Nutrition & Dietitian Degree Programs

The Basics

Imagine living a life in which you have very little food to eat. Actually, it might not be all that difficult to imagine what being hungry is like given that nearly 800 million people in the world are malnourished. But even for some people that do have enough to eat – particularly in western nations like the United States – there is still a struggle to get the nutrition that’s needed to help the body function at its best.

In fact, poor dietary choices have led to an epidemic of obesity in the U.S., with one in three adults being considered overweight. Though there are additional factors that can cause obesity, the modern diet, which is heavy on artificial ingredients, sugar, and fast foods, certainly shares a large part of the blame.

That means that the study of nutrition is more important than ever. Not only is developing a better understanding of what the body needs and how to provide it necessary to aid starving people the world over, but it’s also important for helping people that do have enough to eat to better understand what foods they should and should not consume.

Why is Nutrition Important?

Nutrition is important because in order to lead a healthy life, one must eat a diet that’s balanced and provides the necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that we need to grow. Food gives our bodies the fuel and energy they need to function from day to day and continue to function properly over the course of our lives. But nutrition isn’t just about “eating healthy.” Instead, nutrition involves eating a balanced diet of many different types and kinds of foods to promote optimal nutrition.

Learning about nutrition is also important such that we have a better understanding of what isn’t nutritious. In other words, it’s not just understanding what we need to eat to be healthy; it’s also understanding how our diets can negatively impact our wellbeing, as was mentioned above. That’s why nutrition is such a popular area of study for students and an ever-growing field of work.

What is a Nutrition Degree?

A nutrition degree provides students with the qualifications they need to work as a professional nutritionist. By obtaining a degree in nutrition, students demonstrate an understanding of basic and complex topics related to eating healthy, including how foods are processed by the body, what foods are good and bad for the body, and how to disseminate that knowledge to others in a meaningful way.

Associate’s Degree

Associate’s degree programs in nutrition are two-year programs that typically require around 60 credits to graduate. It’s best to think of associate’s degrees as the basic introductory coursework one needs to become a professional nutritionist because the employment opportunities with an associate’s degree are somewhat limited.

Associate’s degree programs are usually offered at community colleges, where students might find smaller class sizes and a more individualized learning environment than can be found at most four-year universities. Admissions requirements tend to be more lax for two-year programs as well, with students needing to provide documentation that they’ve graduated from high school or have obtained their GED. Other common requirements at this level include high school GPA and scores on standardized tests like the ACT or SAT.

In a two-year nutrition degree program, students can expect to study the following:

  • General education courses – This includes coursework in English, social sciences, art, physical education, and other “core” areas of study. The purpose of requiring these kinds of courses is to help students develop all-around knowledge and skills that will help them not just in their working lives but in their daily lives as well. For example, students might be required to take a government class such that they develop a broader understanding of our system of government and how it depends on participation by people to succeed.
  • Basic science courses – This includes introductory coursework in biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and so forth. Again, these courses are meant as an introduction – students will build upon the knowledge they learn in these classes in upper division courses in a bachelor’s degree program. For example, a student in a two-year program might take a course in biology, and then as part of their bachelor’s degree program, they might study more specific aspects of biology, like microbiology or biochemistry.
  • Communications – A large part of being a nutritionist is being able to effectively communicate with individuals and groups. As a result, introductory courses in public speaking or interpersonal communications might be required. In these courses, students learn not just how to speak effectively but also how to write well and be active listeners.

Bachelor’s Degree

Bachelor’s degree programs in nutrition typically require around 120 credits to graduate, which, if a student attends school full-time, can be completed in four years. Students that have already completed a two-year degree have a leg up, given that they will already have completed roughly one-half of the required courses, assuming that their credits all transfer to the four-year institution.

Admittance to four-year nutrition programs usually involves one or more of the following:

  • High school GPA or GPA in a two-year program
  • Documentation of graduating from high school, having a GED, or an associate’s degree
  • Scores on standardized tests like the ACT or SAT
  • Letters of recommendation from teachers or professors

Where an associate’s degree program is an introduction to the field of nutrition, a bachelor’s degree program is an in-depth study of nutrition-related topics. In fact, the final two years of a bachelor’s degree program is spent in studies specifically related to one’s major. In this case, that means that students study topics related to:

  • Advanced sciences – Students will likely be required to complete upper-division courses in biology, chemistry, anatomy, and physiology. These courses almost always have a laboratory component in which students are required to participate in classroom learning and then apply their knowledge and skills in a research setting.
  • Food-related courses – Of course, nutritionists must have a solid understanding of foods, and as a result, will be required to take courses in nutrition sciences, dietetics, food service management, and so forth. For example, a student might take a course that focuses solely on the cultural basis of food in order to develop an understanding of how different people eat different foods, why they eat those foods, and how those foods impact their wellbeing.
  • Ethics – Because nutritionists work directly with clients, it’s necessary that they understand how to practice in an ethical manner. This includes studying healthcare-related laws, rights to privacy, confidentiality, and so on.
  • Field experience – Some bachelor’s degree programs in nutrition require students to take part in field experiences, like a practicum or internship. The purpose of these courses is to give students the opportunity to put their learning to the test in the real world under the tutelage of an experienced nutritionist.

