What are Nutritionists and Dieticians?
Nutritionists and dieticians advise clients and patients on how their eating habits affect their health. These professionals use special software programs to create meal plans, conduct research about health and nutrition, and share their findings with individuals and the public. They work in hospitals, long-term care facilities, schools and a variety of other settings. For more information, see our nutritionist and dietician career pages.
Nutrition-Dietetics Program Information
Dietetics and nutrition programs are available at universities and colleges as on-campus, online or hybrid programs that combine in-person training with online coursework. Classes explore the latest nutrition and health research and show students how to help others improve their health. Students learn how to evaluate trends in nutrition, advise others about their health and navigate food management software systems. Coursework could include nutrition, physiology, chemistry and biology.
For nutritionists or dieticians, many states require several hundred hours of supervised training. Usually, this requirement is fulfilled through an internship following college graduation. However, some nutrition schools include this as part of student coursework. Internships can provide first-hand experience in advising clients and patients under the guidance of trained supervisors.
Prospective students with less time to spend in school can look into associate degree programs focused on dietetic technician training. Technicians work under the supervision of a dietician, helping with various aspects of food service and nutritional programs.
Nutrition-Dietetics Program Types
An associate degree is sufficient for those seeking work as a dietetic technician. A bachelor's degree is the minimum academic credential for dieticians and nutritionists, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov/ooh, 2012), but graduate degrees are common. Nutrition schools offer a choice of degree programs, such as the following.
Associate in Science (A.S.):
- Usually, an associate degree may take two years, depending on the program and the student's schedule.
- Associate degree programs are designed to prepare students to become dietician technicians.
- Programs are found at community colleges and technical or trade schools, either on campus or online.
Bachelor of Science (B.S.):
- Typically, a full-time student can complete a bachelor's degree in four years.
- Most employers require nutritionists and dieticians to have bachelor's degrees.
- Undergraduate studies include general education subjects such as English in addition to one's major.
Master of Science (M.S.):
- Full-time students can usually complete studies in about two years, after earning a bachelor's degree.
- Students who wish to advance to administrative and other high-level positions may earn this degree.
- This degree also can count toward continuing education needed to maintain professional credentials.
- The time required depends on the student's academic background, experience and schedule.
- Doctoral studies may blend nutrition and dietetics with other disciplines such as public health or biostatistics.
- Programs may focus on medical nutrition science or interdisciplinary studies aimed at leadership roles in academia, industry or government.
Most states require nutritionists and dieticians to be licensed, either through their state or through the Commission on Dietetic Registration, which awards the Registered Dietitian (RD) credential. Licensure requires the passing of standardized exams. It's important to research a state's specific regulations, as these may vary.
Nutrition-Dietetics Course Descriptions
While nutrition schools may have different training methods, many share a common core curriculum. Some programs allow students to specialize in a specific area of nutrition, but the following represent typical courses:
- Food Science: Biological and social science of food and the evaluation of food systems
- Nutrition Principles: Influences of nutrition on individuals and the study of nutritional analysis methods and equipment, including nutritional software programs
- Anatomy and Physiology: The study of the human body, especially the functions of the body's systems, including cellular, skeletal, muscular and nervous
- Nutritional Biochemistry: Physiochemical aspects of the body's responses to different types and quantities of food
- Food Safety and Microbiology: Food safety, sanitation and microorganisms that can cause illness
Many nutrition programs offer specialty courses in a particular field. Additionally, specialty training can be gained through continued education courses, such as those found online. Specialty areas of nutrition include:
- Prenatal, postpartum and lactation nutrition
- Disease-focused nutrition, such as for cancer patients
- Infant, child and adolescent nutrition
- Nutrition for allergies, food intolerance and hypoglycemia
- Sports nutrition
- Nutrition management for eating disorders
Employment opportunities can vary depending on training and experience. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2012, the median annual salary of U.S. dieticians and nutritionists was more than double the salary of dietetic technicians (bls.gov/oes, 2013).
Related Career Options
Completing a dietetics program may drive students to pursue other career options outside of traditional nutritionist positions. Additional education and/or experience may apply. Examples include:
- Health Educators: Teach people how health-related lifestyle choices affect their health. These educators usually have a bachelor's degree in the field and may also be certified.
- Fitness Trainers: Help individuals of all ages achieve better levels of fitness, through different types of exercise and nutrition.
Links to Sources and Associations
The following websites offer more information about nutritionists and dieticians: