What Does a Career in Nutrition Entail?
Becoming a nutritionist is more than telling people what to eat. Instead, it’s all about approaching health from a holistic point of view. Nutritionists work with clients on an individual basis assess their health and come up with a set of realistic goals aimed at improving overall health. Additionally, a nutritionist works to support their clients through regular meetings and tracks progress over time.
But not all nutritionist careers look the same. It’s important to remember that there are many different types of clients, with different needs. Some nutritionists might work exclusively with patients struggling with their weight or those with diabetes or other chronic health issues. Other may work as more of an all-around health coach—using things like yoga and mindfulness in a broader health strategy.Read More
Nutritionists are experts trained in all things food and nutrition. Their job is to help patients make healthier choices, plan menus, and provide guidance on the effects of certain types of food. Nutritionists work with clients to help them deal with chronic health problems, food allergies, or just to become healthier.
Pursuing a career as a nutritionist opens up several opportunities for degree holders. Many nutritionists are self-employed, seeing clients in a private practice setting. Others work in hospitals or clinics, and some even find work connecting with clients on the web. In today’s world, there’s an increasing need for health education—obesity is at an all-time high and making the right nutritional choices can help patients avoid costly healthcare bills down the line.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nutritionists earned a median annual wage of $56,950, while the top 10% of earners made about $80,000. The agency also reported that jobs within the nutritionist field were expected to rise by 21% between 2012 and 2022. Between an aging population and an increased demand for healthy, organic foods, now is a great time to become a nutritionist.
Below, we’ll look more closely at what it takes to become a nutritionist and what kind of education path you should pursue.
Healthcare Degree & Career Paths
Components of A Successful Career in Nutrition
The majority of dietitians and nutritionists have a bachelor’s degree and a certification. This job involves working hands-on with patients, assessing their nutrition as it relates to their health and personal goals. Nutritionists work to develop meal plans, educate those they work with, and promote healthy habits. They’ll also document patients’ progress and create custom strategies for better health.
To be successful, nutritionists should possess an in-depth knowledge of nutritional concepts, food allergies, and understand how food interacts with the body. You’ll have to interact with people closely, so interpersonal skills are a must. Those who wish to open a private practice will need some entrepreneurial know-how, as well.
How to Earn a Degree in Nutrition
Typical Nutrition Degree Requirements
A bachelor’s degree in nutrition is your first step into this field, as this degree is the entry-level requirement for working as a full-fledged nutritionist. Bachelor’s programs, both online and off, will focus on nutrition science, wellness, community education, and anatomy and physiology, among other relevant coursework. Additionally, bachelor’s candidates must complete a series of general education requirements to earn their degree, which might include a foreign language, humanities courses, science, or math.
Admission requirements will depend on the school, though you’ll need to have completed your high school diploma or a GED. In many cases, students will need to submit transcripts, letters of recommendation, or SAT/ACT scores.
Typical Nutrition Certifications Needed
Nutritionist requirements vary by state. However, in most cases, nutritionists must complete a bachelor’s degree, gain a certain amount of work experience, and pass a licensing exam. There are also a few types of certifications you can pursue. The most common option is the Registered Dietitian Nutrition credential, which allows you to work in a clinical setting. RDNs focus primarily on diets and meal planning and the evaluation of food standards.
Bachelor’s degree holders may also choose to pursue a Certified Clinical Nutritionist certification, or CCN. CCNs are highly qualified nutritional professionals that have a master’s degree in nutrition or have completed a bachelor’s degree and a 900+ hour internship. CCNs look at how food affects the body on a biochemical level and work with patients to determine the best diet for their unique physical makeup.
Finally, students with an advanced degree may choose to become a Certified Nutrition Specialist, which is the most advanced nutrition credential available. Students must have completed a master’s or doctoral level degree in nutrition or related field. Many MDs also choose to obtain this credential to advance their expertise.
Academic Standards for Nutrition Degree
In general, academic standards involve completion of a four-year degree—typically 120-130 credit hours. Students will complete general education requirements like liberal arts courses, math, and science, as well as nutrition-specific work. Upon completion of a bachelor’s degree, students who want to become a registered dietitian nutritionist will need to complete an internship, which will take place throughout a calendar year.
