Unhealthy eating habits place people at a higher risk of many chronic diseases, including certain cancers, heart disease and diabetes. Poverty is one factor that contributes to unhealthy eating habits; yet insufficient nutritional science education is another major issue contributing to the problem.
If you’re wondering, “What can I do with a nutritional science degree?” the answer is quite simple: You could change and save lives. A nutritional science job would enable you to help individuals or populations learn the importance of good nutrition and how to adopt healthy eating habits, thus, enabling them to reduce their risk of many life-threatening medical problems.
What Is a Nutritional Science Degree?
Nutritional science is an area of study that focuses on how dietary choices affect health. Further, these professionals look at how making healthy nutrition choices can prevent disease and optimize wellness. This seems relatively straightforward, but in practice, nutritional science is complex. It is a multidisciplinary niche that blends together elements of psychology, chemistry, biology, physiology and food science, among other disciplines.
The specific curriculum for a nutritional science degree will vary from one school to the next. Students can generally expect courses in biochemistry, microbiology, lifespan development and, of course, nutrition. A well-rounded program should also include a look at health psychology, as a person’s behavioral patterns (e.g. food choices) have a significant influence on his or her overall health. Students may also study food science, applied epidemiology and best practices in nutrition research.
Job Possibilities With a Nutritional Science Degree
A nutritional science degree can allow you to pursue a career as a registered dietitian or nutritionist. Within this field, there are many subfields you might choose to specialize in, including the following:
- Sports nutrition
- Eating disorders
- Holistic nutrition
- Public health nutrition
- Pediatric or geriatric nutrition
- Oncologic nutrition
- Food and nutrition management
All of these subfields enable professionals to make a meaningful change in their communities by helping individuals improve their wellness.
Where Do Nutritional Science Experts Work?
You’ll find nutritional science jobs in a wide variety of places, from research labs to nutraceutical companies to community outreach agencies. One nutritionist might work with the local homeless population through an outreach agency, for example. Another may serve as a regulatory affairs consultant, working to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply. You’ll also find nutritional science experts working one-on-one with individuals to help them reach their health goals.
Some examples of places where nutritional science professionals work include the following:
- Food security advocacy groups (such as nonprofits working to end child hunger)
- Medical condition-specific advocacy organizations (such as an association for diabetes research)
- Commodity trade groups (including fruit growers’ associations)
- Health education and community outreach agencies
Some of these experts work in labs, while others work in office settings. Travel may be required for some of these nutritional science jobs.
The terms “registered dietitian” (RD) and “registered dietitian nutritionist” (RDN) are legally protected credentials. They may only be used by individuals who have been licensed and who meet the strict requirements of the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A registered dietitian is a food and nutrition expert who is qualified to conduct, apply and explain scientific research. Registration dietitians also serve as advocates, helping individual patients and the public at large understand and apply nutritional recommendations and healthy habits.
Many RDs work in hospitals and health clinics, while others work for government agencies, nursing homes and outpatient care centers. Some registered dietitians are self-employed. The specific tasks they do can depend on their employer or clients, but in general, may include any of the following:
- Assess patients’ current nutritional and health status and identify areas of improvement
- Educate patients on nutritional science and help them understand how food choices can manage or prevent medical issues
- Develop nutrition plans that are customized to meet the needs, preferences and budgets of individual patients
- Monitor patients’ progress and brainstorm solutions to challenges
In addition, some registered dietitians speak to community groups about nutritional issues. They might also develop educational materials related to food choices. Some registered dietitians specialize in working with certain patient populations, such as those with diabetes or eating disorders.
To become a registered dietitian, you’ll first need to complete a bachelor’s degree in nutritional science that has been accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) or a graduate program through the Future Education Model under ACEND.* You’ll also need to take the dietetic registration exam. Beginning in 2024, aspiring RDs must also hold a graduate degree in order to qualify to take the exam.**
An ACEND-accredited supervised dietetics internship program may also be a requirement for future registered dietitians. After completing this internship and passing the dietetics exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, all that’s required is to complete any additional licensing mandates in one’s state. Moving forward, practicing RDs must complete continuing education credits to periodically renew their licenses.
Nutrition and Dietetic Technician, Registered
A nutrition and dietetic technician, registered (NDTR) is a professional who has met the academic, training and licensure requirements necessary to work under the supervision of a registered dietitian. RD supervision is required of NDTRs who work in clinical settings providing direct patient/client nutrition care, such as those who are employed by hospitals and nursing homes. NDTRs may also work independently in:
- Daycare centers
- Health clubs
- Food manufacturing companies
An NDTR does much of the same work as an RD. They may assess patients, develop nutritional plans and assist people in making healthy choices. Some of them may also develop community health programs and teach nutrition classes to the public.
