Which Nutrition Credential is Right for You?

You are very passionate about plant-based nutrition, and you are wondering, “How can I advance my knowledge and become qualified to talk about nutrition?” “Should I become a registered dietitian?” “What other nutrition credentials are there?” There are various nutrition-related certifications, some involving academic work and some not. This is not an exhaustive list, but it may be a starting point to consider which option is right for you.

The most widely recognized is the registered dietitian (RD) or the newer registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) credential. If you would like to become an RD/RDN, you must earn at least a bachelor’s degree from a program that is approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). You can find a list of ACEND-approved programs here: https://www.nutritioned.org/registered-dietitian-schools.html. If you already have a bachelor’s degree, your undergraduate major may also determine your eligibility to apply for an ACEND-approved school. You may have to take some undergraduate courses in nutrition or science to satisfy the prerequisites first or pursue a second bachelor’s degree instead of a master’s degree.

After obtaining a degree from one of the ACEND-approved programs, you need to complete 1,200 hours of ACEND-approved supervised clinical practice (internship) and pass the licensing exam. Just pursuing a degree in nutrition does not automatically lead to your eligibility to sit for the exam. In order to maintain the RD/RDN credential, you need to earn continuing education units for recertification every five years. You can find more information about becoming an RDN here: https://www.eatrightpro.org/about-us/what-is-an-rdn-and-dtr/what-is-a-registered-dietitian-nutritionist

In Michigan, it is legal for anyone to provide nutrition counseling – within their scope of practice, of course. However, in some states, it is illegal to perform individualized nutrition counseling unless you are an RD/RDN, so it is a good idea to check the legal status of a nutritionist in the state where you reside: http://www.nutritionadvocacy.org/laws-state

Among the certification programs specific to plant-based nutrition that do not require an academic degree, the most well-known is the Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate course offered through the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies in partnership with eCornell (https://nutritionstudies.org/courses/plant-based-nutrition/). This is a self-paced, six-week online program. There are activities, discussions, and quizzes that you need to complete to obtain the certificate. If you are a healthcare professional, you can earn continuing education credits by taking the course.

Food for Life Instructor Training
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) founded by Dr. Neal Barnard offers Food for Life Instructor training once or twice a year in Washington, D.C. Food for Life is a well-established plant-based nutrition education program, and you will learn how to communicate with and teach the public about using plant-based nutrition to prevent disease. The certification as a Food for Life cooking instructor may provide you with a good opportunity to develop a small business. Registered dietitians and nurses can earn continuing education units. To find out more, visit https://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/ffl/training. You can click on Apply Today to find information about the training date(s), application process, etc.

The Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential is offered by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS: https://nutritionspecialists.org/), and it requires a minimum of a master’s degree in nutrition, completion of 1,000 hours of supervised practice experience (SPE), and passing of the certification exam. There are a few schools throughout the U.S., such as Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH: https://www.muih.edu/), that offer students an opportunity to complete partial SPE through coursework. These schools take a holistic/integrative medicine approach and focus on whole foods, but not necessarily plant-based nutrition. There are many options for completing the required SPE, and you have the opportunity to choose your own supervisor (who must be approved by the board) as well as your own internship site. The CNS may be a good option for someone interested in earning at least a master’s degree in nutrition and keen on a holistic approach. You need to earn continuing education units to maintain certification.

The Certified Clinical Nutritionist credential is offered by the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB: https://www.cncb.org/). It is a post-graduate online program in clinical nutrition that is designed for healthcare professionals and requires certain academic work. This may be a good option for healthcare professionals who do not wish to seek another degree. The content of the program tends to be holistic in nature with an “alternative” approach and includes information on herbology and homeopathy. The online program is exempted for those who have obtained at least a master’s degree in human nutrition from designated schools. Currently, there is no internship requirement to become a CCN unless you live in the state of New York and lack at least three years of clinical experience. You need to earn continuing education units to maintain certification.

Other Certifications Related to Plant-Based Nutrition
As for certification programs that do not require an academic degree, there are several pertaining to plant-based nutrition that you may want to consider.

Wellness Forum Institute/Health Certifications
Dr. Pam Popper of Wellness Forum Health in Columbus, OH has a school (http://wellnessforuminstitute.com/) and offers a wide range of classes. The Nutrition Educator Program is a two-year program that is an alternative to traditional dietetics and includes 200 hours of practical experience. The Diet and Lifestyle Intervention course is designed for healthcare and fitness professionals but open to anyone interested in developing skills needed to help people take charge of their own health through appropriate lifestyle change. If you take the course during the summer, you get to learn directly from “celebrity” instructors like Dr. Neal Barnard, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., and Dr. Alan Goldhamer. Most classes are offered via conference calls and recorded for later listening and review. There are many other courses you can take through Wellness Forum Health, ranging from Dietary Supplements to Psychological Disorders.

Nutritarian Studies Certificate
The Nutritarian Studies Certificate program is offered through the Nutritarian Education Institute developed by Dr. Joel Fuhrman (https://www.drfuhrman.com/library/nutritarian-education-institute/programs/1/nutritarian-studies). This program is recognized as an approved continuing education provider by several fitness-related organizations, including the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). If you are a personal trainer or a group exercise instructor certified by one of these organizations, you can earn continuing education units by enrolling in Dr. Fuhrman’s classes.

The Starch Solution Certificate
Dr. John McDougall offers The Starch Solution Certification course based on his book The Starch Solution (https://www.drmcdougall.com/health/programs/starch-solution-certification-course/). Healthcare professionals can earn continuing education units. If you are (planning on) pursuing an academic degree in a healthcare field and also would like to enroll in this course, definitely take advantage of the student discount as it is a substantial discount!

Sports Nutrition
If you are interested in sports nutrition, PLANTLAB offers a two-week Spots Nutrition course taught by Brendan Brazier, a former endurance athlete who promotes a plant-based diet (https://www.plantlab.com/sports-nutrition).

Holistic Nutritionist Certificate
American Fitness Professionals & Associates (AFPA) offers Holistic Nutritionist Certification, which includes information on whole foods and plant-based nutrition (https://store.afpafitness.com/holistic-nutritionist-certification/). This organization also provides continuing education courses that involve reading a particular book and taking a quiz. Book options include The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger, Keep it Simple, Keep it Whole by Drs. Alona Pulde and Matthew Lederman, and The Food Prescription for Better Health by Dr. Baxter Montgomery. There are also continuing education courses in vegetarian sports nutrition and vegetarianism and athletic performance.

Plant-Based Cooking
If you are interested in plant-based cooking, Forks Over Knives Rouxbe teaches you the basics of whole food plant-based cooking (https://forksoverknives.rouxbe.com/). Rouxbe also has a Plant-Based Pro Certification course (https://rouxbe.com/plant-based-certification-course/).

Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator
If you are more interested in in-person experience, the Main Street Vegan Academy offers Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator (VLCE) certification. The only prerequisite is being a dietary vegan (https://mainstreetvegan.net/academy/). You will spend nearly a week with Victoria Moran (vegan for 35 years) and other participants in Victoria’s apartment in New York City. There is a nutrition component to this program, but it is so much more and covers all aspects of veganism.

As you can see, there are different paths you can take to advance your knowledge of plant-based nutrition. Which path to take depends on where you live, whether you are willing to move, which degree(s) you already have, what designation you would like, how much time you are willing to devote to studying both short term and long term, how much money you are willing to spend, etc. Good luck on your pursuit of furthering your education and spreading the wonderful message of whole food plant-based nutrition!