Complete Guide to an Online Nutrition Degree
Online nutrition degree programs prepare students for careers as licensed nutritionists, dietitians, health educators, food service managers, public health professionals, and other roles that combine an understanding of nutrition science with communication skills. Programs explore topics such as public health nutrition, structure and functions of the human body, biochemistry in nutrition; metabolic disease; proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates; nutritional therapy; and vitamins and minerals. Students interested in pursuing a nutritionist degree may enroll in an online program at the bachelor's, master's, or certificate level.
When researching how to get a degree in nutrition, it's wise to look for a degree program that is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics or offered at a regionally or nationally accredited institution. Accreditation helps ensure that you will receive a quality education. Read More
Featured List of Colleges & Universities for an Online Nutrition Degree
Overview of Available Online Nutrition Degrees
The bachelor’s degree in nutritional science combines coursework in medical nutrition, communication, public health, and food management. In addition to general education requirements, basic science courses cover topics such as physiology, anatomy, chemistry, and biology. This foundation helps students understand how the body works and how it processes food at the biological and chemical level. Other courses may include food writing, clinical nutrition, and nutrient metabolism. Health and nutrition degrees at the bachelor's level often require an internship and are usually designed to prepare graduates for the Registered Dietitian exam.
Master’s degree programs in dietetics and nutrition explore advanced concepts, theories, and research in nutrition science. They are often pursued by healthcare practitioners seeking continuing education credits or just broadening their current scope of work. Some programs have a focus in a particular application of nutrition, such as food service management, nutrition for clinical care providers, or human performance nutrition. Some nutrition master’s degrees can also prepare students with bachelor’s degrees in other disciplines for nutrition licensure.
A bachelor's degree in nutrition is the entry-level requirement to begin a career as a nutrition consultant, nutrition educator, or dietitian. Online bachelor’s programs may have concentrations in nutrition science or dietetics, or they may be health sciences degrees with a nutrition or health and wellness specialization. Admission requirements will depend on the school, but in general, applicants need a high school diploma or an equivalent and acceptable SAT or ACT scores. Some schools also require particular prerequisite courses. Bachelor's programs take approximately four years and require the completion of 120 credits.
A student who is earning a bachelor's degree in nutrition will take general education courses for the majority of their first two years in school. Science classes will include biology, psychology, chemistry, and physiology. Every school has its own general education requirements in communications, social sciences, arts and humanities, and foreign language. Core courses for the remaining two years of a bachelor's program cover anatomy and physiology, introduction to nutrition, advanced nutrition, dietary planning, medical nutrition therapy, food science, exercise science, social aspects of nutrition, and child development and nutrition.
Graduates from bachelor's programs may be qualified to work as a nutritionist for a nonprofit organization, a hospital or clinic, a gym, or for a private dietary counseling center. Some nutritionists also work as weight loss coaches for diet programs like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. Bachelor's degrees in dietetics and nutrition science are also good preparation for students who wish to continue their education at the graduate level in nursing, biology, or nutrition.
To enroll in a master’s degree in nutrition program, students must have a bachelor's degree. Some graduate programs also require that applicants complete prerequisite courses or have relevant work experience. While a master's degree is not required to work as a nutritionist, a graduate degree can help qualify you for higher-level positions and a higher salary. Some master's degree programs prepare students to earn the Registered Dietitian credential, which is highly desirable among employers. The majority of master’s degree programs take two years to complete, assuming students take two to three classes per quarter or semester.
The nutrition master's degree can be appropriate for several types of students. One type is the student who majored in nutrition or dietetics during their undergraduate degree. These students can use a master's to gain advanced knowledge and research skills. Another audience includes students without previous nutrition experience who want to gain the scientific knowledge and internship hours to earn a nutrition license. Another possible student group includes nurses and health professionals who are seeking a more in-depth understanding of nutrition for their current clinical role.
Nutritionists study every aspect of the food system at the graduate level. In addition to advanced nutrition courses, master's programs may focus on nutrition subcategories such as pediatric nutrition, sports nutrition, eating disorders, and nutrition and aging. Other courses teach students about the production of food, how food is marketed to people, and how people get their information about nutrition and make food choices. Students also study how nutrition affects people's bodies and minds through courses like psychology of nutrition, nutrition for disease prevention, nutrition for weight control, and childhood or developmental nutrition. Many master's degree programs also heavily incorporate clinical practice, research opportunities, and seminars.
Because master's graduates usually have prior professional experience, they are eligible for more advanced career opportunities than undergraduates. Graduates with a master’s degree may be qualified for leadership nutritionist positions in community centers, healthcare facilities, or private nutrition information centers, or they may choose to work in academia conducting research or educating others.
Online nutrition certificate programs prepare students to help clients improve or enhance their lifestyle by adhering to proper eating habits and healthy diets. These programs are offered by a number of online colleges and universities and require 9 to 12 months of training. Applicants must possess a high school diploma or its equivalent.
