Types of Nutrition Degrees
Nutrition science degrees are available at multiple educational levels. While undergraduate programs introduce students to fundamental concepts in food science, graduate degrees offer the opportunity to specialize in particular areas and generally lead to increased earning potential and employability. Nutrition degrees at different levels vary in terms of coursework, completion length, and future career opportunities. Below are the nutrition degree levels available to students.
Associate Degree in Nutrition
Associate degrees in nutrition are designed to be completed in two years of full-time study, with students primarily taking introductory courses in biology, chemistry, public health, and other food science-related disciplines. Individuals hoping to continue their education can transfer into a bachelor's program after completing an associate degree, while those who want to join the workforce immediately can apply for entry-level nutrition positions. Though an associate degree provides students with options once they graduate, those who want to advance their nutrition career will need further education or certification.
Bachelor's Degree in Nutrition
Students enrolled in a bachelor's level dietetics program gain a foundational grounding in wellness and nutrition, while also taking classes in STEM, social science, and humanities fields. Individuals typically complete these programs in four years of full-time study, during which they take core courses, electives, and general education credits. Many bachelor's programs also require that students complete a capstone project to graduate — typically in the form of a review paper on a topic of their choosing. A bachelor of science in nutrition equips students with the necessary skills to apply for nutrition jobs or advance their education.
Master's Degree in Nutrition
Master's degrees in nutrition include both general and specialized options. Students enrolled in the former complete advanced coursework in health science topics and also strive to develop their research skills. By contrast, those pursuing a specialized graduate program focus on a particular area such as public health, sports dietetics, or pediatric nutrition. Both specialized and general programs can be completed in two years of full-time study. Prospective students should note that a master's in nutrition will soon be required to work as a registered dietitian nutritionist.
Doctoral Degree in Nutrition
Like other programs at this level, a nutrition doctorate trains students to contribute original knowledge in their field. Individuals must take classes in advanced food science topics, pass exams, and complete a dissertation to earn their nutrition doctorate. This degree may be a good option for those who want to conduct original research in food science, engage with the scientific community, or teach at the post-secondary level. However, prospective students should note that graduate study at this level is challenging and may take several years to complete.
What Will You Learn in a Nutrition Degree Program
Nutrition degrees are interdisciplinary in nature, with students taking classes in food science, STEM, and social science disciplines. Alongside completing coursework, they also strive to gain interpersonal, management, and problem-solving skills. While courses vary from school to school, below is a list of classes students can expect to take as part of a nutrition degree.
This is a core class that introduces students to foundational concepts in nutrition and dietetics. Topics include dietary patterns, food culture, human anatomy, and methods to evaluate nutritional outcomes.
Introduction to Nutrition Science
Students enrolled in this course learn how different social and cultural groups interact with food. This class is designed to give individuals an understanding of how religious beliefs, economic opportunities, and societal values shape individual diets and also determine what different communities see as acceptable forms of nutrition. In food safety, faculty introduce basic principles in microbiology with the goal of teaching students about common food-borne illnesses. In addition to explaining how these illnesses can be identified, faculty also cover how to safely handle and prepare food in the service industry. Often listed as an elective, students who take this class explore food delivery in various institutional settings. Most versions of this course incorporate labs in which students observe how meals are prepared in a full-scale kitchen.
Management of Food Service Systems
This course covers how to provide clients with dietary advice. Students explore how to work with individuals who have different nutritional needs, including those with eating disorders or chronic diseases such as diabetes. Students in this class learn to develop meal plans and track clients' progress toward achieving specific health goals.
Concentrations allow students to focus their education in particular areas of nutrition and food science. They are often opportunities for individuals to explore subdisciplines and gain the necessary knowledge to pursue a career path that interests them. Below is a list of some common concentration options for students enrolled in a nutrition program.
The dietetics concentration may be a suitable option for individuals who eventually want to work as licensed dieticians. It features a heavy emphasis on nutrition and biochemistry courses and is designed to give students a robust, scientific understanding of how food affects health, disease prevention, energy, and various other aspects of human health.
Food and Nutrition Entrepreneurship
This concentration blends nutritional science with business concepts. Students learn how to manage food delivery systems in different settings and can graduate prepared for careers in the hospitality industry. The food and nutrition entrepreneurship concentration may also be ideal for those who want to start their own practice or nutrition consultancy.
Students who choose to focus on nutrition and wellness are prepared for entry-level positions in industries such as education, healthcare, and government. They study multiple subjects, including public health, genetics, and sports nutrition. Given that this concentration provides broad training in food science, it may be a useful option for students who plan to pursue a master's or doctoral degree.
