Nutrition is an integrative science with the overall objective of improving the health and well being of individuals. The study of nutrition provides information on how a proper diet fits within a larger health-care context. Nutritionists understand the physiological effect that food has on the body. They also appreciate the cultural, social, and psychological effect food has for people. Their work involves helping people learn to make healthy choices.
As an academic field, nutrition typically falls within either a natural science or health and human service program. However, the nutrition field of study also includes elements of social science and humanities. The degree itself is the study of dietetics and nutritional sciences, with a heavy emphasis on biology and chemistry. Nutrition students study the roles of subatomic and molecular structures, how food is turned into energy, and how essential nutrients affect the body. There is a cultural and historical element to coursework, as well as a focus on education.
What is the most common career for someone who studies nutrition? What degree do I need for that career?
The most popular position is a registered dietitian (or registered dietitian nutritionist, which is an equivalent title). This career field requires a BS degree in nutrition, internship hours, and an exam for certification.
Are there a lot of jobs within the nutrition field?
It is a very broad field with considerable career opportunities. People with degrees in nutrition work for non-profits, educational organizations, state agencies, and private companies. There are also opportunities to work in private practice as a consultant.
What’s the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian?
The title “nutritionist” is not protected by law; while there are registered nutritionists, anyone could call themselves that without any particular qualifications. However, a person can’t call themselves a dietitian without a degree, internship hours, certification, and membership in a professional organization.
Can I get an online degree in nutrition and become a registered dietitian?
Yes! There are a number of undergraduate and graduate nutrition degrees available online from accredited programs. Note that certification will require additional internship/clinical hours outside of the “classroom.”
Why is choosing an accredited nutrition program important?
Many jobs will require you to receive certification as either a dietetic technician, or as a registered dietitian. In order to hold one of those certifications, you must first graduate from a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).
There are a number of different degree programs that can lead to careers in nutrition. Some of the most common include:
- Bachelor of Science in Food Science, Dietetics or Nutrition (BS): For the majority of career paths within the field of nutrition, a BS degree from an accredited undergraduate program, followed by certification requirements to become a registered dietitian is sufficient.
- Master of Science in Nutrition (MS): This degree is a good option for people with a bachelor’s degree in another field who wish to work in the nutrition field. As with a BS, certification after earning the MS degree is needed to become a registered dietitian.
- Doctorate in Nutrition (PhD): A doctorate in nutrition is the best degree option for someone looking to become a researcher or college-level professor.
Online Degrees & Accreditation
There are quite a few accredited online BS degree programs in nutrition. There are also a handful of graduate programs, though for most nutrition-related careers a graduate degree is not necessary unless you want to engage in advanced research.
In nutrition, future career success hinges on becoming certified in your chosen field. In order to take the certification exams for these career fields, you must first receive a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from an accredited program.
The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) accredits academic programs in nutrition.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics provides a guide to learn more about the different accreditation programs
Course of Study
Generally there are no prerequisites to be admitted to an undergraduate nutrition program other than eligibility to attend the institution. However, a strong candidate for a nutrition program will have a solid high school background in science and math coursework.
The BS degree will start with introductory courses in nutrition, biology, chemistry and statistics. As part of your degree program, you should expect significant coursework in nutrition itself as well as advanced courses in math, statistics, biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and biochemistry.
With additional coursework, you can specialize in a number of additional areas related to nutrition including public health, maternal and child health, sports dietetics, and gerontology. Depending on the specialty, there may be additional coursework in sociology, psychology, cultural studies, kinesiology, health education, or social work.
As a registered dietitian, you have a number of different options to consider for your career. You will need to decide whether you want to work directly with patients or clients in a clinical or medical setting, or if you would prefer a career in nutritional planning, consulting, or research.
Some of the common career paths for a registered dietitian include:
Work in healthcare settings such as hospitals, clinics, extended care facilities, schools, and correctional facilities to provide nutritional counseling to individuals, as well as devising nutritional plans and menus for the general population.
Work in the public health field consulting with local departments of public health, state agencies, or federal programs to ensure large populations stay healthy, as well as address any public health concerns, such as food safety and treatment of dietary-related illness.
Have a private practice to provide services to clients on an individual basis, helping to problem-solve issues with obesity or other health concerns, and to devise individualized menus and overall dietary strategies. Consultants also work with restaurants, resorts, and airlines to develop healthy and varied meal options for customers.
Research for clinical trials of new products or medications.
