Nutrition & Food Science Majors Guide

What Does it Mean to Study Nutrition and Dietetics?

Nutrition and dietetics degree programs focus on the chemical and biological components of our food and the ways in which these ingredients affect our health. In addition to understanding the components that make up the food we eat, nutritionists and dietitians also study the social impacts of food, including how it affects our economy, psychology and culture.

Most graduates of nutrition and dietetics degree programs aspire to become nutritionists or dietitians, although many choose to specialize further within these careers. In a broad sense, both careers involve working closely with individuals or communities to plan and supervise the preparation of healthy meals, whether in the context of an individual practice or a large institution such as a school or hospital.

Dietitians and nutritionists are also concerned with education and awareness. Teaching their patients how their diets affect their health and well-being is a large part of the job. If the patient understands that her current diet is placing her at risk, she is more likely to cooperate in the diet’s modification.

Types of Nutrition and Dietetics Degrees

The programs available in nutrition and food science are as diverse as the foods they study. Ideally, you’ll want to find a nutrition and dietetics degree program that can prepare you for the career path (including potential specialization) you intend to pursue in this industry. For many students, that path includes entry into a brick-and-mortar school. However, online schools and degree programs have made it easier than ever to study as a nutrition and dietetics major, offering a convenient option for students who are already busy with work- or family-based obligations.

Keep reading to learn more about degree types for nutrition and dietetics majors, along with a sampling of what you might learn as a student in this field.

Certificate Programs

Certificate programs typically serve two types of students: total newcomers to the field, or experienced professionals who want to specialize in a specific area. Working professionals, such as registered nurses or experienced dietitians, may choose to earn a certificate in nutrition and dietetics to help further their careers. These certificate programs are often offered online to accommodate the education without interrupting the individual’s preexisting career.

New students or career changers, on the other hand, might take a nutrition certificate course to familiarize themselves with the field before committing to a full degree program. Because certificate programs can often be completed quickly, they can present a taste test of what food science entails, helping students decide if the field is for them or not. These certificate programs can also be used as preparatory classes, kind of like a crash course to learn the basics before undertaking the full degree program. Regardless of motivation, students in these programs frequently touch on the following subjects:

  • Nutrition and exercise
  • Nutrition and disease prevention
  • Nutrition theory
  • Nutrition for health
  • Composition of food

Associate Degrees in Nutrition and Dietetics

Associate degree programs in nutrition and dietetics are designed to prepare students for entry-level work or for transfer to a four-year degree program. These two-year programs endeavor to familiarize students with the basic components of nutrition and health, introducing them to the concepts that nutritionists use to understand how the food we eat affects our daily lives.

Unlike certificate programs, which in most cases focus entirely on nutrition, an associate degree program’s scope is a little wider. Students in associate programs are usually required to take basic core courses in subjects such as English and math, giving them a broad foundation upon which to build their nutritional knowledge. However, when it comes to major-specific courses, they may also study:

  • Eating disorders & weight management
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Exercise physiology
  • Sports nutrition
  • Community nutrition

Bachelor’s Degrees in Nutrition and Dietetics

A bachelor’s in nutrition degree program is a basic four-year undergraduate degree. During their course of study for these programs, students are expected to move from the basics of food science into understanding the microbiology, processing and chemistry of food.

Most nutrition and food science bachelor’s degree programs begin with two years of general education requirements, such as basic math, English and science. The junior and senior years of a bachelor’s degree program build upon this, transitioning to a more in-depth study of the food sciences with courses such as:

  • Microbiology of food
  • Statistics
  • Agricultural marketing
  • Food processing
  • Food product development

Master’s Degrees in Nutrition and Dietetics

Students who want to reach the highest levels of learning while pursuing a nutrition and dietetics degree should consider aiming for a master’s degree. This program typically extends two more years after completion of a bachelor’s degree, and its purpose is to prepare students for the most intensive careers in nutrition research and department management.

While an associate program is to cover the basics of the field, and a bachelor’s program is to approach the upper-division concepts of the field, a master’s program exists to drill deep into the understanding of the field, often with opportunities for focus and research. Most of these programs let you specialize in a specific area of nutrition; common specializations include sports nutrition, women’s nutrition, and dietetics. Courses that might be available in this level of program include:

  • Pediatric nutrition
  • Vegetarian nutrition and veganism
  • Nutrition research
  • Biology
  • Statistics

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics?

Nutritionists, dietitians and other professionals in food science can find employment in a variety of environments, including private practices, public health clinics, public and private schools, universities and colleges, hospitals, correctional facilities and nursing care facilities. Also, a number of private corporations use dietitians to supervise and plan the menus for their company cafeterias, to help maintain the health of their staff.

