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Nutritionist degrees: A comprehensive guide

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The level of education you need to practice in the field of nutrition isn’t quite as cut and dry as other subjects. Unlike dietetics, which typically requires a bachelor’s degree, supervised experience and licensing to legally practice, there are far fewer standardized criteria for the less medical-based field of nutrition. 

Unfortunately, this can make choosing an educational path a bit confusing. Factors such as your career goals, financial resources, and any licensing or certification you seek will all influence the level of education that’s right for you.

But as with many fields, more career opportunities could open for you the more you educate yourself. Most earn at least a bachelor’s degree in nutrition in order to get a good job in the field. Those who wish to take on high-level roles or go into research or teaching may find that a master’s or doctoral degree is the most beneficial.

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However, nutrition degrees aren’t only for prospective nutritionists. They can also be applied towards numerous other careers in food science, personal training, herbalism, and holistic health.

What nutritionist degree programs are available?

You can become a nutritionist at every level of postsecondary education, and even through certificate programs. The right degree for you depends on your particular interests and aspirations.

In general, the types of nutritionist education programs listed below can help launch your career, including but not limited to:

Education level

Learning outcome

Certificate programs

Qualify for entry-level positions in states without nutritionist regulations or gain auxiliary nutrition knowledge to supplement a different career.

Associate degree

Gain an introduction to the field of nutrition and qualify for entry-level positions.

Bachelor’s degree

Learn the foundational knowledge of nutrition and how to counsel others, and prepare to get licensed.

Master’s degree

Advance your education as a nutritionist and gain specialized knowledge in the field, and/or qualify for licensure in states with more rigorous requirements.

Doctoral degree

Qualify for high-level leadership positions, become a researcher, or teach at the postsecondary level.

A closer look at each education level

If you live in a state that doesn’t require a license in order to practice, a certificate program could be enough to get you working as a nutritionist in just a few months. In these courses, you’ll study the basics of how nutrition affects our overall health and learn how to counsel clients to improve their eating and exercise habits. Certificate programs are often online and are offered by a variety of educational institutions as well as independent companies that focus solely on these types of certificates.

Even though having a certificate could get you in the door to some entry-level jobs in states lacking nutritionist regulations, employers may still ask that you have a formal degree. Furthermore, a degree may be necessary if you ever move to a state that does have these requirements. Not to mention that a degree can typically provide a greater breadth and depth of knowledge which may be crucial to your credibility.

All that being said, a certificate can be a great option as an introduction to the field without yet investing in a college degree, or as a way to add some credentials to another career, you might have, such as personal training.

Time to complete: About 2 years

An associate degree could also set you on the path toward starting an entry-level career. That being said, these are typically designed for those who plan to pursue a bachelor’s degree but want to complete some coursework at a more affordable community college.

You’ll study the basics of nutrition and might get more hands-on experience with menu planning and cooking. Some of the courses you might take during an associate degree program include:


Learning outcome(s)

Anatomy and physiology

Understand and identify the architecture of the human body. Identify the 11 body systems and how they function

Nutrition fundamentals

Understand the physiological functions of the digestive system. Analyze an individual’s nutritional adequacy. Explain how an individual’s food intake affects weight management 

Food safety and sanitation

Recognize the importance of food sanitation and safety. Demonstrate proper food sanitation and safety techniques

Food preparation

Identify characteristics of food. Apply knowledge of food to demonstrate best practices in cooking procedures and techniques

Time to complete: About 4 years 

If you want to increase your nutritionist salary potential and be competitive in the job field, a bachelor’s degree is the best place to start. With a bachelor’s degree, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the science of nutrition along with focusing on the nutritional needs of specific populations like children, the elderly or athletes.

About a third of U.S. states require a bachelor’s degree in order to legally practice with the title of nutritionist. Even if your state does not have regulations for nutritionists, a bachelor’s degree could make you a more competitive candidate for many entry and mid-level positions. A bachelor’s degree is also usually a prerequisite for graduate-level studies.

In addition to the courses you would take during an associate degree program, you might take the following during a bachelor’s program:


Learning outcome(s)

Nutrition across the lifespan

Understand how nutritional needs change over time throughout our lives

Nutritional counseling

Assess an individual’s diet and nutritional needs. Create optimal diet plans for clients. Assess and document client progress

Nutrition for special populations

Analyze how nutritional and dietetic needs differ for certain individuals, such as people with chronic health conditions or gendered differences.

