I get several email requests on a weekly basis from people wanting information about how and why I became a certified nutrition consultant. (You can read my story here.)
Here’s the information I’d like to share with the many folks who email me asking for my advice and guidance, along with some pearls of wisdom I’ve learned along the way.
First off, understand that there’s a difference between a health coach and a nutritionist and a registered dietician (RD). Anyone can call him or herself a nutritionist, regardless of training. But an RD is a trained, licensed nutrition professional who has met the strict educational standards set forth by Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. RDs typically work in a hospital setting. Health coaches and nutritionists can also sit for exams to be board certified in health coaching or holistic nutrition.
I went to Bauman College. I attended in-person, because I enjoy the classroom dynamic. They offer online schooling as well. I really liked my experience at Bauman, though it’s been 15+ years since I went through the program, and I know it’s changed now.
My Background in Nutrition
My instructors were great, and the curriculum was very thorough and comprehensive. The only drawback I experienced was lack of emphasis on building your business (which they may focus on more these days). The one thing I’ve learned about being in this business is it’s about 80 percent marketing and promoting yourself and about 20 percent the work that you do. Sounds funny, huh? But no one’s gonna show up at your office wanting your services if they can’t find you and haven’t heard of you.
I pretty much expected to graduate from school, get myself an office, announce I was in practice, and people would magically flock to my office. I was sadly mistaken when I graduated and had little to no marketing experience and no idea how to build my practice. Business building is a crucial piece of this work, and you can outsource the marketing piece or take separate biz courses. I worked with business coaches and joined mastermind groups to learn the business piece.
These days there are numerous online nutrition programs and certifications you can get in six months or less. Typically these are the health coach programs, which are more geared around support and behavior change than clinical applications that nutritionists must study. A health coach is not the same as a nutritionist.
Because nutritionist is an unregulated term, any person can call him or herself “nutritionist” or “coach” no matter the schooling. That’s pretty concerning to me. My program was 700 hours plus an internship. If you’re searching for an online program and want to be a nutritionist, seek out a thorough program with credentials and be wary of the “be a nutritionist/health coach/whatever in 2 months” programs. Of course all this depends on your goals, but it’s impossible to get the scope of training you’ll need to be a nutritionist in under six months. You may also want to make sure your program is approved so you can sit for a board exam.
Want to be a Nutritionist?
PRO TIP: first off, develop a specialized niche.
What area of nutrition do you want to focus on? I wanted to specialize in women’s health, which is an extremely broad category. I was able to whittle that down along the way, and now I’ve picked a few things to focus on relating to women’s health: hormones, fertility, digestive wellness. Deciding to focus on weight loss is great, but that’s a broad category. Ask yourself: who is my ideal client? What are their main health concerns? Then focus on that group. Maybe you want to focus on weight loss for those with over 50 pounds to lose, postpartum weight loss, weight loss after menopause, etc.
Your focus may change as your interests broaden, and that’s fine too. I went from an interest in hormones and women’s health to digestive wellness.
PRO TIP: find a mentor.
This was huge for me. As soon as I graduated, I felt lost. I had all this knowledge and was so eager to get to work! Finding a mentor was a huge help to me in terms of both building my business and gaining experience from a pro about how to coach people. Find someone who’s doing what you want to do, and intern in his/her office, or inquire if you can shadow or work for him/her. Most chiropractors, acupuncturists, and naturopaths refer out to nutritionists, and many have a nutritionist in-house. That could be you!
PRO TIP: never stop learning. Pursue continuing education via seminars, talks, roundtable discussions, webinars, podcasts, books.
I created accounts with Designs for Health and Apex Energetics immediately after getting my certification. You’ll get wholesale prices on top quality supplements (yay!) to use for yourself and to stock your store and sell to your clients. AND these companies offer seminars and tons of educational tools to help your build your practice and stay current on topics you’re interested in. The seminars are a great way to network and meet people in your field.
Attending seminars frequently was one of the main things I did immediately after graduation so I could meet people in the natural health field. This is great for building a referral network and finding a mentor.
Once I felt adequately saturated with nutrition information, I started attending business building seminars. I learned that it doesn’t matter how knowledgable you are if no one knows about you. You have to learn how to market and promote yourself, both online and in person.
PRO TIP: network, give talks in your area. Table at events. Offer workshops.
Networking fills me with dread, but it can be fun, and it doesn’t have to be in-person exclusively. You can also join facebook groups and network with nutritionists in your field, area, etc. I did a lot of local in-person events at the beginning just to connect with local folks. I started tabling at events and fairs, giving talks, and doing workshops, and this helps increase exposure and gets your name out there. Nowadays much of this can be done online too.