Of course, there are more ways to make a living with a nutrition and dietetics degree than just becoming a general nutritionist. Before you become a nutrition and dietetics major, consider which of these potential career paths might interest you.

Clinical Dietitians

Clinical dietitians usually work for an institution, such as a company, school, nursing care facility or correctional facility. These dietitians create and manage meal programs for individuals and groups, based on their nutritional needs. They also report their findings to the management, and may discuss possible courses of action with other healthcare professionals. Many clinical dietitians specialize in dealing with a specific type of patient, such as those with renal (kidney) problems, diabetes or weight control issues.

  • Clinical dietitians typically need a bachelor’s degree, along with supervised training through an internship, notes the BLS.
  • While not always required, many dietitians pursue the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) credential offered through the Commission on Dietetic Registration.

Community Dietitians

Usually found in community and public health clinics, community dietitians focus on educating their constituents about how diet affects health. They counsel families on how to plan nutritional meals, and sometimes on how to tailor meals to specific health needs. This could include anything from planning the grocery list to how the food itself should be prepared to maximize nutrition.

  • Community dietitians typically need a bachelor’s degree.
  • While not always required, many dietitians pursue the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) credential offered through the Commission on Dietetic Registration.

Nutritional Consultants

Rather than creating specific meal programs, nutritional consultants work to educate others about healthy living habits. They assess their clients’ lifestyle and needs, then recommend alterations that can help those clients to follow a long-term dietary plan that they can realistically maintain. Most consultants are self-employed, freelancing their consulting services out to individuals or bidding on consulting contracts for companies.

  • Like dietitians, nutritional consultants need to earn a bachelor’s degree and complete an internship.
  • While not a requirement for employment, many nutritional consultants earn the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) credential offered through the Commission on Dietetic Registration.

Pediatric Dietitians

Focusing on the dietary and nutritional needs of children, pediatric dietitians may be self-employed, or they may work for a school or a children’s hospital. If working out of a private practice, pediatric dietitians work with parents to develop dietary programs for their children to promote health and fight disease, particularly in children with diabetes or renal disorders. Pediatric dietitians working for a school or children’s hospital, on the other hand, create general and individual meal plans for students or patients, depending on the needs of the institution. They may also supervise the preparation of the food, or even oversee the entire food service department of the institution.

  • Pediatric dietitians typically need a bachelor’s degree.
  • While not always required, many dietitians pursue the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) credential offered through the Commission on Dietetic Registration.

Agricultural and Food Scientists

Agricultural and food scientists take a slightly different approach to nutrition and food than dietitians or nutritionists. These professionals conduct research to promote better yield and sustainability for agricultural crops. They may design new food products and develop better ways to process and prepare them, or study the way food is grown for the purpose of improving current processes. Last but not least, agricultural and food scientists communicate the findings of their research in order to promote food sustainability and awareness in their communities.

  • Agricultural and food scientists typically need a bachelor’s degree.
  • Certification isn’t required for this career.

Associations and Organizations

While becoming a nutrition and dietetics major is an excellent way to get started in this industry, it is still important to regularly pursue continuing education even after your degree has been earned. The following organizations may be useful for helping you maintain and further your career:

  • Commission on Dietetic Registration — This organization offers resources for continuing education opportunities for those in the nutrition field. They also award several credentials, including the Registered dietitian (RD) and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN).
  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics — This organization offers information and resources on developments within the field of nutrition. Explore the website to study new research or keep up on consumer trends and nutrition basics for people of various age groups.
  • American Society for Nutrition — The American Society for Nutrition promotes information regarding research and science-backed data that affects the foods we eat. Sign up for updates on advocacy, networking opportunities and continuing education.
  • National Association of Nutrition Professionals — This organization for nutritionists and dietitians offers continuing education, networking and membership opportunities to qualified applicants. You can also access the network to become “Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition.”
  • National Organization of Men in Nutrition — This association brings together men who focus their careers on improving lifestyles through health and nutritious eating. Membership and network opportunities are available through this organization, along with webinars and educational seminars on a variety of topics.

Article Sources


  1. Agricultural and Food Scientists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-26 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics,
  2. Associate of Applied Science in Applied Nutrition, Huntington College,
  3. dietitians and Nutritionists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-26 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics,
  4. Online Bachelor of Science in Nutrition, Arizona State University,
  5. Online Master of Science in Nutrition Dietetics, Arizona State University,
  6. Undergraduate Certificate in Nutrition, IUPUI,
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