Online Nutrition Degree

Online nutrition degrees can teach you the skills to help others live a healthy life.

As the words “quinoa” and “kale” comfortably settle into our everyday conversation, more and more  people are realizing the value of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. They just need some guidance.

That’s where nutritionists come in. But first, you’ll need an online nutrition degree.

You’ll do more than just encourage your patients and clients to eat more fruits and veggies. The role of a nutritionist is to promote overall good health, identify dietary needs and have a strong understanding of science.

Before you search for an online nutrition degree, make sure you know the facts.

Choosing an Online Nutrition School

Nutrition isn’t a one-size-fits-all degree. There are different concentrations you can choose from so if you’re interested in a certain aspect of nutrition, you may be able to customize your studies.

For Michelle Babb, MS, RD, CD, and owner of EatPlayBe.com, her search focused on holistic wellness and food as medicine. The school she chose aligned with her philosophy about nutrition whereas “other programs I looked at had more of a single-nutrient focus with much less of an emphasis on nutrition as part of an integrative medicine approach.”

In Babb’s experience, nutrition programs will all offer the same required courses, but electives can vary widely by school. Her advice for perspective students?

  • Compare the elective courses offered
  • Evaluate programs based on requirements and prerequisites (or a combination of both)

Online Degrees in Nutrition

Most science-based degrees are taught in a classroom instead of online, but nutrition is an exception. While you can certainly find a program at a college campus, online nutrition degrees abound at all levels, from certificates to master’s degrees.

Have you reached a fork in the road and it’s time to decide which path to take? Here’s an in-depth explanation of online nutrition degrees and career specializations.

Nutrition Certificates:

Online nutrition certificate programs, which can last several months, can be utilized in two ways. If you’re just starting out and curious about a nutrition career, earning a certificate will help qualify you for entry-level positions in health-related fields.

On the other end of the spectrum, post-graduate certificates can supplement your existing nutrition knowledge and allow you to work as an expert in a certain specialty.

Types of certificates available:

  • Sports nutrition
  • Health coaching
  • Nutrition consulting
  • Holistic nutrition
  • Nutritional therapy

Associate’s in Applied Nutrition:

Earning an associate’s degree takes about two years and is a great place to start if you’re looking to test out a nutritionist career path. These types of programs teach you about biology, anatomy and social sciences. You’ll also gain knowledge on how nutrition and disease are connected.

Prerequisites are typically minimal; you’ll need a high school diploma or GED.

Where can I work with this degree? An associate’s degree in nutrition can open up opportunities for entry-level positions in health care settings, schools and fitness centers. Career paths may include food prep, dietary manager and nutrition assistant.

Some schools combine their nutrition program with a culinary arts curriculum. Students learn how to incorporate nutrition science into a career in hospitality. Courses include everything from cooking methods to ingredient sourcing.

Bachelor’s in Nutrition:

It’s not necessarily a matter of finding an online nutrition degree program (they’re plentiful), it’s deciding which aspect of the field you want to study. Online bachelor’s degree programs run the gamut from leaning heavily on the sciences to holistic methods. Before you can choose the right fit, you need to consider the type of nutritionist career you want.

Completing a bachelor’s degree takes four years, but some online schools will allow you to complete coursework at a quicker pace. Another benefit of online learning? You don’t have to wait until the typical school year starts in September. Are you ready to apply now? Many programs have start dates throughout the year.

A bachelor’s degree program starts with the general education courses, such as English composition, math and humanities. While students in any nutrition track will learn anatomy, biology and other basic sciences, eventually your courses will become very specific to the concentration you chose.

Here’s a quick comparison of how your classes can differ based on the type of nutrition degree you choose.

Type of Nutrition Degree Classes You Might Take
Health and Wellness Human Body and Disease, Personal Fitness, Community Health, Macro and Micronutrients, Alternative Health
Nutrition Science Nutrition Across Human Life Cycle, Nutritional Counseling, Identifying and Managing Nutritional Deficiencies, Nutrition for Special Populations
Nutrition and Dietetics Nutrition and Health, Modern and Organic Chemistry, Food Management, Diet Planning, Nutrition and Life Cycle, Food Production
Health Education and Behavior Biological Sciences, Sociology, Nutrition Fundamentals, Planning and Assessing Health Education Programs, Community Health, Environmental Health, Health Communication

What can I do with this degree? An undergraduate degree can qualify you to work as a nutrition counselor in fitness centers, community clinics and health centers. Nutritionists are often hired at schools to assess and create healthy meals for students. Your nutrition degree can also prepare you to work as a nutrition science researcher.