Exam/Experience Needed for Nutrition Degree
Nutritionist credentials vary by state. In most cases, you’ll need to have a bachelor’s degree to enter the field but earning your RDN may help you increase your chances of employment. While it’s not necessarily a legally binding requirement, it’s easier to get work in this business if you’re certified. To sit for the RDN exam, you’ll need to meet some requirements first. For one, you must have completed a bachelor’s degree from an ACEND accredited institution. Two—you’ll need to complete a minimum of 1200 supervised hours in the form of an ACEND accredited internship.
Another option is earning an online certificate. With nutrition and wellness, there are countless programs aimed at preparing professionals to work with all kinds of people, as well work within a variety of settings. While you will need a bachelor’s degree to work as a registered dietician or nutritionist, certificate holders may work in a consulting role, as a health coach, or in an outpatient facility. Additionally, professionals who are already degree holders may opt for a nutrition certificate to expand their knowledge, as the field is always changing.
Important Questions to Ask
How long does it take to earn a Nutrition bachelor's degree online?
Full-time students can expect to earn their online nutrition degree in roughly four years, just like their on-campus counterparts. In some cases, students may choose to find a program that will allow them to move at an accelerated pace, but keep in mind, if you decide to go this route, you’ll pay more tuition in a lump sum. Additionally, consider the amount of coursework that comes with a heavier load and how it fits into your existing lifestyle. Chances are, if you’re looking into an online program, you work full-time or have family responsibilities, so that extra time may be a big factor.
If you wish to become a registered dietician, the process can take about five years total. Much like obtaining a teaching credential, aspiring nutritionists will first need to complete a four-year program, which is generally 120-130 credit hours and, after graduating, will need to complete an internship. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics typically plays a role in matching graduates to internships, where grads will spend a year gaining work experience before sitting for their credentialing exam.
How much does a Nutrition bachelor’s degree cost?
The average cost for a bachelor’s degree in nutrition is $23,500 per year. Programs range from about $8000 per year to $80,000, with pricing dependent on in-state or out-of-state tuition, whether the school is public or private, and where its located.
Online programs might save students a bit of money, as they won’t be adding transportation and housing costs to the total bill, but they may come with other fees like technology fees.
Does the school have the major(s) you’re considering?
To earn your credential, you will need to major in nutrition, dietetics, nutritional sciences, or a related discipline. As such, it’s vital that you choose a school that provides an opportunity to take the classes required to help you reach your goals.
How many students graduate “on time,” in four years?
Nutrition is a practical degree, meaning it provides a specialized training that lays the groundwork for a career, should you follow the prescribed steps—bachelor’s degree, internship, and sitting for the certification exam. As such, it’s important to look for a school that sets students up for success. Aside from mentions on the website or assurance from an advisor, the graduation rate could be a sign that a school works with students to achieve their goals or leaves them to their own devices.
Graduation rates aren’t the most critical measure of a quality program, not by a long shot. Instead, they’re one piece of the puzzle, one that indicates whether a program is too expensive doesn’t offer the right resources or makes it hard to enroll in required classes.
What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How is it regarded in the field?
When looking at nutrition programs, you’ll want to find a school that is both regionally accredited and recognized by ACEND. Of course, it’s also smart to look for the most competitive school that fits your budget and your academic achievements thus far. Start your search by looking at things like faculty experience, graduation rates, whether the school focuses on research or academics, and alumni outcomes.
- Analytical skills
Nutritionists must be able to look at patients with health issues and develop meal plans that match up with their unique needs. Additionally, they need to be able to interpret scientific studies and understand how they fit into a more substantial framework of nutritional science. Nutritionists may need to help clients understand where food allergies and sensitivities are coming from and how to cope with those challenges.
Dietitians and nutritionists need to explain complex topics to their clients on a regular basis to get them to adopt healthy habits. Plans and goals must be communicated in a way that makes sense to patients from all backgrounds and education levels so that nutritional goals can be met with ease.
- Commitment to Learning
Dietitians and nutritionists should be naturally curious. Nutritional science is always changing—and as such, professionals should continually attend training, learn about new diets, read up on the latest research, and more.
