Hellofresh and Plated employ dietitians to create meals.
  • Gyms, leisure centers, and health clubs. Gyms and health clubs may seek a nutritionist to provide nutrition coaching services to clients, though often this role can also be filled by a nutrition coach.
  • Hospitals, bariatric surgery centers, medical practices. Nutritionists can work in hospital cafeterias, in nursing homes, directly with patients, or directly with physicians.
  • Independent practice, providing online nutritionist services from home. Like nutrition coaches, nutritionists can provide online or in-person nutrition coaching services to private clients and/or provide clinical services with insurance billing.

How Much Do nutritionists Make?

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, a nutritionist’s average annual earnings range between $44,140 per year and $95,130 per year depending on what sector the nutritionist is working in and how much experience they have. Generally, hospital based nutritionists tend to earn the lower end while nutritionists employed by food manufacturers tend to earn closer to the higher end wages.

There is also great variability in earnings by state where nutritionists in southern states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee having lower earnings ($42,240 to $62,050 annually) and nutritionists working in states such as California and New York seeing higher average wages ($72,890 to 83,550 annually). The median earnings for nutritionists are highly similar to that of nutrition coaches (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022).

What’s the Difference: Nutrition Coach vs. Nutritionist

Perhaps the biggest distinction between a nutrition coach and a nutritionist is that nutritionists tend to work in clinical settings (i.e., hospitals, nursing homes, etc.) while nutrition coaches find themselves thriving in non-clinical wellness-based settings (like private practice or fitness centers) though there is most certainly crossover between the two.

  Nutrition Coach Nutritionist
   Scope of Practice

Non-clinical practice
Provides nutrition guidelines.
Cannot treat eating disorders.

Works mostly with the general population who has no significant special dietary-related medical needs.


Behavior/lifestyle coach

Clinical practice
Provides nutrition therapy.
Creates dietary prescriptions (meal plans or total parenteral nutrition).

Treats eating disorders.
Works with individuals with special medical conditions/dietary needs.


             Educational Paths Generally, requires a reputable certification (i.e., the NASM -CNC)

Requires continuing education credits to maintain board certification.

A college degree in Nutrition or related field is a plus.
Requires state licensure and/or CDR certification.

Requires continuing education credits to maintain board certification.

A Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition/Dietetics is required (will require a Master of Science degree as of 1/2024).
          Career Environments Operate in diverse contexts, including charities, fitness centers, and online platforms. Offer a broader scope, working in clinical practice, hospitals, governmental institutions, or food manufacturing, leading cooking classes, and providing comprehensive dietary plans


Final Thoughts

 There is a huge need in the health, wellness, and fitness spaces for both nutritionists and nutrition coaches. Both careers offer a great deal of opportunity and fulfillment for the respected practitioner. Likewise, the salaries of both nutritionists and nutrition coaches are very similar. It is important that individuals seeking a career path in nutrition decide which type of space they prefer to work in, which roles they wish to fill, and what amount of study and credentials are reasonable for them to attain.


Commission on Dietetic Registration. (2023). Commission on Dietetic Registration.
Glassdoor. (2023). How Much Does a Nutrition Coach Make? Glassdoor.,15.htm
Jeffrey, S., & Heruc, G. (2020). Balancing nutrition management and the role of dietitians in eating disorder treatment. Journal of Eating Disorders, 8(1).
Lancha, A. H., Sforzo, G. A., & Pereira-Lancha, L. O. (2016). Improving Nutritional Habits With No Diet Prescription: Details of a Nutritional Coaching Process. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 12(2), 160–165.
National Association of Nutrition Professionals. (2020, June 8). Legislative Affairs | National Association of Nutrition Professionals.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022, May 9). Dietitians and NutritionistRegistered dietitian nutritionists.
Ziprecruiter. (2023). Nutritional Health Coach Salaray. Ziprecruiter.

The Author

Nicole Golden

Nicole Golden

Nicole Golden has been a health/fitness professional since 2014 when she left the field of education to pursue a full-time career in fitness. Nicole holds a Master of Science degree from Concordia University Chicago in Applied Exercise Science with a concentration in Sports Nutrition. She is an NASM Master Trainer, CES, FNS, BCS, CSCS (NSCA) and AFAA certified group fitness instructor. Nicole is a sports nutritionist (CISSN) certified through the International Society of Sports Nutrition. She is the owner of FWF Wellness where she specializes in corrective exercise, nutrition coaching, and training special populations. She has a great deal of experience working with a wide variety of clients including female athletes, cancer survivors, older adults with medical comorbidities, and clients who have undergone bariatric surgery. She also has a special interest in coaching clients in recovery from Substance Use Disorders. Nicole enjoys spending time with her husband and five children when she is not training clients or teaching fitness classes. Follow her on LinkedIn!


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