Time to complete: 2–3 years, after earning a bachelor’s degree

By pursuing a master’s degree in nutrition, you’ll go beyond the basics and might begin to specialize. You’ll conduct research-focused studies, learn more about using food as a way to prevent and treat disease and take management classes that can help you take on higher-level roles or run your own private practice.

Some specializations you might pursue include holistic nutrition, clinical health psychology, human development, women’s health, sports nutrition, and herbal medicine, to name a few. In addition, nine U.S. states require a master’s degree to be legally licensed as a nutritionist as of 2021 (three of which accept a bachelor’s degree with satisfactory additional requirements).

Some of the advanced courses you may take during a master’s program include:


Learning outcome(s)

Medical nutrition therapy

Understand how to apply the principles of nutrition to treat disease

Nutrition and public health

Identify the role of nutrition professionals in the health and wellness of a community·      Understand how nutrition-related policies can help communities

Capstone/thesis project

Apply knowledge learned to a hands-on learning experience in the community. Present the knowledge gained from experiential learning hours into a final project

Time to complete: 4–8 years, after earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree

A doctoral degree in nutrition is designed for those who wish to take on leadership roles in academia and research, industry, or the government. These programs dive deeper into the relationship between nutrition and health in a wide range of populations and set students up to apply their knowledge to implement public health programs and policies.

Some doctoral nutrition programs may have or include more of a science focus, like molecular nutrition. In a doctoral program, you might take courses such as:


Learning outcome(s)

Nutrition epidemiology

Apply statistical analysis to evaluate nutrition-disease relationships on a population scale

Biochemistry of nutrients

Describe the role of nutrients in metabolism on a cellular level. Explain how biochemical processes are affected by nutrient intake

Doctoral dissertation

Disseminate research findings through an oral presentation and/or peer-reviewed publications

Be sure to also research any licensing and certification regulations in your state to find out if you need a certain degree to obtain a license.

What are the prerequisites for a nutrition degree?

The requirements to enter into a nutrition program vary from institution to institution, so it’s always good to check with the school directly. That being said, most programs have similar requirements.

For entry-level programs

If you’re entering a certificate or associate degree program, you may not need to meet any prerequisites. Some community colleges don’t require you to have a high school diploma or equivalent to enroll in a nutritionist program.

For undergraduate programs

Most bachelor’s degree programs, on the other hand, require a high school diploma or GED, a good score on an entrance exam like the SAT, and a satisfactory GPA—often at least a 3.0, or a 3.5 for more competitive nutrition programs.

For graduate-level programs

Master’s degree programs typically require students to have already earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition or a closely related field and have acceptable scores on the GRE or a similar school-administered exam.

What GRE scores are considered “good” vary widely across schools, though average scores for top graduate programs are around 150 out of 170 on the Verbal and Quantitative sections and 3.5 out of 6 on Analytical Writing.

For doctoral-level programs

For entrance into a doctoral program, you might be required to have a master’s degree, though some schools accept those with bachelor’s degrees in nutrition or another science-based subject. These typically allow you to work on a master’s and doctoral degree simultaneously in less time than it would take to earn them on their own.

In addition to the above, almost all degree programs at the bachelor’s level or higher will ask that you also submit some sort of personal statement or essay plus letter(s) of recommendation with your application.

Can you earn a nutritionist degree online?


There are online options available for nutritional programs of all levels, and these can be excellent for students who are self-directed, focused, and need the flexibility to work their education around other responsibilities such as work or family. 

In many cases, online programs give students the chance to complete coursework at their own pace, whether that’s faster or slower than average. Keep in mind, however, that any internship or fieldwork that’s required will need to be completed in person at an approved location. Also, be sure to ask as many key questions about the online nutrition degree you’re interested in as possible.

Nutrition degree concentrations

Many schools offer specializations or concentrations within their nutrition programs. A concentrated degree can be a great option because it allows you to focus on a particular area within the field of nutrition. This in turn could open the door to specific jobs because of your specialized knowledge.

Schools may only offer a few concentrations within their nutrition program (if any), while some schools may only offer specialized nutrition programs, as opposed to a generalized nutrition degree. Keep in mind that schools that offer these degrees may call them by slightly different names. Some common concentrations offered include:


What you’ll study


A degree in dietetics will likely focus more on the scientific application of nutrition. Dieticians are more heavily regulated than nutritionists, so dietetics degrees tend to have a more standardized, science-heavy curriculum than a typical nutrition degree.