- Organizational Skills
There are a lot of moving pieces to account for as a nutritionist. You’ll not only need to understand the nutritional impact of various foods, but you’ll also need to consider them in the context of each patient. Self-employed nutritionists will need to maintain a calendar and potentially, promote their business.
An associate degree in nutrition provides students with an overview of basic concepts, as well as some experience aimed at preparing them for a career in the field. While students with only an AA are not qualified to become a licensed dietician or registered nutritionist, they may be able to find work as a dietic technician. Or, those who complete their AA can go on to study at a four-year program to pursue a bachelor’s degree and licensure.
- Human Anatomy and Physiology
- Intro. To Nutrition
- Science of Food
- Intro. To Evidence Based Practice
A bachelor’s degree is required for anyone who wants to become a registered dietician. The four-year program will cover nutrition theory—which looks at our relationship with food, food science, nutritional best practices, counseling, and education. A nutrition program should train students to work in the field, although the learning doesn’t stop after graduation. Should you wish to pursue a career as a registered nutritionist, you will need to earn a credential. While requirements vary by state, you can pursue Certified Nutrition Specialist credential or a Registered Dietician Nutritionist credential. Both options may help broaden your employment possibilities.
- Intro. To Modern Chemistry
- Food Management Theory
- Food and Identity
- Nutrition Biochemistry
- Diet Assessment and Planning
Bachelor’s Degree in Nutrition Concentrations:
Nutrition Science, Lifestyle Nutrition
A Master’s degree in nutrition will explore more advanced topics, homing in on nutrition theories and a deeper dive into the science of food and nutrition. Some master’s programs focus on a particular area of nutrition, like clinical applications or community education.
- Intermediary Metabolism of Macronutrients
- Biochemical Aspects of Nutrition, I & II
- Intro. To Nutritional Epidemiology
- Nutrition and Physical Performance
Master’s Degree in Nutrition Concentrations:
Public Health – Nutrition, Nutrition Science, Nutrition Education, Obesity and Eating Disorders, Clinical Practice, Geriatrics, and Exercise Physiology
Earning Potential for Nutrition Degree Fields and Occupations
Some schools offer an associate degree in nutrition, but these programs are better suited for students looking to start their educational journey at a community college and go on to study at a four-year program. In some cases, associate degree holders might find work at a health club, clinic, or wellness center, but the median income for nutrition professionals at this level is about $25k per year.
Graduates with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition will come away from their education with the ability to pursue a variety of career paths, from dietitian to food scientist, or community educator. Hospitals and health clinics tend to employ the highest percentage of nutritionists. A bachelor’s in nutrition is considered the entry-level education needed to work in this field, so we recommend pursuing a four-year degree if this is something you’re thinking about seriously. Those with a bachelor’s degree and an RDN certification earn a median income of about $54k, while those with a master’s degree make a bit more—averaging around $60k annually. In most cases, your best bet is earning a bachelor’s degree and getting a certification. Still, if you’d like to combine your know-how with a related field—say public health or food science, then it might be worth pursuing the master’s degree.
Nutrition Fields of Study Median Salaries
Fields of Study Nutrition
|Field of Study||Associate||Bachelors||Masters|
|Nutrition and Dietetics||$36,000||$58,000||$82,000|
A bachelor’s degree in public health provides students with the skills needed to work within a variety of fields in the public health sector. While there’s some overlap with a traditional nutrition degree, this field of study focuses more on the socio-cultural and socio-economical aspects of health, rather than individualized meal plans or coaching. This major is ideal for students interested in social justice and helping the community and will lay the groundwork for an advanced degree in public health or a role in a government agency or non-profit.
Nutrition science majors will look at how food affects the body and will study all aspects of the subject matter through coursework that looks at human anatomy and physiology, dietetics, clinical nutrition, microbiology, food chemistry, and more. This major will prepare students for a role that focuses on working with clients and educating people on how to manage chronic conditions, lose weight, or become healthier. Nutritionists may find work in a range of industries—from working in a clinic to working in food manufacturing, research, or as a chef.
Nutrition and Dietetics
Nutrition and dietetics programs are aimed at preparing students for a role as an entry-level dietitian nutritionist, or RDN. As you work toward your bachelor’s degree, you’ll look at a variety of areas such as nutritional science, food science, food production, nutrition education, chemistry, physiology, and more. Students typically complete 120+ credit hours and go on to an internship—after gaining some hands-on experience, graduates may sit for the RDN exam.
