Nutrition degrees are available from the associate through doctoral levels, although the doctorate is less common. These programs usually don't prepare graduates to take the registered dietitian exam, although some do offer an additional option for that purpose.
An associate's degree program in nutrition is designed to prepare students for entry-level careers, such as a food service assistant or dietitian's assistant; however, some prepare graduates for transfer to a bachelor's degree program. Both associate's and bachelor's degree programs usually include coursework in food service management, food science and nutrition. Graduates of bachelor's-level programs can pursue careers as nutritionists, or they can gain extra education and internship experience to qualify for registered dietitian (RD) certification.
Those who want to become a nutrition teacher, food service manager or nutritional consultant can pursue further education with a master's degree in nutrition. Flexible programs with online coursework are available, and students take courses related to their interests, such as health counseling, nutrition marketing and nutrition research. Graduates can pursue specialty certifications.
A high school diploma is required for associate's and bachelor's degrees, while a bachelor's degree is needed for a master's program.
Associate Degree in Nutrition
Most nutritionist associate degree programs prepare students for bachelor's degree programs in nutrition. Many associate degree programs specifically include courses that allow graduates to enroll in a bachelor's degree program after graduation. Others are more general and may focus on jobs in hospitality settings. Education prerequisites for associate degree programs in nutrition are a high school diploma or its equivalent. Programs are largely science based, although those slanted towards hospitality usually have fewer science requirements. Required courses often include:
- Anatomy and physiology
- Basics of nutrition
- Food production
Bachelor's Degrees in Nutrition
Bachelor's degree programs in nutrition are designed to prepare graduates for more specialized studies. Programs usually offer foundations in nutrition and food science, as well as in food industries and food service management. Bachelor's degree programs are often coordinated with associate degree programs from community colleges to allow a seamless transition from the lower degree. Educational prerequisites are the same as for associate degree programs, a high school diploma or an approved equivalent. In addition to courses available in an associate degree program, bachelor's degree program coursework might include:
- Accounting for managers
- Advanced nutrition
- Food handling safety
- Food science
- Health and wellness
Master's Degree in Nutrition
Many master's degree programs in nutrition offer more coursework flexibility than undergraduate programs. This permits students to design a program that fits their professional goals. Some programs are available entirely online. While most programs do not prepare graduates to earn an American Dietetic Association credential, schools with the most flexible program planning might allow a design that includes the accreditation option.
All nutritionist degree programs require applicants to have earned a bachelor's degree. Some programs also expect GRE scores. Previous courses required by some programs include basic nutrition, biochemistry and physiology. There is a wide variety of coursework available in master's degree programs for prospective nutritionists. Courses available include:
- Cardiovascular nutrition
- Diabetes and nutrition
- Eating disorders and nutritional therapy
- Energy and metabolizing proteins
- Food science and nutrition research
- Marketing nutrition to specific populations
Graduates of associate degree programs in nutrition may be eligible for entry-level jobs in fitness centers, community health centers, hospitals or nursing homes. Job titles for graduates include food service assistant, assistant nutrition educator, and nutritional product salesperson. Holders of master's degrees in nutrition often have more job options than those with undergraduate degrees. Even without the registered dietitian (RD) designation, job opportunities might include health maintenance organization (HMO) health educator, private nutritional counselor or consultant and nutrition teacher in a community college. Possible careers in nutrition include:
- WIC program staff member
- Dietitian's assistant
- Nutritional product salesperson
- Food service manager
Employment Outlook and Salary Info
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted a job increase of 16% for nutritionists from 2014-2024 (www.bls.gov). A larger and older population was one factor in this predicted growth, as was an increase of public interest in health and nutrition. The mean annual wage of nutritionists and dietitians was $58,410 in May 2015.
Nutritionists often take the necessary extra education to qualify for the examination to become a registered dietitian (RD). This may include additional courses and an internship. Those who have earned an associate degree in nutrition will wish to advance their opportunities in the field by acquiring a bachelor's degree in nutrition or dietetics. Others may choose to simply keep abreast of the field by taking regular or occasional continuing education classes in nutrition. Graduates with a bachelor's degree in nutrition may also be eligible for membership in the Society for Nutrition Education (SNE) and the American Society for Nutrition (ASN). Professional organizations such as these often offer continuing education programs and other modes for professional development.
Continuing education and professional development for nutritionists offers more career opportunities. For example, membership in the National Association of Sports Nutrition (NASN) offers the opportunity to become a licensed specialist in sports nutrition with regular opportunities for continuing education. Another organization is the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN), which offers certification as a nutrition support clinician. This group also offers continuing education programs.
Students interested in pursuing a nutritionist degree can do so at the associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctorate levels. Graduates can pursue careers not only as nutritionists but dietician's assistants, food service managers and more.