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For those who are passionate about making a positive difference in public health, there has never been a better time to become a nutritionist. Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows that six in ten adults in the United States have a chronic disease, such as heart disease and diabetes, and four out of ten adults have two or more of these conditions (CDC 2020).
Furthermore, two of the four risk factors for chronic disease are poor nutrition and excessive alcohol consumption. In addition to costing $3.5 trillion a year in healthcare costs, these chronic health conditions have a negative impact on people’s relationships and quality of life. The good news is that many chronic diseases can be prevented through consistent changes in diet and exercise. Enter nutritionists: professionals who help people improve their health, save money, and live longer, healthier, and happier lives through better eating habits.
So what does it take to become a nutritionist? According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. However, professionals with Registered Dietitian (RD) and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) credentials have taken extra steps to demonstrate their competence through earning a degree, completing at least 1,200 hours of supervised experience, and passing a rigorous exam.
RDs and RDNs must earn a bachelor’s degree in dietetics (the study of practical applications of nutrition), nutrition, clinical nutrition, public health nutrition, or a related discipline. Nutritionists with master’s or doctoral degrees may specialize in an area of nutritional health and are positioned to earn higher salaries in leadership or supervisory roles. Data from Career One Stop (2019), an occupational data source sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, shows that 38 percent of nutritionists hold a bachelor’s degree and 28 percent have a master’s degree.
Nutritionists do more than help people manage chronic health conditions. People seek nutritional help for a variety of health-related reasons such as addressing digestive problems, athletic performance, and learning how to prepare healthy meals for family members.
Read on to learn more about degree programs, the career outlook, and required certifications to become a registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN).
Hybrid & Online Nutrition Programs
To meet the needs of working people, hybrid and online nutrition degree programs are available as an alternative to on-campus programs. Hybrid courses feature a combination of on-campus and online coursework while fully online programs deliver lectures, coursework, and interactive activities through a learning management system. Here are three nutrition degree programs offered by regionally-accredited universities, two of which hold programmatic accreditation by ACEND.
Arizona State University (ASU): This fully online 120-credit degree program is designed for students seeking careers in food production, service management, marketing, and health and wellness. Students can begin their studies at different dates during the year and take 40 classes total, spending 7.5 weeks in each class. Please note that while this degree program prepares students for nutrition-related careers, it is not a pathway towards earning an RD or an RDN. ASU features an on-campus bachelor’s of science (BS) in dietetics for those who wish to pursue this career pathway.
Texas Women’s University (TWU): The Nutrition and Food Sciences department offers a 130-credit bachelor of science in nutrition (dietetics). This hybrid program is accredited by ACEND and offers some online course options in addition to courses at TWU’s Denton campus. Featuring small class sizes, courses are taught by knowledgeable and supportive faculty and are designed to prepare students for RDN career pathways.
University of North Carolina: The Gillings School of Global Public Health offers a master of public health and registered dietitian (RD) program. In 2018, this program became one of the first programs in the country to be an ACEND-accredited “Future Education Model” course of study, which is offered both on-campus and online. This two-year program is designed for students to complete a master’s degree, required internship training, and become eligible to sit for the CDR exam to become a registered dietitian (RD). The mission of this program is to prepare future leaders in nutrition and dietetics through didactic coursework and community clinical experiences.
On-Campus Nutrition Programs
A bachelor’s degree is the place to begin a career in nutrition. To prepare students for the RD or the RDN credential, some bachelor’s programs feature a combination of dietetic coursework and a supervised internship, which are often referred to as “coordinated programs.”
Some programs offer specialized certification to serve the nutrition needs of a specific population such as children, adults, patients with specific health needs, or athletes. More detailed information about board certification in these specialization areas is included below.
Nutrition programs are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). Other nutrition programs are offered by colleges or universities with regional or national accreditation. Detailed information about nutrition program accreditation is included below.
Here are three examples of nutrition programs accredited by ACEND which offer bachelors and masters of science degrees in nutrition.
California State University, Northridge: The Department of Family and Consumer Sciences offers a bachelor of nutrition and dietetics and a master’s of science in human nutrition. The mission of the bachelor’s degree program is to prepare students for dietetic internship programs and entry-level positions in clinical, community, and research nutrition. Graduates from this program go on to become RDNs, public policy advocates, researchers, and educators.
University of Central Arkansas: The Department of Family and Consumer Sciences offers three bachelor’s degree programs in nutrition: a bachelor of science in community nutrition, a bachelor of science in dietetics, and a bachelor of science in nutrition sciences. The bachelor of science in dietetics prepares students to become RDs or RDNs, while the other two programs prepare students to become community nutrition practitioners. Two master’s of science (MS) degree options are also available for those who want to further their studies or pursue an internship in nutrition.
University of Delaware: Offering eight separate degree and internship programs in nutrition, the Behavioral Health and Nutrition Division of Health Sciences offers a complete array of educational options for clinical and research-oriented careers in nutrition. In addition to a minor, a bachelor’s degree, and master’s level programs, the University of Delaware offers dietetic internship options. Students who want to study nutrition at the highest level have the option of pursuing doctoral work in nutrition science to earn a PhD.