Food science is a hands-on field of study that prepares students for work in food manufacturing and related industries. This major is more lab-based science than a nutrition and dietetics program. While there is some overlap, food science majors will primarily learn about food processing, food chemistry, safety, and risk analysis, with some nutrition courses in the mix, too.
Nutrition Salaries by Occupation
Annual Salary by Occupation (Range)
|Occupation||Entry-Level Salary Range||Mid-Career Salary Range||Late-Career Salary Range|
|Registered Dietitian Nutritionist||$49,000||$60,000||$72,000|
|Corporate Wellness Consultant||$50,000||$57,000||$65,000|
|Public Health Worker||$55,000||$66,500||$75,000|
Registered Dietician Nutritionist RDN
Registered dieticians generally work with clients directly. They may counsel people about their food choices or help them develop meal plans and an overall strategy for managing health for the long term.
RDNs also monitor patients' progress, making adjustments accordingly, or conduct research. This professional may also work within a specialization like weight loss, pediatric nutrition, or with diabetes patients.
Food scientists work to improve food safety, nutritional value, or flavor of food products. Or, they might work with brands to develop new food products.
Additionally, a food scientist might look for ways to improve food quality, while at the same time, cutting costs. While many positions require candidates to have an advanced degree, some entry-level jobs are available to applicants with bachelor's degrees.
Corporate Wellness Consultant
Workplace wellness is on the rise thanks to high healthcare costs and the link between health and productivity. As such, many businesses are adopting wellness programs and hiring coaches to help employees stay healthy by developing better exercise and eating habits.
Consultants may offer tips on nutrition and health, develop meal plans, or educate workers on how to combat stress on the job.
Clinical dietitians work within a hospital setting, clinic, or health center and typically have an RDN certification. In this role, dietitians develop nutritional plans that improve patient outcomes during their treatment at that facility.
This role involves evaluating the dietary requirements and challenges on a personalized basis. From there, dietitians design custom meal plans that help patients meet their health goals, while also keeping convenience and taste in mind.
Public Health Worker
A background in nutrition and food can open doors to opportunities in public health nutrition. Within this role, you'll apply your nutrition knowledge to improve public health efforts from designing programs and policies, to working to educate the community. A public health nutritionist usually has their RDN credential and may have a background in public health as well.
Nutritional therapists work with patients to prevent disease, as well as manage symptoms linked to chronic illnesses. This role generally falls within the holistic nutrition space, rather than in a clinical setting. However, a nutritional therapist may provide a similar service to an RDN--and they may even have that certification.
Amount: $4,000 (5 Awards)
Deadline: May 31
This scholarship is awarded to a full-time college junior or senior enrolled in an agricultural or food science program. Students must be interested in poultry or food science, nutrition, and be pursuing a career in food.
American Dietetics Association Scholarship
Deadline: Beginning in February
The ADA awards scholarships to students on an as-needed basis. Awards range from $500 to $10,000 and will go to qualified nutrition or public health students.
NIH Undergraduate Scholarships Program
Amount: Up to $20,000 annually
Deadline: March 31
The National Institutes of Health provides awards of up to $20,000 to financially disadvantaged undergrads.
Students must be pursuing health-related programs in biomedical, behavioral, or social sciences. What’s more, students who receive this honor may also have the opportunity to train at the NIH during a paid summer internship and may qualify for a paid position upon graduating.
Campus Safety, Health and Environmental Management Organization (CSHEMA) Scholarship
Deadline: March 31
The CSHEMA offers a $2,000 scholarship to undergraduate students pursuing a degree in public health, nutrition, biochemistry, environmental health, nursing, medicine, occupational health, and other related disciplines. Applicants must be enrolled in a full-time undergraduate program to qualify.
Society of Public Health Education Scholarship
Deadline: November 30
SOPHE’s The Vivian Drenckhahn Student Scholarship goes to two full-time students each year—an undergraduate and a graduate student. To qualify, students must be SOPHE members with impressive academic records and a commitment to advancing the profession of public health. Additionally, students must demonstrate financial need to qualify.