Although the work of an NDTR is similar to that of a registered dietitian, the credentialing process is less rigorous for an NDTR. A future NDTR can earn this credential by completing a relevant bachelor’s degree or associate degree and coursework in an ACEND-accredited dietetics program. Then, the aspiring NDTR must pass a national exam to acquire the credential. Continuing education is a requirement for maintaining the credential.
The terms “dietitian” and “nutritionist” are often used interchangeably. However, they aren’t quite the same, and the main differentiator involves legal oversight. A registered dietitian must undergo a rigorous credentialing process, whereas a nutritionist often does not.
Dietitians are regulated by a national oversight entity and the regulations for nutritionists are established by each individual state. Some states do require professionals to acquire licensure in order to legally call themselves nutritionists, while others do not. If you decide to become a nutritionist, you should check the licensing requirements for the state in which you plan to practice.
Aside from legal oversight, there is much overlap between these career paths. A nutritionist will generally perform the same duties as a registered dietitian, including:
- Assessing patient health
- Developing nutrition plans
- Delivering health education
Athletes are investments, and it’s no surprise that team management and ownership wants their athletes to stay as healthy as possible. If you have a passion for sports and health, you might consider exploring a career as a sports dietitian.
Sports dietitians typically work for professional and collegiate sports organizations. They may also work in physical rehabilitation centers, outpatient clinics and fitness centers.
Proper nutrition is absolutely crucial for athletes and their ability to perform on the field. A sports dietitian will work one-on-one with each athlete, identifying their challenges, health goals and performance needs, and developing an individualized nutrition plan. These dietitians must often deal with unique challenges, like helping athletes eat healthy meals while traveling and how to observe good nutritional practices while benched with an injury.
The day-to-day life of a sports nutritionist will be largely shaped by the needs of their clients, but may include any of the following tasks:
- Assess each athlete’s body composition, energy balance and dietary habits
- Develop nutrition and meal plans that enable athletes to achieve an ideal balance of muscle mass, body fat and body mass that supports both health and athletic performance
- Counsel athletes on proper nutritional practices for injury recovery, surgery recovery, weight management, exercise recovery, various training phases and hydration management
- Evaluate nutritional supplements and monitor their use
The job of a sports dietitian is collaborative in nature, as it’s often necessary to liaise with the team’s athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, physicians and individual athletes’ private chefs. A sports dietitian might also collaborate with the team’s travel department to ensure that athletes have access to healthy meals while on the road. It can be a challenging line of work, yet one that is highly rewarding, as the team’s dietitian plays a significant role in its overall performance.
Eating Disorder Nutritionist or Dietitian
Eating disorder nutritionists and dietitians specialize in working with individuals who have either a diagnosed eating disorder or disordered eating. Someone with an eating disorder fits the clinical diagnostic criteria of a disorder, whereas someone with disordered eating might have irregular eating behaviors that don’t quite meet the clinical definition of a disorder. In either case, the patient needs help adapting to proper eating behaviors.
Eating disorder dietitians typically work in collaboration with psychologists and other members of patient care teams within hospitals, outpatient facilities and inpatient rehabilitation centers. Their primary goals are to restore the patients to good health and help them learn how to take care of themselves moving forward.
This can be a complex job, particularly since patients with eating disorders frequently have nutrition-related co-morbidities, such as heart problems, and they may be underweight or overweight. The dietitian must develop a healthy eating plan that meets the patient’s physical health needs. This professional may also help patients learn practical self-care skills, such as shopping for groceries, preparing healthy meals and navigating restaurant menus.
Consider a Non-Traditional Nutritional Science Job
Beyond traditional nutritional science jobs, such as that of a registered dietitian, there are many other possibilities to explore. For example, if you love animals, you might consider specializing in veterinary nutrition. Veterinary nutritionists might work with pet parents, breeders, ranchers and livestock feed manufacturers.
Other non-traditional nutritional science jobs to consider include the following:
- Health writer
- Health and wellness product sales representative
- College professor of dietetics
- Food stylist and photographer
- School lunch consultant
- Corporate wellness consultant
- Grant writer
- Software developer
If you’re wondering what software development and grant writing have in common with nutritional science, a search will show health and wellness apps combine these components to help you track your calories or fitness goals. Health experts are behind these consumer innovations.
Similarly, if you opt to become a grant writer, you might specialize in securing funds for nonprofit organizations that are working to end child hunger. A background in nutritional science would be helpful for this particular career. In short, there are many health-related jobs available to those with a nutritional science degree.
If you’re passionate about wellness, you can begin working toward a meaningful career by earning a nutritional science degree at Grand Canyon University. The College of Science, Engineering and Technology is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences degree program to aspiring professionals. Click on the button to Request Info and begin envisioning yourself in our supportive Christian learning community.
* Grand Canyon University is not currently accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).
** Retrieved from: Commission on Dietetic Registration, 2024 Graduate Degree Requirement – Registration Eligibility, in June 2021
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.