Education and writing
Explain nutritional concepts within school settings, as well as via workshops, websites, and other public settings.
Licensing, Certifications, and Exams
Certifications in nutrition fields vary greatly depending on what type of degree you earn. Below are a few of the more common options:
Dietetic Technician, Registered
- Accredited Dietetic Technician Associate’s Degree from an ACEND-accredited program, and 450 hours of supervised practice; or
- BS degree and coursework in the Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) or Coordinated Program in Dietetics (CP)
- National DTR examination administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration
Registered Dietitian/Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (interchangeable)
- BS degree in nutrition or dietetics and coursework in in the Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) from an ACEND-accredited program
- 900-1200 hours in a dietetic internship
- Completion of Registration Examination for Dietitians
If you have already received your BS in nutrition, you can become a certified clinical nutritionist (CCN) after additional post-graduate coursework and an internship. Alternately you can pursue a graduate degree in nutrition and then become a certified nutrition specialist (CNS).
Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS)
- Advanced certification in nutrition; engages in medical nutrition therapy and research in chronic disease and other health issues
- Requires a master’s degree or PhD in nutrition from an ACEND-accredited program, and 1000 hours of experience
- Administered by the Certification Board of Nutrition Specialists
Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN)
- Focuses on how food is digested and the impact of food on the bodily systems at a very advanced level
- Requires a BS degree in nutrition
- 900-hour internship
- 56-hour post-graduate intensive study in clinical nutrition or a master’s degree in human nutrition
- National board exam issued by the CNCB
Additional Resources for Licensing and Certification Information
For more information on the differences between the DTR and RD/RDN
Future Outlook for Primary Career
Overall, there is a positive outlook for careers in nutrition over the next few decades. As the American population is aging, nutrition and dietary concerns continue to be an important part of overall health matters.
Job growth for all dietitian positions over the next decade is estimated at 21%, which is faster than the overall US job growth rate. As the role of a healthy diet is increasingly understood to have an impact on overall health and the prevention of disease, and as baby boomers grow older, analysts expect the career opportunities in nutrition to continue to expand.
The salary range for a nutritionist or dietitian is: $35,000-$70,000 depending on location, experience, and certifications. Positions requiring advanced degrees, or involving research, will pay higher salaries, with universities and private practice offering the best salary potential.
As a nutrition student, you will learn a number of marketable skills that can be translated into both nutritional careers and careers beyond the field. Your degree is a science degree, meaning you will possess a good working knowledge of biology, chemistry and anatomy, which can be an excellent precursor to medical school. You will also possess training in allied health professions such as physical therapy, nursing, kinesiology and public health. After completing your nutrition program, you can expect to walk away with the following skills:
- Experimental design
- Understanding of anatomy & physiology
- Interpersonal communication
- Program planning
Internships and clinical work will be required for certification and is often combined with your coursework program in nutrition and dietetics.
You can learn more about internships from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (Formerly the American Dietetic Association)
- American Nutrition Association
- American Society for Nutrition
- American Association of Nutritional Consultants
- Association of Nutrition and Food Service Professionals
Suggested online degree programs
- University of Alabama’s BS in Food and Nutrition
ACEND accredited; after completion of internship students will be eligible to take exam to become a registered dietitian.
- University of Illinois BS in Nutrition Science
ACEND accredited; after completion of internship students will be eligible to take exam to become a registered dietitian.
Because nutrition is field that complements many other careers, such as science degrees, medicine, public health, education, and counseling, there are a number of online graduate programs that allow you to complete a degree while working at a full-time job. Not all will be accredited by ACEND, but many may allow you to expand your career options if you have a degree in a subject other than nutrition.
- UMass Amherst Concurrent Dietetic Internship/Online Master of Public Health-Nutrition Program
The Dietetic Internship at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is accredited by (ACEND); the Public Health program is accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).
- Eastern Michigan University, Dietetics and Human Nutrition Program
Offers ACEND accredited online undergraduate and graduate degrees in nutrition, including a Master of Science in Human Nutrition degree.
- University of Bridgeport MS in Nutrition
Accredited by the Connecticut Board of Governors for Higher Education and the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). This is not a dietetics-training program and does not include the training component for registered dietitian certification.
- Huntington College of Health Sciences
Offers online MS degree in nutrition and a PhD in Health Science in Integrative Healthcare (DHS)
Both degrees meet requirements for the CCN exam through the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB).
They also prepare students to sit for the Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board’s (HNCB) Board Examination through the National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP).