Well-balanced, healthy nutrition can help people feel better, stay healthy and prevent or manage chronic diseases. It’s also crucial for proper childhood development. If you’re passionate about the importance of good nutrition and want to help others lead healthier lives, you might consider pursuing a career as a public health nutritionist.
What is a public health nutritionist and what do they do? Explore this career guide to find out and begin planning your own career pathway.
In This Article:
- Public Health Nutritionist Job Description
- Where Do Public Health Nutritionists Work?
- How To Become a Public Health Nutritionist
- Essential Skills and Characteristics of a Public Health Nutritionist
- Are Public Health Nutritionists in High Demand?
Public Health Nutritionist Job Description
The goal of a public health nutritionist is the same as that of a nutritionist who doesn’t work in the public health field — to help people lead healthier lives through better nutrition. A nutritionist primarily works one-on-one with clients; however, a public health nutritionist typically works with groups of people (although they may still occasionally work one-on-one with individuals).
Public health is a subfield that concerns the health of an entire population, such as a community or region. A public health nutritionist is a professional who seeks to assess the health needs of their population group, educate that population group and promote the group’s health. To that end, a public health nutritionist will spend much of their time designing community programs, coordinating the delivery and accessibility of health services, promoting public education campaigns and advocating for public health policies.
Every day might look a little different for a public health nutritionist, but in general, they might do any of the following tasks:
- Compile information and evaluate data regarding health and nutrition trends in their community.
- Stay on top of the latest research in nutrition and translate scientific studies into patient-facing reports or advisories.
- Create educational materials (e.g. public service announcement videos, pamphlets and blog posts) designed to raise awareness in the community about nutritional issues.
- Design sample meal plans for groups of people based on defining characteristics such as age, dietary restrictions, health goals and pre-existing conditions.
- Conduct workshops, seminars and classes for community members.
- Serve as a policy advocate by advising lawmakers on issues such as public health, nutrition and access to healthy foods.
One day, a public health nutritionist might lead a class at a local hospital for patients who have been diagnosed with diabetes and need help figuring out how to manage their disease through nutrition. On the next day, a nutritionist might meet with a local or state lawmaker to discuss how to address a food apartheid — an area which access to healthy, affordable food is limited — in the city. As you can see, a public health nutritionist can wear many hats.
Where Do Public Health Nutritionists Work?
Many public health professionals work for local, state and federal governmental agencies. However, the role of the public health nutritionist is more versatile than most. You can also find public health nutritionists working within hospitals, clinics, physician offices, nursing homes and outpatient facilities. It’s even possible for public health nutritionists to be self-employed.
How To Become a Public Health Nutritionist
If the answer to the question, “What is a public health nutritionist?” appeals to you, then it’s time to start planning your career pathway. If you’re still in high school, talk to your guidance counselor about adding more science and math classes. Your high school may offer health-related classes, such as lifespan development, anatomy and even nutrition.
While still in high school, you could explore local opportunities to gain hands-on experience. For instance, apply for a part-time job in the food service department of your local hospital, or see if you can land an internship at a public health department near you.
All aspiring nutritionists are expected to earn at least a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics, and it’s quite common for them to also hold a master’s degree. Some nutritionists have a doctoral degree in nutrition science, although a PhD isn’t a strict requirement.
Earn an Undergraduate Nutrition and Dietetics Degree
After high school, the first step in the process of becoming a public health nutritionist is to earn your bachelor’s degree. You should look for a degree in nutritional sciences and/or dietetics. Expect to spend four years as a full-time student to earn your baccalaureate nutrition and dietetics degree.
Although the specific curriculum will vary from one program to the next, you can generally expect to study topics such as the following:
- Fundamentals of nutrition theory, examining assessments, food components, exercise, weight control, community programs and resources
- Nutrition requirements at each stage of the lifespan, as well as how nutrition influences growth, development and health status
- Principles of food science, with a look at food safety, preparation, processing and preservation, as well as ingredient interactions
- Health psychology using a biopsychosocial model and examining topics such as chronic illness development and management, health behaviors and influences such as stress
- Nutrition research designs and applications in areas such as applied epidemiology, food production and sustainability
- Advanced meal planning, nutritional requirements and restrictions of special populations, sports nutrition and advanced applications of nutritional principles
In addition, you’ll take general science courses, such as organic chemistry, microbiology and anatomy. You may also be required to take a capstone course in your senior year. Capstone courses typically involve research and writing-intensive projects intended to demonstrate the skills and knowledge you’ve learned during your studies.
