How to Become a Public Health Nutritionist

What is Public Health Nutrition?

Public health nutrition is an occupation that focuses on advising people what to eat in order to have a proper diet for improved health and nutrition. Generally speaking, public health nutritionists work in community settings, such as public health clinics, or for local, state, or government agencies. In this capacity, they are primarily involved in nutritional research, health policy development, and disseminating dietary and nutritional information to communities. Entrance into the field requires only a bachelor’s degree in most cases, although some states require an advanced degree in order to obtain licensure. With a growing number of Americans with nutritional needs, the growth of public health nutrition is expected to remain strong. Average salaries, which can be in excess of $77,000 per year, are also expected to remain steady.

Where Does a Public Health Nutritionist Work?

Public health nutritionists work in a number of different settings. Many are employed by public health agencies to provide services to the community, particularly at-risk populations. Others are employed in hospitals, residential care facilities, nursing homes, mental hospitals, and correctional facilities to direct the nutritional plans for patients and inmates. Still other health nutritionists work in schools, where they guide the development of healthy menus for schoolchildren. Other work environments include weight management clinics, government agencies such as Health and Human Services, and colleges and universities.

What Does a Public Health Nutritionist Do?

Improving the diet and nutrition of the public is the primary duty of a public health nutritionist. To do this, nutritionists will assess the current level of health and nutrition of their clients, including an in-depth look at the client’s current diet. They will utilize this information to identify areas of strength and weakness, and advise clients on nutritional and dietary issues, such as foods to consume and those to avoid.

Public health nutritionists also devise meal plans to improve their clients’ level of nutrition. In clinical settings such as hospitals or weight management clinics, nutritionists will counsel the client on proper portioning and the types of foods to eat, focusing on increasing the intake of healthy foods. In an institutional setting such as a school, nutritionists will devise meal plans based on current research and best practices, and consult with institutional administrators or committees to develop dietary policies. Nutritionists must also evaluate the effectiveness of meal plans and adjust them accordingly if the desired health benefits are not being achieved.

Related: How to Become a Certified Nutritional Practitioner

Consulting with clients regarding their diet may occur in one-on-one settings, such as providing clients with diabetes with information about the appropriate types of food to eat to help manage their condition. Other nutritionists may work with small groups, families, or even large groups to provide more general information about dietary and nutritional issues.

In the public health setting, nutritionists will spend time giving presentations to community groups, as well as to specific populations such as the elderly, to provide valuable information about the relationship between nutrition and overall wellness. Public health nutritionists may also serve on committees with other health professionals to devise public health policy or marketing campaigns to raise community awareness about dietary and nutritional issues.

What are the Requirements to Become a Public Health Nutritionist?

Education

To become a public health nutritionist, one must complete a bachelor’s degree program in foods and nutrition, dietetics, food systems management, or a closely related field. Typically, these undergraduate programs include studies in biology, anatomy, physiology, nutrition, herbology, and coursework related to specific populations such as children, adolescents, and older adults. The purpose of these programs is to provide students with a solid foundational understanding of the human body, its nutritional needs, and how to best meet those needs in order to facilitate healthy living. Usually, undergraduate programs in nutrition are approximately 120 credit hours, which can be completed in four years if a student attends school full-time.

Although public health nutritionists are only required to have a bachelor’s degree, some choose to undertake advanced studies to obtain a master’s degree or doctorate because some licensing requirements necessitate having an advanced degree. Graduate programs usually involve around 30 credit hours, which can be completed in 2-3 years. A doctoral program generally takes an additional 3-5 years to complete.

Training

After graduating from college, public health nutritionists usually must complete several hundred hours of training under the supervision of an experienced nutritionist if such training was not required as part of their degree program. This supervisory period is most often an internship in a public health setting, such as a community health clinic.

Licensing Requirements

Each state has different requirements for licensure as a public health nutritionist. Some states require at least a bachelor’s degree in nutrition or a closely related area, as well as a period of supervised practice and a passing score on a licensure exam. Other states do not require nutritionists to be licensed, but instead require state registration or certification. Still other states have no requirements at all and do not govern the practice of nutritionists. Because requirements vary so widely from state to state, it is most prudent to inquire about the process of being licensed or credentialed with your state’s health department, department of workforce services, or another related agency.

Necessary Personal Skills

There are numerous skills that public health nutritionists must have in order to best serve their clients:

  • Problem-Solving Skills – Nutritionists must be able to analyze the health and nutrition issues that clients have, and devise appropriate strategies for addressing those problems.
  • Research and Analysis Skills – Nutritionists must be able to stay current on the latest research regarding healthy eating and living practices, and have the skills to implement that research into the treatments they provide to clients.
  • Compassion and Understanding – Nutritionists will work with a variety of people, from extremely healthy and fit people to individuals that have an array of health problems. Having empathy for each client and being understanding of his or her situation without being judgmental is critical.
  • Communication Skills ­– There is a teaching component to nutrition, so workers must be able to communicate effectively on both an interpersonal level and a presentational level.

What is the Salary of a Public Health Nutritionist?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), public health nutritionists enjoy a relatively good income potential, with workers on the low end of the pay scale earning $34,500 and workers on the high end of the pay scale earning in excess of $77,000 per year. The average annual salary comes in at $55,240 for someone with several years of experience, a bachelor’s degree or higher, and who works full-time.

What is the Job Outlook for Public Health Nutritionists?

With a continued interest by many Americans in the role of diet and nutrition in improving health, the field of public health nutrition should continue to experience growth. In fact, the BLS estimates that the need for public health nutritionists will grow by 21% through 2022, which is faster than most occupational areas. Also fueling the growth of public health nutrition is the rise of obesity in America, and along with it health issues such as heart disease and diabetes. These conditions, although unfortunate, will continue to keep up the demand for qualified health nutritionists.

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