Maybe you already have a degree in a different field. You’d like to change careers. But you don’t like the idea of hitting the books for 4 more years. Or 7 years. Or 11 years.

Or maybe university-level study was never for you. But now you’re working in an area where knowing more about nutrition would boost your credibility and effectiveness.

Sure, nutrition certification courses may never take the place of nutrition degree programs. But they usually don’t have to.

For many people, specialty certifications will supplement what they’ve learned in school. For others, these certifications can offer a more focused and relevant skill set for real-world coaching.

Of course, they are missing a few things vs. a university education.

Even with the best nutrition courses, you typically won’t learn how to conduct original research. You won’t compare animal studies to human studies. You won’t evaluate last year’s research vs. this year’s findings. And you probably won’t amass an exhaustive understanding of any specific branch of the field.

Yet you will gain a comprehensive overview of the most important factors affecting human nutrition and health.

You’ll also learn key principles governing areas like weight loss, energy levels, and athletic performance. And in the best programs, you’ll also learn how to apply those principles to real-life situations with your clients.

What does “certification” mean, anyway?

In the field of nutrition (and other fields too) the words “certified” and  “certification” can be used in ambiguous ways.

Sometimes they refer to post-educational evaluation and recognition by an independent professional body. In this way they’re similar to a Medical Association, the Law Society, a College of Teachers, etc.

Other times, they refer to the completion of a specific assessment-based course or program.

In our review, we’re focusing mainly on certification programs.

When it comes to outside accreditation, it pays to maintain a cautious approach.

Unfortunately, the certifications offered by some organizations in this field are suspiciously easy to obtain, making them meaningless or even misleading.

If you are seeking recognition by an independent professional body, our panel of experts recommended the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists as the best qualification of this kind.

However, the bar is high. This accreditation requires both undergraduate and graduate study.

Now, if you don’t have $100,000+ to spend on your nutrition education, you’ll be happy to know that most certifications cost a lot less than degree programs. In fact, most cost less than a single university course.

In addition, the time commitment is usually far less, with courses ranging from a weekend in length (not recommended) to around ten months.

Depending on the certification you choose, courses can be taken live, in actual classrooms, or online and by correspondence. Often, you can proceed at your own pace, taking tests or exams when you feel most prepared for them.

Interestingly, many people find that the real-life focus of a good certification program is far more practical and directly applicable to their work than anything they might study in a degree program.

Of course, the main risk of choosing a certification program is that it won’t give you the foundation you actually need. Even worse, if you end up feeling unconfident or downright unprepared, it may move you backwards.

To this end, always be suspicious of courses that promote fringe diets rather than teaching fundamentals. And those that look exceptionally easy. Instead, look for a program that offers comprehensive and challenging (but do-able) coursework.

If the program also provides ongoing support or mentoring, and requires periodic re-testing to ensure its graduates maintain a high level of competence, that’s even better.

Top General Nutrition Certification Programs

Canadian School of Natural Nutrition

The Canadian School of Natural Nutrition offers a Registered Holistic Nutritionist program that covers chemistry, biology, and pathology as well as nutrition for specific ailments, using a mind-body approach. The program includes a practicum, and can be taken in one year (full-time), two years (part-time), or in an accelerated version in most major Canadian metropolitan centers, as well as via correspondence.  In addition, the school offers shorter CEU-granting workshops and a certificate package in holistic nutrition.

ECornell Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition

ECornell is a subsidiary of Cornell University. Courses are developed by Cornell faculty and often include practical insights from industry experts. They are self-paced and delivered online. The Plant-Based Nutrition course is unique in the U.S. Based primarily on the work of T. Colin Campbell, this program covers the practical applications of a whole-food, plant-based diet. Offers Continuing Education Units to successful graduates. Because of its more limited focus, this course is best suited as a supplementary program to other nutrition certifications or education.

Functional Diagnostic Nutrition

Functional Diagnostic Nutrition marries the science of detailed lab reports with a holistic approach to health and wellness. The idea behind this approach is that with the aid of detailed laboratory tests, practitioners can get to the root of clients’ complaints and treat the cause rather than a set of symptoms. The program is a self-paced online course that offers instruction in choosing the right labs and methods of interpretation. Typically, it takes between six and twelve months to complete. There is a practical, hands-on component. Post-graduation, there is ongoing support through teleconferencing. CEUs may be granted.

Institute for Integrative Nutrition

The Institute for Integrative Nutrition offers a year long CEU-granting online program in holistic nutrition with a sociological bent, designed for those who would like to become health coaches. It includes the study of nutrition and health, food politics, food and emotions, coaching skills, and some business training. The program is strong in the comparative study of various diets and weaker in the fundamental sciences. For that reason, it’s probably best suited to someone who already has the relevant scientific background, or someone who plans to complement the program with a more science-heavy certification course.

Institute for the Psychology of Eating

With a focus on the psychological factors that affect our relationship to food and nutrition, this program is not a nutrition certification per se, but we mention it here because, depending on your background and your goals, it could serve as a useful complement to a nutrition certification course. The program’s strength is its emphasis on disordered eating, body image, chronic dieting, emotional eating, and similar challenges, subjects that may not be covered elsewhere in such depth. The eight-month course is offered online, with peer support and a community forum. No academic qualifications are required, but admission is by application.

Precision Nutrition Professional Certification

The Precision Nutrition Certification includes two main components — the science of nutrition, and the art of coaching. The textbook incorporates numerous case studies and samples, and also provides worksheets and questionnaires that can be used directly with clients. The self-paced CEU-granting program is offered online, and there’s an active student forum with input and instruction from PN staffers — including authors Dr. John Berardi and Ryan Andrews, RD — as well as peers.   Graduates praise the comprehensive and detailed text as well as the thorough and systematic approach to behavioral change. This program is often regarded as one of the best nutrition courses online. And a second level of the program guides students through a coaching internship. There are no prerequisites to enroll, but those lacking any background in science may find the program challenging.

Tufts University Certification Programs

In addition to its highly regarded degree programs, Tufts University also offers several online certificate programs for those who wish to improve their knowledge of nutrition. Programs  — each consisting of three courses — are currently available in the following areas: Developing Healthy Communities: Nutrition, Behavior, and Physical Activity, Nutrition Science for Communications Professionals, Delivery Science for International Nutrition, and Evidence-Based Humanitarian Assistance. Beginning in the fall of 2014, you will also be able to study Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. All courses are taught by Tufts faculty using innovative distance-learning instruction, and standards are the same as for the degree-granting programs. Prerequisites are required for these programs (i.e. prior university study) so they are not a good option if you do not hold an undergraduate degree from a recognized institution.

What are CEUs and CECs?

Many careers require professionals to earn a set number of Continuing Education Units (CEUs) or Continuing Education Credits (CECs) per year. This is to maintain their license to practice.

So, in addition to their other benefits, the best nutrition certifications will offer CEUs to participants.  To qualify for CEUs, educational programs must meet specific standards set by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training.

But the mere fact that a course offers CEUs is not enough to guarantee that it will satisfy your own needs for learning and professional growth. That’s why it’s also important to look at each program in detail before deciding which one is for you.