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  • Linnette Johnson

What is a Board-Certified Nutrition Specialist (BCNS)?

Okay, I have been getting this question since September 2019, when I began taking clients.

If you've been following along since I started or anything else, you've probably read about or seen the Certified Nutrition Specialist® credential (CNS®) on my website, my signature, and beyond.

This is the most advanced certification for personalized nutrition practitioners like me. Certified Nutrition Specialists practice science-based personalized nutrition therapy to power people to gain healthier habits, feel better and have a better sense of well-being through foods, supplements, herbs, and various other integrative, functional therapies. As a CNS, the goal is to help the community transform from non-personalized nutrition to personalized nutrition while looking for the root cause of one's health conditions and symptoms.


Anyone wishing to become a Board-Certified Nutrition Specialist MUST hold a minimum of a master's degree from an ACNPE- accredited program in Clinical Nutrition OR have completed specific classes geared towards meeting the educational requirements to even be considered for the CNS exam. Those course requirements are as follows:

  • 18 Credits of Nutrition which 12 have to be graduate level

  • 6 credits in biochemistry

  • 3 credits of Anatomy/Physiology

  • 12 credits of Clinical or Life Sciences

  • 2 Behavioral Sciences

Once a person graduates, two more steps are required before becoming a Board Certified Nutrition Specialist. After meeting the educational components, the prospective applicant must meet 1000 hours of supervised practice experience and pass the BCNS Certifying Exam. These requirements entail the following:

Experience Requirement:

Must complete 1,000 hours with a BCNS-approved supervisor, which requires various fees and skills to be accounted for. These hours can be obtained as follows:

  • Internship, residency, or clinical rotation

  • Clinical practice

  • Institutional setting

  • Community setting

Examination Requirement:

Must receive a passing score on the Certification Examination for Nutrition Specialist Exam. Those holding certifications or titles also take this exam: APRN, DC, DDS, ND, PA, PharmD, OD, MS, or Ph.D. This exam entails the following:

  • The exam consists of 200 intensive multiple-choice questions that entail scenarios and more.

  • The exam limit is 4 hours to complete it in its entirety.

However, the board reviews each applicant individually to determine eligibility and whether approval will be granted or not, so of course, everything from official transcripts, logs, signatures, and exam results to the American Nutrition Associate/Certified Nutrition Specialist Board.

If approved, then you are a "Board-Certified Nutrition Specialist" that will uphold the ethical code of practicing standards, will be responsible for knowing state laws, and will obtain required licensure if a state requires one to be able to practice along with all the others little details required to be a practicing practitioner. And don't forget, as approved Board-Certified Nutrition Specialists, we must complete 75 continuing education credits every five years. So, it's not a once-and-done deal. More work must be done to maintain good standing and keep the much-needed accreditation.


Okay, I get a lot of questions about what we can do as Board-Certified Nutrition Specialists, as this is a similar field to those in the dietetic pathway. However, there are vast differences between a Board-Certified Nutrition Specialist and a Registered Dietitian, even though we can hold the same licenses in some states.

First off, this isn't easy to answer. So here is a quick mention of all the possible differences between RDs and CNSs-

Registered Dietitian (RD):

A registered Dietitian (RD) is a conventional food and dietary professional. They usually have just a 4-year bachelor's degree (changing January 2024- master's degrees will be required), 900-1200 hours in a dietetic internship through an accredited program, and they also have to pass a dietetics registration exam. Reasons, why RDs are considered conventional are because they focus on calories (energy), quality of food regarding freshness, sanitation, and freedom from spoilage and contamination, meal planning, evaluation of standard measurements of foods, specific diets for certain conditions, feeding tubes, and eating patterns based primarily on food groups, such as the food pyramid, and other government guidelines. RDs often work in health institutions as clinical dietitians and management dietitians but can also work as community or consultant dietitians.

Registered Dietitians are essential players in the conventional medicine world. They learn about federal nutrition guidelines, are trained to support and utilize the USDA's resources, and have a wide variety of positions, working in hospitals, large corporations, school systems, and college campuses.

They are trained in parenteral nutrition and are historically taught to support the low-fat, calorie-counting mentality of conventional medicine. However, there appears to be a change occurring for RDs to incorporate more of the integrative and functional components the CNS pathway already incorporates because some RDs are starting to take it upon themselves to gain integrative and functional medicine training above their conventional pathway. Believe me, there are some really excellent RDs out there and there is a need for this pathway.

Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS):

A Certified Nutrition Specialist is not conventional regarding food and dietary components. The pathway is geared to be integrative, functional, and backed by science. Since it's already been stated what the requirements are to obtain this accreditation, it won't be advised here. A CNS is focused and will focus on integrative, functional medicine based on a root cause approach to provide optimal healing and overall wellness. Although some science classes are similar between RDs and CNS training, the integrative, functional approach for a CNS is entirely different from what is covered in an undergraduate nutrition degree for the RD pathway. Please note some RD programs may be exceptions to this rule, but I haven't found them yet! As Board-Certified Nutrition Specialists, they can work in many different environments, planning meals and educating others on the importance of a balanced diet.

A CNS can apply biochemical, clinical (laboratory testing, anthropometric measurements, and physical exams), and nutritional knowledge to guide nutrition interventions and monitoring, along with analyzing the macro- and micronutrient content, nutrient density, and additional food components of a client’s diet. CNS are trained to design culturally sensitive food plans that support changing nutritional needs during the various lifecycle stages and promote disease prevention and management while formulating comprehensive clinical intervention plans that incorporate whole foods, supplements, lifestyle changes, and other integrative health approaches. CNSs are also taught how to apply nutrition care to develop nutrition diagnoses and interventions and evaluate and monitor the client’s progress using a functional nutrition approach. Lastly, a CNS can develop personal mindful eating practices and guide groups or clients in mindfulness practices. However, a CNS is not conventional and again there are some really excellent CNSs as they have complete nutrition training that makes them just as needed in private practices; integrative group practices; nutrition clinics; health care systems; hospitals; community, non-profit, and outreach organizations; state and local health departments; school systems; culinary organizations; athletic and recreational organizations; and colleges and universities.

The best takeaway is that both pathways are needed in similar ways but also in some very different ways too. It really is dependent on the person seeking assistance with their health concerns from a nutritional outlook.

Do you want a conventional take on health changes concerning foods and lifestyle changes? Or do you want a non-conventional but integrative, functional root cause scientific take on health changes concerning foods and lifestyle changes?

It really is up to the person and what their health and wellness goals are. It also doesn't hurt to reach out to practitioners from both pathways to see which one works for you. Like any other healthcare provider or field out there... having options allows a person to have choices that fit them whether it's the conventional pathway or the integrative functional pathway.

Just because each pathway has the perspective that theirs is the best pathway doesn't make it so or make it true. Because neither way is better than the other- it really boils down to how and what the person seeking assistance is looking for and in need of. Having an option gives empowerment back to the person needing the services in the first place! RIGHT? That's the most important key to all this anyways.


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