Clinical nutrition

Clinical nutrition degrees, which are most often offered at the graduate level, tend to build upon the foundational knowledge of nutrition and how to apply that knowledge in a clinical setting with clients to fight off disease. They can be especially useful for people who live in states that require a master’s degree to become a licensed nutritionist.

Public health nutrition

As the name suggests, nutrition degrees with a public health focus teach students to apply nutritional science to the health of populations. They often include courses in epidemiology and biostatistics. These degrees prepare students for jobs in the private sector, governmental agencies, academic institutions and healthcare systems.

Food science and nutrition

These degrees look at nutrition through the lens of food science, a multi-disciplinary field whose overarching mission is to sustain a healthy food supply. This broad degree can lead to many different careers in the vast, overlapping fields of food and nutrition.

Nutrition and fitness

Nutrition degrees with a fitness or exercise component examine the role of food for optimal physical performance and overall health and wellness. These can be great for personal trainers, athletic trainers, or sports nutritionists.

Nutrition and food systems

These degrees study the food supply chain and the intersection of food, culture, economics, and the environment.

Preparing yourself for a career in nutrition 

If you’re thinking about going to school for nutrition, you may want to know what to expect out of your degree and what’s to come after graduation.

Professional skills you’re meant to gain in school 

Every program’s curriculum is a little different, especially when comparing different degree types. Even so, almost all nutrition education programs are going to touch on some shared foundational topics in nutrition. When you earn a nutrition degree, you should graduate with knowledge and skills such as:

  • The science of food and nutrition in the human body, at both the cellular and system levels
  • How to analyze nutrition information
  • How to apply nutrition principles to the health of individuals to produce positive outcomes
  • Food systems, safety, and sanitation
  • Exercise critical thinking and problem-solving
  • Understand the relationship between food and public health

Credentials you can earn

Beyond a degree, there are numerous voluntary credentials that you can earn as a nutritionist. Since most credentials have certain education requirements, accruing some credentials will most likely happen after you’ve completed your education.

Having a certification can boost your credibility as a practitioner and assure clients of your ability to successfully perform your job. Here’s a breakdown of the education you’ll need to earn some of the most common nutritionist credentials—keep in mind, however, that your education level may not be all you need to qualify:


Education needed

Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN)

Bachelor’s degree or higher from an accredited college or university, with coursework that includes the core science and nutrition requirements 

Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS)

Master’s degree or higher in nutrition or a related field from a regionally accredited university, with coursework that covers nine semester credits of nutrition, 12 credits in clinical or life sciences, six credits of biochemistry, and three credits of physiology or anatomy 

Registered Dietician Nutritionist (RDN)

Bachelor’s degree or higher in nutrition, dietetics, or a related field from a regionally accredited university in a program approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)

Certified Nutrition Professional (CNP)

Must meet the credentials to be Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition (BCHN), which means you must successfully complete any postsecondary holistic nutrition program approved by the board 

Certified Nutrition Consultant (CNC)

High school diploma or equivalent, such as the GED

Internship and practicum requirements

Gaining hands-on experience can be crucial for helping prepare you to work directly with clients. While most certificate and undergrad programs won’t require an internship themselves, you’ll most likely need between 900 and 1,200 hours of supervised experience to sit for any necessary licensing exams in your state, if necessary.

Therefore, if an internship or practicum is not built into your degree program, it may be a good idea to pursue an internship while you’re going to school or after you graduate.

Most graduate programs should already include an internship or other fieldwork that meets these requirements, particularly in states where supervised experience hours are required for licensure.

Tools and technology you’ll learn to use 

Although each program’s curriculum differs, you may learn about some of the modern technology and software that nutritionists and dieticians alike utilize in their practices.

Lots of nutrition professionals use nutrition and diet software programs with their clients. These software programs provide nutrition information about foods, create diet plans, and track food and calorie intake. Some common nutrition software programs include:

  • Axxya Systems Nutritionist Pro (food data and analysis)
  • BioEx Systems Nutrition Maker (meal plans, recipes, etc.)
  • Lifestyles Technologies DietMaster Pro (meal planning software)
  • ESHA’s Food Processor® Nutrition Analysis (easy-to-use database)

You may also learn about instruments that some nutritionists use to assess the health status of their clients, including:

  • Hydrostatic weighing machines wich are used to measure a body’s density and body fat composition.
  • Glucometers measure someone’s blood sugar levels.
  • Bioelectrical impedance machines can measure a body’s composition based on the rate at which an electrical current goes through the body.
  • Calorimeters are used to measure the heat capacity or heat of physical changes or chemical reactions in food, thereby helping to determine its calorie content.