Certificate programs aim to teach students how to assess the dietary needs of clients, devise realistic meal plans, educate patients on increasing their nutrient intake, evaluate the outcome of their clients' goals, and stay aware of new industry trends. Topics that may be discussed in classes include nutrition basics, medical terminology, learning strategies, developing healthy eating habits, stress management techniques, fitness anatomy and physiology, exercise science terminology, and injury prevention.
Those who hold a certificate in nutrition may be hired by outpatient centers, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, community organizations, and physicians' offices. Many people continue their education and obtain bachelor's and master's degrees in the field to prepare them for careers in management and consulting. Graduate certificates can be used by nutritionists to further their skills. Professionals in healthcare areas can use these certificates to add nutrition knowledge to their skill set.
Accreditation is a term used to describe the process by which schools and individual degree programs are evaluated for their quality and their ability to provide students with a valuable education. Independent regional and national agencies perform institutional accreditation for entire schools, and the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics conducts accreditation for individual nutrition degree programs. Accreditation by this industry-recognized agency helps ensure that you will receive a quality education, be prepared to pass any necessary nutrition exams, and work in the industry as a qualified and competent professional.
Legitimate accrediting agencies should always be recognized by the US Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. While attending an accredited school or program isn't mandatory, it will help ensure that you receive a high-quality education and that you meet eligibility requirements for federal financial aid. Also, if you wish to transfer your earned credits to another school at some point in the future, it will be important that your credits are from an accredited school or program.
After completing a nutrition or dietitian degree, many graduates choose to become certified or registered as a nutritionist or dietitian. The licensing requirements for US states vary, but most require at least a bachelor's degree, a certain number of hours of work experience, and the successful completion of a licensing or certification exam.
Because the requirements vary from state to state, it's smart to verify your state's requirements before taking any major steps. With that being said, there are some commonly accepted certifications in the nutrition profession. One popular designation is the Registered Dietitian (RD) license. Granted by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), which is affiliated with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the RD credential has requirements that are often the same as the requirements needed for other state licenses. According to the CDR, RD candidates must meet the following eligibility requirements:
- Complete a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited college or university.
- Meet all academic requirements that are offered as a part of the "Didactic Program in Dietetics" specifications by an accredited program that works in conjunction with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- Complete a supervised practice program that has been accredited and recognized by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics.
- Pass the Registered Examination for Dietitians.
- Complete requirements as stated for the organization's "Professional Development Portfolio."
After completing all of the requirements and passing an exam, you'll then be eligible for many job opportunities in the nutrition field, most of which will require an RD license or a similar certification. Job opportunities can be found on the AND website, as well as further resources including research, published articles, and help with continued professional development. Most states require RDs to complete continuing education courses in order to maintain a current license.
Here are some examples of classes that are available in an online nutrition program:
- Biochemistry: This course discusses the relationship between nutrients and the human body. Students study how food is processed by the body on a chemical level.
- Functional Assessment: Students learn how to assess patients from the point of view of the nutrition consultant. The course discusses the various measures that can be used to assess patients, such as blood pressure, height and weight, and body composition analysis.
- Sports Nutrition: Students study how nutrition affects physical fitness and how athletes can use their diet to support performance.
- Vegetarian Nutrition: In this class, students study scientific literature to learn about the nutritional needs of vegetarians. Topics like meal planning and supplements are discussed.
- Women’s Health Nutrition: This specialized course discusses topics such as pregnancy and menopause and how nutrition can be used to support women’s physiology.
Graduates of online nutrition degree programs can enter a variety of professional roles, depending on their experience, interests, and certifications. Here are some examples of the most common career specializations for people who study nutritional science:
- Dietitian: Dietitians cover a broad area of nutrition. Food systems are managed, healthy eating habits are promoted, research is conducted, and education is at the center of every nutrition plan.
- Clinical Dietitian: Institutions like hospitals and nursing care facilities are the focus of clinical dietitians. A patient's needs are analyzed; clinical dietitians then prepare and apply a nutrition program and assess and report the results.
- Community Dietitian: Along with individuals, groups are counseled by community dietitians. Nutritional practices are created to promote health and prevent disease.
- Consultant Dietitian: Healthcare facilities and private practices contract out consultant dietitians. Nutrition screenings are conducted, then advice is supplied by consultant dietitians on diet concerns, such as cholesterol levels and weight management.
- Management Dietitian: Management dietitians monitor larger groups like prisons, healthcare facilities, schools, and company cafeterias. Food service workers and other dietitians are hired, trained, and instructed by a management dietitian while also preparing budgets for food, supplies, and equipment, enforcing safety and sanitary regulations, and preparing reports and records.
- School Nutritionist: School nutritionists are responsible for ensuring that the foods offered at school are sufficient to fuel children's healthy physical and academic growth and that the menus meet government guidelines.
- Become an RD or DTR. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Accessed October 1, 2014. http://www.eatright.org/BecomeanRDorDTR.
- Dietitians and Nutritionists. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Accessed October 1, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dietitians-and-nutritionists.htm.
- State Licensure. CDR. Accessed October 10, 2014. http://www.cdrnet.org/state-licensure.
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