What is a Certified Nutrition Specialist?

Over the last couple decades, the health and wellness industry has grown a lot. More and more people are becoming aware of the importance of proper nutrition and lifestyle therapy. As a result, there are more health and wellness professionals that provide this valuable care. When it comes to nutrition providers, there are Registered Dietitians, Certified Nutrition Specialists, Clinical Nutritionists, Functional Nutritionists, Health Coaches, Nutrition Coaches, and many more titles. Since a lot of these providers focus on nutrition care, it can be confusing to differentiate what these different titles mean.

What is a Certified Nutrition Specialist

The Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) is the highest of all the national nutrition certifications, with the most requirements for education, experience, testing, and continuing education. As certified practitioners, a CNS is well versed in clinical nutrition, nutritional biochemistry, therapeutic diets and supplements to provide medical nutrition therapy. The Certified Nutritionist Specialist (CNS) is the most widely recognized non-dietetics credential and is a federally recognized board certification with state-by-state licensure in states that offer licensure for Nutritionists. As certified practitioners, a CNS is well versed in clinical nutrition, functional nutrition, nutritional biochemistry, therapeutic diets and supplements to provide medical nutrition therapy. Depending on state licensure and insurance companies, contracting and coverage for nutrition counseling is limited.

To be granted the CNS credential by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS), applicants must:

  • Have at least a Master’s degree in nutrition or a related field from a regionally accredited university, with coursework in nutrition, life sciences, biochemistry, physiology and anatomy
  • Have completed at least 1,000 working hours of a supervised experience
  • Earn a passing score on the board exam for Certified Nutrition Specialists.
  • Finish 75 continuing education credits every five years to maintain certification

Since there is no overseeing board or federal or state legislation in most cases, technically anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist”. This means that anyone with an online certificate or general knowledge of nutrition principles can call themselves a nutritionist. The only limitation is they can’t claim to be “licensed” or “certified”. If you’re in a state that lacks legislation around nutrition practices, do your due diligence to make sure you work with a qualified professional.

While anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, there are a few credentials like the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) or the Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN) that require a higher standard of education and training. 

What is a Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)?

Established by the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, the Registered Dietitian (RD) credential has been around for about 100 years. As the oldest certification in nutrition care, the RD credential is the most recognized and supported credential when it comes to nutrition therapy in healthcare. RD’s also receive recognition as practitioners when it comes to healthcare legislation, licensure and insurance contracting. This makes nutrition care more accessible and affordable for many who rely on their insurance benefits to receive nutrition therapy.

Credentials for Registered Dietitians are granted by the Board of Dietetics in each state. The Board requires the following:

  • Earn an accredited bachelor’s in nutrition & dietetics; starting in 2024, the minimum education requirement will be a master’s degree.
  • Complete an ASCEND approved dietetic internship of 1,200 hours under the supervision of a licensed professional.
  • Pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam.
  • Obtain a state license where applicable, most states don’t require a practice license.
  • Maintain state license and registration by completing 75 continuing education credits every five years.

What is the Difference between a CNS Nutritionist and a RD Nutritionist?

Nutritionists and Dietitians both have career paths in the health and wellness industry. They both work with clients in finding the best diet and foods to help people meet their health needs. Each one is trained and qualified to develop custom meal plans for their clients to help them reach their nutritional health goals. There are a few differences between them and knowing these differences can help you determine which would be the right fit for you. 

Registered Dietitians are trained for acute care, such as hospital care, including parenteral (tube) nutrition to supplement conventional medicine. They follow federal nutrition guidelines and are trained to apply USDA’s resources in various settings like hospitals, health departments, private practices, food manufacturing, school systems, or college campuses.

Certified Nutritionists work within the realm of functional medicine, which aims to heal the root cause of chronic conditions. As part of a holistic and integrative approach, CNS’s aim to treat the root cause through personalized nutrition for healing and preventive care. CNS’s are typically in found private clinical practice, nutrition research, clinical educators or as nutrition professors. 

How Do I Know What is Right For Me?

Everyone is unique and has their own health and wellness needs. Your nutritional goals, medical history, and current needs will determine which professional is the best fit for you. Reach out to any specialist you are considering and speak with them directly to confirm they are the right choice. At Nili Wellness we offer a complimentary clarity call to make sure we are the best fit for you and your needs. 

Aida Sadeghi, MS, CNS