PRO TIP: social media–> Get yourself a great website, make a facebook page, join LinkedIn, instagram, Pinterest, make an e-newsletter, build your following.
These are all ways for people to find you, and it gets your brand out there. You don’t have to spend tons of money to get a website up, and you can even offer your services as a trade for logo and/or web design.
Update your website with articles to share your knowledge (and increase ways for people to find you), and post tips on your facebook business page. Talk about your business with everyone you meet! Get business cards and brochures made. Ask your clients to write you testimonials or positive reviews. Add them to your website. Create a free gift offer on your website that will automatically sign people up for your newsletter. Email your following weekly with tips, recipes, and your classes and offerings.
PRO TIP: join a professional organization.
National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP) or any professional organization for your trade is a great way to connect with other nutritionists, and they’ll have job opportunities and continuing education opportunities.
BNI (Business Networking International) can be a great way to network and build your business, and they have local chapters everywhere. National Association of Professional Women (and other similar organizations) is great, too.
PRO TIP: start a referral program.
I contacted many of my local yoga studios, acupuncture offices, naturopaths, personal chefs, and chiropractors when I was starting out. I met many of these practitioners in their offices and introduced myself and talked about my business (and of course gave them my cards and brochures). I specifically sought out those who also specialized in women’s health. I referred my clients to them and visa versa. You’ll learn that it can take a village to help certain clients– clients not only need your help, but they can also benefit from the guidance of other practitioners. Start cross-referring. There is no greater compliment that referrals!
Building community and connecting with those in your field is so important to get yourself off the ground. You’ll make connections in school. Don’t view your fellow nutritionists as competition! I refer out to other nutritionists all the time. Use your colleagues for advice, as a sounding board (you’ll need that, too), and for cross referrals. At one point I started a wellness forum with some colleagues. We had weekly calls where we asked questions and shared information about health and wellness and business building. Super helpful.
On the subject of referrals: Know when to refer out! When you’re just starting out it can be so exciting when people seek you out and want to hire you. But make sure you screen each client and that you feel capable enough to help him or her. It’s ok if their health concerns seem too complex for you. Refer them out, or take them on, but make sure you also refer them to a naturopath or other applicable practitioner. Know when to refer certain folks to a therapist or psychologist.
PRO TIP: know when to hire help.
Once your business grows, you won’t be able to manage it all on your own. Don’t be afraid to hire help because you think you’ll lose money. The opposite is true — you’ll net more once you farm out work and focus on the bigger projects yourself. Hire an admin to take care of social media or organizational details. Once you grow, you can then hire nutritionists to work under you. Always make room for growth!
There are so many different career options for nutritionists.
You can work in a wellness center alongside other holistic practitioners (I enjoyed that, and it’s an easy way to get referrals!). You can work in an office under an integrative MD or chiropractor. You can teach, or even host online webinars, write books, teach workshops. Or start your own private practice. I know many personal chefs who are also nutritionists and specialize not only in cooking for individuals, but consulting about what they should be eating.
When I first started out, I worked under my mentor for a time, then I went to work in an integrative MD’s office. That was great experience and taught me a lot about running a business, but I grew tired of making 1/3 in salary what they were charging for my services (but hey, I didn’t have to pay rent!). I then decided to go into private practice and rented office space in a wellness center with a chiropractor, massage therapist and acupuncturist. That was a great way to get referrals and share space with like-minded folks. I taught workshops on weekends, hosted free webinars to promote my classes, and wrote articles for websites like MindBodyGreen. Basically, I worked my butt off! But I was working for myself and didn’t have to answer to a boss.
It’s also liberating to know that you don’t have to only work with clients locally (unless you want to strictly). I work with people all over the world via zoom video. In fact, my practice is entirely virtual at this point. That means I don’t have to spend all my time in an office! Our virtual reality means the sky’s the limit in terms of your reach, and this is the way things are trending nowadays.
That’s what I appreciate most these days. I’m my own boss, and I set my own schedule. I give away a lot of information for free both on my website and in social media, but that’s a great way to attract clients.
If you’re considering becoming a nutritionist, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I have the time and resources necessary to go back to school?
- Am I prepared to mentor or work for another practitioner for at least a year to learn the ropes?
- Do I have business and marketing skills?
- Can I afford to take a huge pay cut while I build my business?
- Am I prepared to work nights, weekends, long hours to get my business off the ground?
- Do I have the people skills necessary to counsel and consult?
There’s a huge demand for nutritionists and health coaches these days. And there are so many business opportunities once you receive your certification. Decide what you want your scope of practice to be (health coach? nutritionist?), and pursue an accredited program that aligns with your goals.
Leave any questions for me below!
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.