Core & Elective Nutrition Courses
So what types of courses can be expected in a nutrition degree program? As is the case with most degrees, there are core or general education courses that are covered in the first two years, and elective courses which include a variety of specialized offerings that support core course knowledge in the final two years of a degree program.
Core Courses in Nutrition Degree Programs
Elective Courses in Nutrition Degree Programs
- Communication skills
- Introduction to healthcare systems
- Public healthcare delivery
- Food science
- Environmental health
- Behavioral theories
- Ethics and best practices
- Research and evidence-based methodologies
It is important to note that students pursuing an RD or RDN credential must first complete an ACEND-accredited degree program before beginning a dietetic internship program of 1,200 supervised practice hours. The internship portion of a degree program is separate from the core and elective courses.
Nutritionist Program Accreditation
The importance of accreditation cannot be overstated.
First, students applying to degree programs invest substantial time and financial resources into earning degrees, and accreditation ensures the highest standards of educational quality are met. Second, accreditation not only benefits students, but also employers and future patients of nutritionists—all who can rest assured that an individual has met high standards of academic rigor. What’s more, students who apply for federal aid in the United States are required to attend educational institutions that hold national, regional, or programmatic accreditation.
In the field of dietetics, there are four programmatic accrediting bodies, three of which work together. To start, the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND), is part of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and is overseen by the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA). Together, these organizations provide programmatic accreditation for nutrition and dietetics programs. As of June 2020, ACEND has accredited 213 nutrition and dietetics programs in the United States.
As for related programs, the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) accredits public health degree programs and entire colleges offering public health degrees.
While some nutrition and dietetics may hold programmatic accreditation from one of the organizations above, alternatively other programs may be offered through colleges with regional or national accreditation from one of the organizations approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
Along with other healthcare careers, the nutritionist career field is experiencing rapid career growth. According to the BLS, dietitians and nutritionist careers are growing at a rate of 11 percent, a rate which is nearly double the current rate of growth for all occupations at 5 percent (BLS 2020). Between 2018 and 2028, the BLS predicts that 8,000 new dietitian and nutritionist positions will be created, adding to the 70,900 existing positions in 2018.
How much do nutritionists earn? The answer depends on a number of factors such as the level of experience, the type of employer, and the cost of living in a specific area. The BLS Occupational Employment and Wages report from May 2019 lists the average annual salary for dietitians and nutritionists at $61,270. Wage percentile estimates are as follows:
- 90th percentile: $87,360
- 75th percentile: $74,900
- 50th percentile: $61,270 (median)
- 25th percentile: $50,220
- 10th percentile: $38,890
By comparison, PayScale.com (June 2020), a self-reported aggregator of salary data, lists the average annual salary for dieticians and nutritionists at $50,648 with 152 individuals reporting their salary data.
As for work environments, the BLS shows that most nutritionists work full-time and are employed largely in hospitals, government health agencies, or healthcare facilities. Below is a full list of work environment locations where nutritionists work:
- Hospitals; state, local, and private: 30 percent
- Government: 14 percent
- Nursing and residential care facilities: ten percent
- Outpatient care centers: nine percent
- Self-employed workers: six percent
The location of work is another factor that affects salary data. The states with the highest average annual salaries for dieticians and nutritionists according to the BLS data from May 2019 are:
- California: $77,040
- Alaska: $72,640
- Massachusetts: $72,610
- Hawaii: $71,230
- New Jersey: $70,550
It is worth noting that the five states listed above also have a high cost of living index score as measured by the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC). Job seekers are encouraged to research the cost of living in a particular area and factor it into their salary negotiations.
Nutritionist Licensing & Certification
Although not every state requires a license for nutritionists, 47 states have statutory provisions for professionals using the title of nutritionist or dietician. Since the qualifications to become a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) are often similar to state-level required credentials, nutritionists seeking employment opportunities are encouraged to seek this credential.
The RDN credential is nationally-recognized and administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the agency focused on accreditation for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). To become an RDN, applicants must complete a supervised dietetic internship of 1,200 hours. Some ACEND-accredited bachelor’s degree programs offer supervised experiences that fulfill this certification requirement. Every five years, RDNs are required to recertify and earn 75 continuing education credits.
Credentials for nutritionists and dietitians are as follows:
- RD: Registered Dietitian
- RDN: Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
- LDN: Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist
- CDE: Certified Diabetes Educator
Nutritionists with master’s or doctoral degrees and 1,000 hours of supervised experience have the option of applying to take the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) exam offered by the American Nutrition Association to demonstrate their advanced knowledge. The Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists administers this exam and offers three pathways for nutritionists with advanced or medical degrees to seek this advanced certification.
Lastly, the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) offers certifications in specialized nutrition areas. Nutritionists can earn board certifications in specialized areas such as pediatric critical care nutrition, gerontological nutrition, and oncology nutrition. A complete list of board certifications and specializations is available on the CDR website.