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What is a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS)?

Updated: Jan 16

By Kate Daugherty, MS, CNS

In Colorado, the scope of practice of a Clinical Nutrition Specialist (CNS) and Registered Dietician (RD) is largely the same. However, there are subtle differences in training that give each designation their desired means of nutrition counseling.

Functional Nutrition Denver Colorado Kate Daugherty, CNS

First question: What is a Nutritionist?

While we assume that a nutritionist is someone well trained in nutrition and with the authority to give nutrition advice.. it isn’t that simple.

In many states, ANYONE can call themselves a “nutritionist” regardless of training or licensure. (Check out THIS map) Let that sink in. That means anyone with an audience can proclaim themselves an expert on nutrition and start legally giving nutrition advice.

There are certainly individuals without formal training who do a great job in the role, BUT there is a personal responsibility to get guidance you trust. One of the biggest aspects of advanced nutrition training is understanding how much we DON’T (and won’t) know about nutrition.

Certified nutritionists spend time exploring the benefits and limitations of supplements, therapeutic diets, and biases in research.


There are two primary boards that certify nutritionists:

According to the American Nutrition Association, these board certifications are defined as such:

“Certified Nutritional Specialist (CNS®): a Certified Nutrition Specialist is a highly qualified nutritional professional with an advanced degree (graduate or doctorate) from a fully accredited university in nutrition plus 1,000 hours of a supervised internship and must pass the rigorous exam administered by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists…It is the most widely recognized nutrition certification by federal and state governments. It is the only non-dietetics credential and examination widely named in state nutrition licensure laws.”

“Registered Dietitian (RD): an RD is a food and dietary professional, usually with a 4-year bachelor’s degree and 900-1200 hours in a dietetic internship through an accredited program and passing a dietetics registration exam. Dietitians focus on calories (energy), quality of food in regard to freshness, sanitation and freedom from spoilage and contamination, meal planning, evaluation of standard measurements of foods, specific diets for certain conditions, and eating patterns based primarily on food groups, such as the food pyramid, and other guidelines based on daily food intake strictly outlined by health organizations. Dietitians often work in health institutions as clinical dietitians, management dietitians, but can also work as community or consultant dietitians.”

CNS versus RD nutrition certification



A CNS must hold a Master’s of Science in Human Clinical Nutrition, complete a 1,000 hour internship, and pass a board exam. They have licensure that allows them to practice in hospitals, but most often they work in private practice and preventative care.

The CNS training is focused on functional medicine and root cause approaches to health. The integrative approach taught in a graduate program for Functional Medicine is vastly different than the curriculum for a traditional undergraduate nutrition degree. Most conventional programs follow the USDA’s guidelines and training is focused on general recommendations for the population rather than personalized nutrition.

>>Again, this isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions to the rule and very forward-thinking RDs who take it upon themselves to explore unconventional medicine.<<


There are a number of online health certifications that have their own nutrition credentials. This includes IIN, NTP/NTC and others. Most programs are short online courses without clinical training expectations or board exams. While these individuals may be excellent “health coaches” they are simply in a different caliber than board-certified nutritionists.

TLDR: ONLY CNS and RD are recognized credentials to be a licensed nutritionist in the U.S.

Some people feel better knowing they are seeing a nutritionist that has a bunch of fancy letters after their name. Some people don’t care. What matters at the end of the day is taking advice from a person you trust, who connects with you, and helps you take control of your own health.

functional medicine Denver Colorado nutritionist cns


Want to work with a functional medicine doctor to run labs and assess nutrient status? Struggling with hormone imbalance, IBS, weight gain, mood changes? Let's look at BIOCHEMISTRY. Read more about Functional Medicine at The Facility here.

Not sure where to start?

CLICK HERE to schedule a FREE 15-Minute Consult with Kate to determine your best course of action!

Or reach out by email


*Adapted from

Information on this website and blog are not provided by or affiliated with the American Nutrition Association®, Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists℠ or the Certified Nutrition Specialist® (CNS®) credential. For information on the organizations, please visit and


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Dr. Mitchell Rasmussen - Doctor of Chiro
Kate Daugherty - Nutritionist - Function
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