You’ll have the opportunity to take a few electives as an undergraduate. It’s a good idea to take at least one elective in communications, since public health nutritionists must have excellent public speaking and presentation skills. You might also look for a course related to public policy and advocacy, as public health nutritionists sometimes serve as lobbyists and advocates for their communities.
Earn Your Master’s Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics
While you may decide to return to school later to earn a doctoral degree, earning a master’s degree is required after graduating with your bachelor’s degree in order to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Look for a master’s degree in nutrition and dietetics that aligns with the requirements for accreditation by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) and that will prepare you to sit for the credentialing exam from the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) to become a registered dietitian.
A Master of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics degree that meets those requirements will include both coursework and at least 1,000 hours of experiential learning. You may be able to complete the coursework online, but have in-person, supervised experiential learning hours. This type of degree can take less than two years to complete, depending on your chosen schedule.
You can typically expect to study the following topics while working toward your master’s degree:
- Standardized methods of food preparation, menu planning and relevant management practices
- Advanced medical nutrition theory, with a look at applied nutritional therapy for the prevention and management of diseases
- Public health or community nutrition and advocacy, including the public health nutritionist’s role in community-wide nutrition program development and delivery
- Cultural competencies and advocacy skills
- Leadership styles and skills in the nutrition and dietetics field
Your degree program may integrate experiential learning hours directly into the curriculum. This type of program involves completing a certain number of hours for each class you take. This structure will enable you to continue moving forward with your coursework while also meeting your experiential learning requirements.
Complete a Dietetic Internship in the Health Sector
Although it’s common for master’s degrees in nutrition and dietetics to incorporate experiential learning hours into the curriculum, some programs might not offer this opportunity to students. If you completed a master’s degree that only involved coursework, you will need to complete a dietetic internship following your graduation. It is important to note that if you are applying to a dietetic internship, you must also have a bachelor’s degree from an ACEND Accredited DPD (Didactic Program in Dietetics) program.
You’ll need to apply to a dietetic internship program at a hospital or clinic. Various facilities run their programs a little differently, but interns can generally expect to go through clinical rotations combined with additional learning opportunities, such as presentations, assignments and workshops.
As an intern, you’ll be assigned to a preceptor (supervisor) for each rotation. Your specific activities will depend on the unit you’re assigned to at any given time.
Dietetic interns will first follow their preceptor, observing how they work with patients, complete assessments and handle other tasks. Once you have a firm grasp on the job duties, your preceptor will shadow you as you meet with and assess patients. Lastly, once your preceptor determines that you’re ready, you’ll be able to work with patients solo, although your preceptor will still be available to guide you when needed.
Obtain a Professional Credential in Nutrition and Dietetics
After completing the eligibility requirements, you are eligible to sit for a credentialing exam. The most recognized and respected credential in this field is the registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) credential. Although these seem like two different credentials, they are actually the same and may be used interchangeably depending on the professional’s preference.
The RD credential is administered by the CDR of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). Once you’ve been validated by the CDR as having met the eligibility requirements, you can schedule your exam at a Pearson VUE test center. The exam is administered year-round.
Essential Skills and Characteristics of a Public Health Nutritionist
An aspiring public health nutritionist should be, above all else, passionate about the potential of good nutrition to help others lead healthier lives. Nutritionists can also benefit from the following skills and characteristics:
- Public speaking skills: You will need to confidently teach classes and give presentations to community members about nutritional topics.
- Math skills: You will need to accurately make calculations, such as when determining the amount of calories and nutrients in a meal.
- Organizational abilities: It’s helpful for public health nutritionists to be highly organized and able to pay attention to details, as they must often coordinate events and keep track of educational materials.
- Problem-solving skills: Public health nutritionists may be called upon to solve complex challenges, such as determining how to improve food access in an underserved community.
Are Public Health Nutritionists in High Demand?
The agency tasked with tracking employment data and predicting future trends is the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS doesn’t track data specifically for public health nutritionists. However, it does offer data for all types of nutritionists and dietitians.
According to the BLS, the job growth rate for nutritionists and dietitians is expected to increase by 11% from 2020 to 2030. This positive growth rate is faster than the national average. At this job growth rate, employers will hire about 7,800 new professionals each year through 2030.1
If you have a passion for helping others lead healthier lives, Grand Canyon University can help you fuse your passion with purpose. Apply for enrollment in the Master of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics degree program, which is available via flexible, online classes and is aligned with the requirements for candidates seeking credentialing from the CDR.
1 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Dietitians and Nutritionists.
Approved by the director of nutrition and dietetics for the College of Science, Engineering and Technology on Jan. 23, 2023.
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.