Professional Nutrition Organizations
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is the nation’s largest organization for nutrition professionals. This organization offers scholarships for nutrition students in all 50 states, as well as advocacy and policy information, continuing education information, employment opportunities, and more.
What’s more, the AND isn’t just a resource for professionals and students. They also provide dietary guidelines to clinical nutritionists to pass along to clients. For example, a dietician can pull up the latest thinking on what pregnant women or kids with food allergies should eat.
American Nutrition Association
The American Nutrition Association is one of the more reputable organizations in the country regarding all things nutrition. This association is especially useful for students seeking resources to bolster their education.
For professionals at every stage, this organization brings together clinical nutritionists, scientists, and educators to advance the knowledge and application of nutrition for humans and animals alike.
American Council on Science and Health
The American Council on Science and Health is another reliable resource for people looking for a reputable source for the latest thinking on nutrition and good health. Becoming an ACSH member means you’ll have access to a database of up-to-date information, as well as contact with organizers, networking opportunities, and more.
National Association for Nutrition Professionals
The National Association for Nutrition Professionals or NANP is the primary resource in the US for holistic nutrition. This organization offers support to independent professionals, as well as larger organizations and provides access to information for those working in the field. Additionally, the NANP offers certification options for those seeking additional expertise in holistic nutrition.
American Society for Nutrition Foundation
The American Society for Nutrition is a non-profit organization that brings researchers, nutritionists, and scientists together to increase scientific thinking on the topic. The organization provides a wealth of resources including continuing education, job opportunities, meetings, events, and publications.
Choosing an Accredited College
Accredited online nutrition programs exist at the associate, bachelor’s and master’s levels and are designed to provide students with the practical experience needed to excel as dietitians, educators, or public health professionals.
As you begin researching programs, you’ll want to look at schools with regional accreditation, as well as the nutrition-specific Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) accreditation. ACEND designations signify that a school meets the state’s nutrition education requirements and that the program provides coursework in line with best practices backed by science. There are many wellness certification programs and holistic nutrition programs out there as well, but these offerings might not be seen as credible by the scientific community and might prevent you from being able to earn an RDN unless you complete a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, as well.
Online vs. On-Campus vs. Hybrid
When looking into nutrition programs, you’ll want to be careful with online courses. There are a lot of certificate programs out there that aim to help you jump-start a career in this industry, and many of those options might not be accredited. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t find an online bachelor’s program from a reputable school, you’ll just need to do some digging.
We recommend looking into your state’s public colleges and universities, as well as private schools with regional accreditation. These options are your “traditional” schools, where you might go for an on-campus experience. We say this because you have the option to earn most of your degree online but take an in-person class here and there. Or, maybe you’re on the fence when it comes to deciding whether you want to take courses online or on-campus.
On-campus programs will provide a more traditional college experience, as you’ll either live on campus or commute from nearby. The main benefit of completing your coursework in person is, you’ll be able to connect with fellow students and faculty.
The other thing to consider is, the fact that pursuing this career path may involve in-person training—internships, lab work, and different types of hands-on training. As such, you should be prepared to make other arrangements if you’re working full-time. Still, many classes may be completed online—general education courses, for example, as well as some of the more research-intensive courses.
Does the College Have Post-Graduate Job Placement Help & Assistance?
A Bachelor of Science in nutrition will open the door to many career opportunities, particularly if you earn your RDN credential. Still, some schools provide more guidance than others. While researching programs, it’s a wise move to review the full picture. Find out what professional development resources are available—for example, is there an advisor for helping students navigate the process of getting their credential? Is there a career center or alumni network? Speak with an advisor, but also look at graduate reviews—they may prove more revealing.
Why You Need to Consider How Rating/Accreditation Can Affect Your Salary
For starters, if you go to a school that does not have certification, employers may not recognize your degree as valid. This will also affect your ability to enroll in a graduate program, get your RDN credential, or work in a healthcare setting. There are plenty of people who have credentials from unaccredited programs—and in these cases, some find work as private coaches or consultants. That said, potential clients may want to see that your nutrition background came from a reputable institution. Especially in a field like nutrition, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around, and as such, a poor rating can have a negative impact on earning potential, reputation, and ability to land a job. Again, schools with an ACEND accreditation and regional accreditation will be your best choices.