Nutrition Degree Programs Offer Many Choices: Learn What You’ll Study

Learn which courses and degree levels are required to work as a nutritionist.

What degree levels are available?

At a minimum, nutritionists need a bachelor’s degree in nutrition or a related field in order to practice. As part of your education, you’ll likely intern for several hundred hours under the supervision of an expert in the field. Certificate programs are also a valid option for aspiring nutritionists.

Many nutritionists and dietitians eventually go on to earn their master’s degree to stay competitive and expand their expertise.

Bachelor’s Degree Programs

A four-year bachelor of science (BS) in nutrition will adequately prepare you to work in a variety of settings, including schools, food manufacturers and in research. Most programs teach major principles, such as communication and management, which are integral to a career in nutrition.

If you’re goal is to become a registered dietitian (RD), which requires more training and licensure, carefully research the program you’re interested in. Some programs are not designed to prepare you to work immediately as a dietitian. Instead, the undergraduate degree prepares you for a graduate level education to become an RD.

Example of BS in Nutrition Courses

To get a better understanding of what to expect from a BS program, Framingham State University offers the following course work:

  • Food, Culture and Society
  • Nutrition for Sports and Exercise
  • Human Nutrition Science
  • Foodservice Systems
  • Geriatric Nutrition
  • Community Nutrition

Your undergraduate program will also include general education requirements like college math, humanities and English.

Master’s Degree Programs

When searching for a master of science in nutrition (MS) degree program, you will come across many graduate dietitian programs, which prepares students to become an RD. This is not the same as an MS in nutrition. If you’re more interested in a holistic approach—dietetics is more clinical in nature—an MS in nutrition is the degree you’re looking for.

Graduate programs in nutrition are more focused and give students an opportunity to choose a specialization, such as public health or exercise. For example, at Teachers College at Columbia University, there are several tracks to choose from: Nutrition and Education, Nutrition and Public Health, Nutrition and Exercise Physiology and Community Nutrition Education.

Each of these offshoots of the MS prepares students for a specific area in the nutrition field. As an example of graduate level coursework, Teacher’s College offers the following classes:

  • Food, Nutrition and Behavior
  • Women and Weight, Eating Problems and Body Image
  • Advanced Nutrition
  • Nutrition and Human Development

Graduate programs typically require a practicum, thesis, internship, field work and last about two years.

What certification will I need?

Dietitian and nutritionist are sometimes used interchangeably, but their education, licensing and certification are what sets them apart from each other. Most states require dietitians be licensed through the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR).

Nutritionists, who have fewer training requirements, should check with their individual state on licensing and certification requirements. Some states have stricter laws on the nutritionist practice.

The Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board (HNCB), an arm of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP), offers a board exam to become certified in holistic nutrition.

To be eligible, you’ll have to complete studies in holistic nutrition. Other eligibility requirements differ based on whether you’re a new graduate or already working in the field.

What will I learn in my courses?

A degree program in nutrition will cover a breadth of topics to prepare you for a career in nutrition. While some programs offer specializations or concentrations, like public health or geriatric nutrition, you’ll gain extensive knowledge in the following areas:

  • Health and wellness
  • Scientific principles of food
  • Nutrition research
  • Disease prevention and treatment
  • Psychological/sociological principles of eating
  • Management

What accreditation is there for my program?

Accreditation is the seal of approval a program receives when it meets nationally-recognized standards. Attending an accredited school tells future employers that you’ve received an education that adequately prepares you to work in your chosen field.

Schools with nutrition programs may be accredited by regional accreditation boards and others are accredited in a certain specialization. For example, Teachers College at Columbia University is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Diabetics Education.

Not only is accreditation important for your future endeavors, but it also opens the door to federal financial aid opportunities.

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