Master’s Degree

Where an associate’s degree is an introduction to the field and a bachelor’s degree is a completion of more specific studies in the field, a master’s degree program is an opportunity for a student to specialize in a specific area of nutrition.

Because a master’s degree program is a step above a bachelor’s degree program, the requirements for admission tend to be more stringent. For example, students usually have to meet higher GPA requirements, have higher scores on standardized exams like the Graduate Record Exam, and have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Furthermore, some master’s degree programs in nutrition require applicants to write an essay, meet with admissions officials for an interview, and submit letters of recommendation and a personal statement for evaluation.

Once admitted to a master’s degree program, students can pursue a more specific degree. For example, where their bachelor’s degree might be in nutritional science, their master’s degree might be in Food Science and Human Nutrition or Nutritional Education.

Because of this level of specificity, the coursework that students pursue at the master’s degree level is widely varied. For example, a student that studies food science might take a number of courses on the biology and chemistry of food whereas a student in a nutritional education program might focus more heavily on acquiring the requisite skills to teach others about nutrition.

What is a Sports Nutrition Degree?

A sports nutrition degree unsurprisingly prepares students to apply their knowledge of dietetics and nutrition to the world of sports. Specifically, sports nutrition degrees focus on:

  • Developing nutrition plans for athletes that maximize their body’s intake of essential vitamins, nutrients, and other substances for peak performance.
  • Counseling athletes on what to eat and what foods to avoid, including meal portions, frequency of eating, and so forth.
  • Participating in ongoing research in the field of nutrition, including keeping up on the current best practices for providing nutritional information to athletes.

The most popular type of a sports nutrition degree is a bachelor’s degree. As noted earlier, these programs typically last around four years and are often either focused on nutrition with a specialty in sports nutrition, or are offered as a standalone sports nutrition program.

However, a sports nutrition degree is typically not sufficient for practicing sports nutrition. Instead, one must usually participate in an internship program of 1200 hours under the supervision of a sports nutritionist. Then, depending upon the state in which one lives, licensure or certification as a sports nutritionist might be required.

What is a Holistic Nutrition Degree?

Holistic nutrition degrees focus students’ attention on learning concepts related to helping people live healthier lives through changes to their diet. The term “holistic” is important here because it means that students in such programs aren’t just studying about food and nutrition and their impact on the physical body, but how those things impact their mental, emotional, and behavioral functioning as well.

Students in holistic nutrition degree programs might study:

  • Nutrition and how changes to one’s diet impact one’s physiology, psychology, and behavior.
  • Principles of nutritional counseling, in which students learn how to work with individuals that are ill or unsatisfied with their current level of health to help them improve their overall functioning and wellbeing.
  • Dietary supplements and how one can use supplements to improve the nutritional level of individuals or specific groups of people.

Holistic nutrition is a fairly new area of study, though it seems to be growing rapidly. Though there are associate’s degree programs, bachelor’s degree programs, master’s degree programs, and doctorate programs in this field, the most commonplace degree at this point appears to be the four-year bachelor’s degree.

What is an Online Nutrition Degree Program?

Like more traditional on-campus nutrition degree programs, the point of an online nutrition degree program is to prepare students to use their knowledge and skills to improve the lives of the clients with which they work.

These programs typically have very similar coursework and requirements as their on-campus counterparts. For example, an online associate’s degree program in nutrition will likely require two years of study to complete 60 credit hours. Similarly, an online bachelor’s degree program in nutrition will still be around 120 credit hours and four years to complete.

One of the obvious benefits of online learning, however, is that it can often be undertaken at one’s own pace. So, a student that can accommodate a heavier class schedule might be able to finish their online degree a semester or two faster than if they took the same courses on campus. Likewise, a student that has a very busy life schedule might have to spend an extra semester or two to complete the same coursework.

Another benefit of getting an online nutrition degree is that the costs are typically less than on-campus learning. Since you can learn from home, there’s no added expense for room, board, or transportation. Many students also enjoy being able to learn in the comfort of their own home or having the flexibility of learning from virtually anywhere, so long as they have access to the internet.

