As the incidence of chronic lifestyle diseases like obesity and diabetes rises among U.S. patients, preventative care is becoming a major priority for American healthcare providers. One of the most important players in preventative U.S. healthcare is the nutritionist. These professionals are experts in the science of diet and nutrition; they help clients plan and follow eating plans that help them reach and maintain a healthy weight.
Nutrition sciences are a good course of study for any student interested in the role food plays in disease prevention and management. In addition to the scientific aspects of this field, aspiring nutritionists should be passionate about empowering people to improve their overall health levels.
According to the BLS, graduates in this field can choose to work as independent consultants, meal program managers or as public health advisors. Their expertise on proper nutrition planning is required by hundreds of institutions, but nutritionists most commonly work in schools, hospitals, public health clinics, long-term care facilities and HMOs.
Generally, these students take courses in nutrition, psychology, physiology, anatomy, chemistry and biology. Depending on the program and degree level chosen, students will also take courses in counseling, food sciences, dietetics, food production and agriculture, as well as food systems management and clinical nutrition. Prospective students can access open online courseware here to get a better idea of the level of work they will encounter in a college-level nutrition program.
There aren’t a huge number of sub-specialties in nutrition, but some of the most commonly offered degree concentrations include dietetics, food science, public health, clinical nutrition and sports nutrition. Depending on your specialization, your degree can take you down a number of paths after graduation. Both food scientists and public health advisers commonly come from nutrition backgrounds, but it’s important for students to understand their professional goals early in the field. For instance, working in food development or public food policy will likely require you to have completed separate coursework in food genetics or public health.
It’s important to keep in mind that many states require nutritionists to earn certifications or even licensure before working. You’ll want to know exactly what’s required of practicing nutritionists in your state before you choose a degree program or a certificate in nutrition. Most states will require you to hold at least a bachelor’s in nutrition or a related area, have a designated number of supervised practice and pass a credentialing exam. The most commonly recognized of these is the Registered Dietician Nutritionist (RDN) credential. It is administered by the
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Many schools do, in fact, offer an associate’s degree in nutrition. Programs generally take 1-2 years to complete and courses like basic biology, food science and psychology are almost always required. Since most employers require a bachelor’s degree, aspiring nutritionists should view the associate degree as a way to sample courses in nutrition to measure their interest before committing to a full four-year program.
Most working nutritionists hold their bachelor’s degree. Unlike most two-year programs, a full undergraduate curriculum should include courses in pharmacology and biochemistry. Aspiring nutritionists do not necessarily need to major in nutrition sciences, but they should make an effort to complete the coursework required of these programs. It is also a good idea to choose a related major in health studies or sciences. As mentioned, even nutritionists that hold their bachelor’s degree will likely need to earn their RDN credential before being legal to work in many states. Students should make certain the courses they choose in college adequately prepare them for this exam.
Since the field of nutrition is so broad, many nutritionists seek an advanced degree to establish an advanced level of knowledge in either a clinical or research area of nutrition sciences. The degree customarily takes two years to complete. A master’s in nutrition is also highly useful for those who want to earn their Certified Nutrition Specialist credential. The CNS is accepted in many states and requires a master’s or doctoral degree as well as 1,000 hours of experience working as an RDN.
Doctorate students in nutrition can significantly narrow their specializations here. For instance, a PhD thesis in nutrition might compare different approaches to nutrition in high-performance track athletes, calculate the long-term costs of a low-budget high calorie school lunch program on the larger community or expose a common nutritional additive as more biochemically harmful than earlier thought. Depending on the topics covered in their dissertations, nutrition PhDs will be seen as high-value contributors in research, teaching and advising capacities.
Ideal Candidates for Nutrition
Nutrition students need to be analytical, but also compassionate. While nutrition is at its core a science, working as a nutritionist is first and foremost a patient service. Aspiring nutritionists must be certain they are passionate and capable enough to maintain one-on-one client relationships. Designing health plans for people isn’t going to improve their level of health unless you can convince and encourage them that sticking to your plan is worthwhile.
The BLS predicts a growth of 21 percent in new positions for dieticians and nutritionists by 2022. This figure is well above the national average, but since preventative health and nutrition management is a rapidly evolving field, the full range of opportunities nutrition students today will discover aren’t fully known.
In 2013, the median wage for Registered Dietitian Nutritionists was $60,000. Most of these professionals worked full-time, but a rising number of dieticians and nutritionists are also reporting that they are self-employed. Self-employed and part-time nutritionists are most commonly hired as third party consultants for businesses and schools or as personal nutritionists for individuals. This makes nutrition one of the most flexible professions in healthcare today.