Individuals who aspire to work with athletes or as personal trainers may pursue a sports nutrition concentration. This track focuses on how diet can influence energy, physical activity, and human physiology. In addition to studying evidence-based strategies in clinical nutrition, students may also learn about the sports economy, as well as how to counsel clients and work with medical professionals in the field. This concentration typically prepares students to become a Certified Sports Nutritionist Coach.
Is an Online Nutrition Degree Worth It?
Nutrition degrees can pay off in the long term for individuals who want to work in the food science industry. However, prospective students should also evaluate their personal circumstances, financial position, and other commitments — as these factors can also influence whether a nutrition education is worth it. The value of this degree will ultimately vary from student to student, but individuals may consider the following potential pros and cons before deciding to enroll in a nutrition program.
Nutritionists are typically well-compensated. Compared to the U.S. median annual salary of $41,950, these professionals earn a median of $63,090, with the top 10% earning over $90,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Nutrition degrees train students to identify and care for people's needs. For individuals who enjoy working with and helping others, a nutrition degree can lead to a rewarding career in client service.
A nutrition education may be a suitable option for self-employment. While dieticians work for hospitals or schools, they can also open private practices that serve individual clients. This degree may therefore be useful to those who want the business aptitude and food science training to work for themselves.
A nutrition degree alone is not enough to advance a career in this field. For instance, many employers may expect these professionals to be licensed for higher-level positions and nutritionists must take continuing education credits to maintain their credentials to remain competitive.
Becoming a successful dietician takes time and effort. Students with a nutrition education often need to gain several years of experience before they can command a high salary, start their own practice, or work with a pool of dedicated clients. This is unlike other positions — particularly in tech and business sectors — where graduates can find high paying entry-level jobs soon after graduation.
Prospective students should also devote some time to researching whether an online nutrition degree is right for them. Given the flexibility they offer, online programs
may be an excellent option for students who work, care for family members, or have other commitments. However, this learning format may pose a challenge to students who expect a structured learning environment with plenty of support from peers and faculty members.
Is a Nutrition Degree a Good Fit For Me?
Nutrition degrees can be an ideal choice for students who enjoy helping others meet their health and fitness goals. For instance, individuals who enjoy cooperation are likely to do well as nutritionists and dietitians. Furthermore, employers hiring nutritionists commonly seek empathetic problem solvers with the ability to discern people's needs and challenges and help them overcome them through evidence-based strategies. Overall, students who see themselves as creative, collaborative individuals who care about the health of others may find that a nutrition education suits their personality and interests.
Employers hiring nutritionists seek empathetic problem solvers with the ability to discern people's needs and challenges and help them overcome them through evidence-based strategies.
Nutrition Degree Scholarships
Like on-campus learners, individuals pursuing an online degree in nutrition are typically eligible for federal, state, and private forms of financial aid. They can also apply for student loans — though it's important to explore free forms of funding first as these don't have to be repaid. In cases where borrowing is unavoidable, students should look into federal loans because these offer the most favorable repayment plans.
To apply for aid, online students should begin by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This helps determine how much assistance an individual is eligible for based on their personal and financial circumstances. Online students can contact their prospective schools' financial aid departments to determine which funding opportunities are open to them, and whether they need to meet additional eligibility criteria. They may also consider applying for the following grants and scholarships.
These awards are open to both undergraduate and graduate students pursuing a degree in food science. Application requirements vary by scholarship, but students typically need to be enrolled for at least four months in a nutrition degree program.
- Award amount: $500-$25,000
The Foundation of the Institute of Food Technologies (IFT) provides aid to students pursuing a bachelor's in a food science or related field. This award is open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors with a minimum 3.0 GPA who are enrolled in an IFT-approved school. These awards are open to undergraduate students in their third year of college. Applicants must demonstrate interest in a food or drug-related career and have a minimum cumulative 3.0 GPA in their first two years of study.
Students interested in a nutrition degree should ensure they pursue their education at an accredited college or university. Accreditation is a process in which a third party evaluates a school's faculty, program offerings, campus, and student facilities to determine whether they meet nationally agreed standards of academic excellence. Aside from receiving a quality education, enrolling in an accredited institution is important because it qualifies students for federal financial aid as well as various private grants and scholarships.
There are different types of accreditation. For instance, regional and national accreditation is carried out by various organizations and applies to the school as a whole. Some disciplines, however, offer programmatic accreditation, where a professional organization evaluates whether a specific degree meets educational benchmarks for that field. The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) is the agency that assesses nutrition degrees.
Students should verify their nutrition program is both ACEND-accredited and offered at a regionally accredited school by checking the U.S. Department of Education or Council of Higher Education databases.