Though many online degree programs in nutrition are for associate’s or bachelor’s degrees, there are a growing number of master’s degree programs online. That makes online learning an attractive option for workers that have been in the field for a while and want to return to school to get an advanced degree.

The key to getting an online degree in nutrition is ensuring that the program is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). Accreditation is important not just to ensure that the program is legitimate and has been reviewed by a governing body, but also because a degree from a program that isn’t accredited is not viewed as favorably when it comes time to seek employment.

What Does it Take to Get a Nutrition Degree?

Since students in nutrition programs study a lot of science and how to work with individuals on improving their health, there are a lot of science and communication skills required to successfully complete a degree program. These skills and personal qualities include:

  • Problem-solving skills – Specifically, students in a nutrition program must be able to critically evaluate information related to health, wellness, diet, exercise, and so forth. This might include examining a person’s diet, identifying the foods that are most likely to have a negative impact on the person’s health, and creating a new diet that addresses the person’s most urgent health and dietary needs.
  • Analytical skills – Students that wish to become nutritionists must stay up-to-date on the latest research in the field. This includes knowing how to read and interpret scientific studies on nutrition-related topics. It also means being able to translate scientific jargon into easily understood terms for people that are not as well versed in understanding scientific topics.
  • Communication skills – Nutritionists typically work with individuals or small groups of people. As such, they must be able to effectively communicate complex information. Likewise, they must also have the capacity to listen to the needs of their clients.
  • Compassion – Having health-related issues can be extremely stressful, particularly if those health issues are related to weight and diet. As a result, students in nutrition programs must be able to work compassionately with a wide variety of people and have empathy for their situation.
  • Determination – Though it might not seem at first that careers in nutrition are all that stressful, they certainly can be. Some nutritionists have many obstacles they must overcome, including lack of funding for research or outreach programs, public apathy regarding nutrition, and breaking down misconceptions about healthy eating and living. To deal with the everyday stressors of the job, nutrition students need to develop an attitude of determination that will help them provide the best services to their clients and achieve their career goals.

What Can You Do With a Nutrition Degree?

People with a nutrition degree have a wide range of career options available to them. This includes:

Clinical Dietitian – A clinical dietitian specializes in developing nutritional programs for patients in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, and the like. Clinical dieticians work with patients of all sorts, from individuals that need short-term care as they recover from an accident to individuals that require long-term care due to disability or disease.

Clinical Nutritionist –A clinical nutritionist, not unlike a clinical dietician, is primarily concerned with how the body processes, stores, and discards food, as well as how one’s diet impacts one’s overall wellbeing. Clinical nutritionists, however, tend to have a more research-based focus, such as assessing an individual’s nutritional needs based on medical history, family history, lifestyle, and lab testing.

Management Dietitian – A management dietitian is responsible for planning food programs in settings like public schools, prisons, and hospitals. Workers in this field typically oversee kitchen staff to ensure food is prepared in the proper way and also oversee day-to-day tasks like purchasing food and managing budgets.

How Much Can You Earn With a Nutrition Degree?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics nutritionists earn an average annual wage of $59,410. However, the pay range varies widely, from $36,470 for the lowest ten percent of earners to $82,410 for the highest ten percent of earners (May 2017 data). This variability no doubt is influenced by one’s level of education and experience in the field of nutrition.

Another factor that influences how much nutritionists earn is the place of employment. For example, nutritionists that are employed in outpatient care centers earn an average annual wage of $65,650 while similarly qualified workers in hospitals earn $60,210. Workers in nursing homes and residential care facilities earn even less, at $57,020 per year, on average.

What Careers are Similar to a Nutritionist?

Health Educators and Community Health Workers – People employed as health educators and community health workers strive to help people better understand how to lead a healthy life. This doesn’t just pertain to fostering healthy eating habits, but extends to all realms of health and wellness. Both careers have a focus on working with individuals and communities. This includes conducting research on small and large groups, analyzing data, and developing programs that help people improve their health.

Registered NurseRegistered nurses are typically thought of as nurses in hospitals that attend to the needs of patients. However, RNs are much more than that. Not only are they responsible for providing and coordinating patient care, but they are also responsible for educating their patients about how to properly care for themselves. Likewise, RNs create plans for patient care during hospitalization and recovery, work to educate the community about health-related concerns, and might even teach student nurses about the ins and outs of the career.

Rehabilitation Counselor  – Like nutritionists, rehabilitation counselors work with individuals and groups in an effort to improve their health and wellness. Rehabilitation counselors focus not just on healthy eating, but also on basic principles of living independently. In that regard, workers in this field often work specifically with clients that have some form of disability, be that physical, emotional, mental, or developmental in nature. Their primary goal is to assist their clients in building the knowledge and skills they need to have the best quality of life possible.

Related Reading

Further Reading

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