Some schools offer a bachelor’s in nutrition communication. This is perfect for someone interested in health-related public relations or journalism. These programs teach effective communication skills and prepare students for print, broadcast and online media experience.

Master’s in Nutrition:

Most master’s in nutrition programs are designed for students who already work in the field or have a degree in another health care sector, such as nursing.

The online curriculums are often built with the assumption that students already have a strong understanding of nutrition, fitness and the sciences. Because of this, you might notice a big difference between online and on-campus master’s programs, and that is the amount of hands-on experience that is required.

Babb earned her master’s degree on campus and part of the curriculum included practical experience.

“We spent time in the culinary center, learning about food science and whole foods cooking,” she says. “There were also requirements for volunteer hours in clinical, food service, and community dietetics and those hours were outside of our classroom hours. These requirements and activities vary from program to program.”

Since many online programs cater to students with a health or nutrition background, the focus of the curriculum is often geared toward theory, scientific principles, creating programs and management.

Here’s an example of the nutrition classes you might find online:

  • Nutrition Epidemiology and Research
  • Communication/Public Speaking
  • Strategies for the Obesity Epidemic
  • International Nutrition
  • Health Care Management

Your studies will culminate with a thesis or capstone project.

What can I do with this degree? You’ll be qualified to work in food product development, academics and research, private practice, government organizations and school systems.

Certification and Licensing Requirements for Nutritionists

The certification and licensing requirements for nutritionists vary by state. Unfortunately, there isn’t one law governing nutritionist licensure throughout the country.

According to the Center for Nutrition Advocacy, licensing requirements exist at four different levels, some more stringent than others.

In some states, only registered dietitians are eligible to practice nutrition counseling, while other states allow nutritionists with a master’s degree or higher to practice. The rules loosen up in other areas where nutritionists can practice without a license, but insurance reimbursement may be jeopardized.

While each state falls into one of these four categories, it’s always a good idea to check with your state board for accurate information on licensing requirements. There may be idiosyncrasies in a certain state’s laws and legislators often update or pass new bills.

Nutritionist Certification

Nutritionist certification may be necessary if you plan to work in a state where it’s required for licensing. However, a certificate also recognizes your knowledge and abilities as a nutritionist. This gives employers and clients assurance that you’ve met stringent requirements.

Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS): To become eligible to take the CNS exam, you’ll need a master’s degree or higher in nutrition from an accredited school as well as 1,000 hours of practical experience. The Board of Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS) administers the exam and you can find all test requirements on their website.

The exam, which lasts four hours, consists of 200 multiple-choice questions and covers the fundamental principles of nutrition and nutrients and human health, among others.

Other certifications, such as sports nutrition, may not be necessary for state licensure but can help boost your expertise and help you stand out from other nutritionists in the field.

Nutritionist Career Specializations

Unlike some degrees which can pigeon-hole you into one career path, a nutrition degree actually opens up a huge amount of opportunity.

“There is a broad range of career options in the nutrition field such as nutrition counseling in a private practice setting, nutrition consulting for health/wellness or food companies, recipe development, cooking instruction, food service and teaching,” Babb says. “I started my own practice in my community and have worked very hard to earn trust from referring practitioners. After eight years in private practice, I now get a fair amount of word-of-mouth referrals.”

Just as the career opportunities are wide-reaching, the specializations in nutrition are also plentiful. For example, if you’ve dreamed of teaching others how food is fuel for better fitness and performance, sports nutrition could be a great fit. Here’s a list of other career specializations:

  • Holistic nutrition
  • Community nutrition
  • Nutrition education
  • Business in nutrition
  • Eating disorders

Having extensive knowledge in a specific specialization can be especially important if you want to run your own business one day. Being able to market yourself as an expert in a certain area can bring more clients to your door. While running a private practice offers flexibility and fulfillment, Babb reminds aspiring nutritionists they need to know more than just the ABCs of healthy living.

“I think it’s important for anyone starting their own business to recognize that, in addition to being knowledgeable about nutrition, you also have to focus on actually running a business (bookkeeping, medical billing, marketing, administration),” Babb explains. “It takes time to build a successful business, and there are certainly tasks that are less pleasant but still critical. It’s good to determine early on what tasks you want to delegate so you can use your time to grow and run your business.”

Now that you have the facts on nutrition degrees, you’re ready to take the first step toward helping others live their best life.

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