How much does nutritionist schooling cost?

The cost of your education varies widely depending on the school, its location, and the level of degree. According to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average total costs for tuition, fees, and room and board are just over $10,000 a year for an associate’s degree, roughly $20,000 for a bachelor’s at a public university and over $41,000 a year for a bachelor’s at a private institution

The average total cost of a master’s degree came in at $25,000 a year, while a research-focused doctoral degree cost $32,000. Students of all levels can find grants and scholarships to help them pay for school, as well as potentially get tuition remission for work-study, teaching, or research. To learn more about the process, head over to our financial aid resource.

What should I look for in a school?

Once you’ve decided to get a degree, it can be challenging to know which school and program to choose. There are several factors that any prospective student should consider when deciding what program you want to enroll in. 


If your state requires licensing to practice as a nutritionist, one of the most important things when choosing a school is to verify that it’s an accredited institution and program.

Having this credential means the school has been vetted for its quality of education, and it’s also necessary if you wish to receive federal financial aid. What’s more, credits from an accredited school are more likely to be accepted if you decide to transfer or use them to meet admission requirements for a higher-level degree. 

You can verify a school’s current accreditation status by searching the database provided by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Depending on where you live, your school should be accredited by one of the following regional agencies:

Regional Accrediting Body


Middle States Commission on Higher Education

Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands

New England Commission of Higher Education

Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont

The Higher Learning Commission

Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming

Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia

Western Association of Schools and Colleges

California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands

You’ll also want to look for programs that are specifically accredited for dietetics and nutrition, as these ensure that you’ll get the education that’s necessary to qualify for licensing or certification. The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) approves both programs and internships designed for students who are preparing for careers in these fields.

Questions to ask yourself about nutritionist programs

Beyond verifying accreditation, you’ll also want to ask yourself a number of other questions when comparing your options: 

  • Is the cost of this degree within my budget?
  • What learning format is best for me (in-person, hybrid, or online)? What learning formats does this school offer?
  • If there are in-person classes, how far would I have to commute to campus? Can I justify the time and money to do so?
  • What kinds of student support services does this school offer?
  • Does the program offer an area of specialization that I want?
  • What are the qualifications of the faculty? (Where were they trained? How long have they been teaching? Do they contribute to the advancement of the field through activities like conducting research or publishing academic papers?)
  • Do the curriculum and experience involved meet any licensing requirements in the state where you plan to work?
  • How do graduates perform on any certification exams you plan to take? (Ask the program’s admissions advisors for benchmarks)
  • Does the school offer scholarships or other financial aid?

On that note, if you’re looking for a way to make a college education more affordable, scholarships should be your first consideration.

Scholarships for nutrition students

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) provides financial aid to qualified applicants, and as the name says, it’s free to fill out. Keep in mind that you must attend an accredited institution to qualify for the FAFSA.

There are also a ton of scholarships out there offered by schools themselves, companies, and other organizations. Some are open to anyone regardless of who you are or what you’re studying, while others are open to a specific group of people.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation is the largest provider of dietetics scholarships in the world and awards over 100 named scholarships annually for students at every level of education. Prizes range in value from $500-$25,000. Be aware that the Foundation only awards scholarships to students in ACEND-accredited programs.

Starting your nutritionist career

As a nutritionist, you could go on to work in hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, food service facilities, and community organizations or open your own private practice. Those with graduate degrees could take on leadership roles within the government, helping to set new programs and policies in place or finding research or teaching positions at the university level.

Those who are members of the Commission on Dietetic Registration also have the option to become certified in specialty areas of:

  • gerontology,
  • oncology,
  • pediatric nutrition & pediatric critical care,
  • renal nutrition,
  • sports dietetics,
  • and weight management.

Not only can having certification lend credibility to your resume, but offer you the chance to pursue continuing education, gain access to leading research in the field, and network with other nutritional professionals.

Regardless of your plans, a successful career begins with a solid educational foundation. Use our search for programs near you widget to browse vetted schools.

kendall upton

Written and reported by:
Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

Updated: 12.16.2021