What Is the Best Degree Path to Becoming a Dietitian or Nutritionist?

dietician major

A healthy diet is essential for a healthy life. Sometimes knowing what foods to eat, and in what quantities, can be a struggle. If you’re naturally curious about the health effects of foods and want to help others live a healthier lifestyle, a career as a dietitian or nutritionist might be a good fit. The first step to this rewarding vocation is earning an undergraduate college degree.

Differences between Dietitians and Nutritionists

Dietitians and nutritionists are healthcare professionals with expertise in the nutritional value of food. Like others in the healthcare field, they work directly with patients or clients. They evaluate their clients’ current diets and recommend meal plans to help them achieve a healthy lifestyle or reach a goal like:

  • weight loss
  • gains in muscle
  • lowering blood pressure

To make sure clients stick with their meal plans, dietitians and nutritionists need to make sure these diets are affordable and reasonably appealing to their clients. After clients begin their new meal plans, dietitians and nutritionists track their progress and change the diet as necessary. Dietitians and nutritionists find work in:

  • hospitals
  • nursing homes
  • doctors’ officers
  • outpatient centers
  • government entities

More than 10 percent of dietitians and nutritionists work for themselves, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Dietitians and nutritionists serve similar roles, but the careers aren’t identical. All professionals in this field are nutritionists, but they be called registered dietitians only if they earn the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist credential.

Education and Training Options

To become a dietitian or nutritionist, you will need a bachelor’s degree. Among the most popular majors are:

  • foods & nutrition
  • clinical nutrition
  • dietetics
  • food service systems management

No matter what major you decide to study, expect to take courses in:

  • biology
  • chemistry
  • nutrition
  • psychology

Real-world experience is particularly important for dietitians and nutritionists. You will need to gain several hundred hours of supervised experience during your studies or after you graduate. This training often comes in the form of an internship after graduation. Some schools offer coordinated programs that allow undergraduate and graduate students to complete their required supervised training as part of coursework. You will also need to earn a license, registration status, or other credential, depending on your state. If you want to be a registered dietitian, you will need to meet eligibility requirements and pass a registration test.

Best Degree Path to Becoming a Dietitian or Nutritionist

Beyond Education – Important Qualities to Have

In addition to a college education, licensing, and supervised training through an internship, having certain qualities helps promote success in the field of nutrition. These qualities and skills are listed below.

Analytical skills – In order to successfully assist patients in leading a healthy lifestyle, dietitians and nutritionists must keep up-to-date on current food and nutrition research. The latest scientific research must be synthesized and translated into practical, easy-to-understand eating advice for patients. Having good analytical skills helps the professional absorb the material and advise patients.

Communication skills – Most of the job as a dietitian or nutritionist involves meeting with clients and explaining complicated and technical subject matter in a way that people can understand.It’s important to have good communication and speaking skills. Patients hear advice from nutritionists on food plans, macro- and micronutrients, and other topics. Being able to explain these things in an approachable and understandable manner helps. Also, nutritionists and dietitians work with other healthcare professionals directly related to a patient’s care. Having effective communication skills helps here, as well.

Compassion and empathy – A caring and empathetic nature is necessary for a successful dietitian or nutritionist. Professionals in this field address health and dietary concerns and issues with patients. They work with people who may be experiencing health and nutrition issues and all the emotions connected with these problems. As they help clients address issues and make changes, having a comfortable and attentive delivery promotes success.

Good listening skills – In order to understand and address a client’s nutritional needs and issues, a dietitian or nutritionist must first listen to the problem. A good listener will note the issue and create a plan that meets the client’s goals and addresses their concerns. Being a good listener also helps while working as part of a team to treat a patient’s nutritional needs. Nutritionists often work with other health professionals and team members dedicated to improving the health of a patient.

Organizational skills – An organized nutritionist or dietitian is a successful one. Since there are many aspects of the role and work, staying organized helps manage patient care. Dietitians balance many issues at once, including:

  • access to food
  • costs of meals
  • nutritional needs

If you’re self-employed in this profession, you will also need to:

  • bill insurance companies
  • maintain patient files
  • manage staff
  • schedule appointments

Performing all these tasks requires good organizational skills.

Problem-solving abilities – In order to manage proper food choices and determine an effective nutritional plan, a dietitian or nutritionist must evaluate their patient’s status and overall health. Having good problem-solving abilities helps the professional develop a plan that will work to meet the needs of each client. Every client is different. A dietitian must be able to spot unique differences and come up with solutions that are appropriate for the individual.

Best Degree Path to Becoming a Dietitian or Nutritionist

Earnings Potential for Dietitians and Nutritionists

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the most recently published median annual wage for dietitians and nutritionists was $63,090.  BLS also reports that the highest 10 percent of individuals in this profession earned more than $90,000 per year.

Various factors impact earnings potential for this occupation. Industry type and geographic location both play a role in the pay of a nutritionist or dietitian. BLS reports four top-paying industries for dietitians and nutritionists. These industries are:

  • outpatient care centers
  • government
  • hospitals
  • nursing and residential care facilities

The highest-paying industry for this profession is outpatient care centers. In these facilities, the median annual wage for dietitians and nutritionists is almost $70,000. Individuals working in government earned just over $64,000 per year. The third highest-paying industry is hospitals. In local, private, or state hospitals, nutritionists earned a median annual wage of $63,380. Nursing and residential care facilities paid nutritionists and dietitians a median annual wage of $60,330.

Geographic location also impacts earnings potential. Top-paying areas for this profession, as reported by BLS, include:

  • California
  • Alaska
  • District of Columbia
  • Hawaii
  • New Jersey

In California, dietitians and nutritionists earned an annual mean wage of $81,070. Alaska offered an annual mean wage of $78,350. The District of Columbia reported an annual mean wage of $73,150. Also, Hawaii reported $72,810 and New Jersey reported $72,750 in annual mean wages.

As states report varying earnings, so do cities. The top five metropolitan areas for dietitians and nutritionists are:

  • Santa Rosa, California ($95,140)
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, California ($95,060)
  • Vallejo-Fairfield, California ($93,640)
  • Salina, California ($90,500)
  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California ($89,080).

In nonmetropolitan areas, the highest earnings were found in:

  • Alaska nonmetro ($88,100)
  • north coast region of California ($83,840)
  • north valley and northern mountains of California ($75,450)
  • coastal Oregon ($72,360)
  • southwest Maine ($69,050)

Since most nutritionists and dietitians work full-time, full-time wages are the norm. However, some individuals in this profession may work weekends or evenings to better accommodate clients who are unavailable during traditional work hours. It is not uncommon for nutritionists and dietitians working in hospitals to earn overtime pay. The majority of individuals working in this profession at physician offices and specialized treatment centers do work traditional hours and rarely see overtime pay.

Job Outlook for Dietitians and Nutritionists

According to the BLS, employment for dietitians and nutritionists is anticipated to grow eight percent over the next eight years. The growth is much faster than the average for all other occupations. Anticipated growth should come from an increased interest in the role of food and nutrition in disease prevention and promoting health, longevity, and wellness. In medical settings, an increased awareness and promotion of nutritional education will become the norm in preventative healthcare practice.

The Center for Disease Control reports that more than one-third of adults in the United States are obese. Diseases associated with obesity, such as diabetes and heart disease, are also on the rise. Dietitians and nutritionists will be needed to address these problems and conditions. An increased emphasis will be placed on preventing and treating illness through diet and nutrition. As the nation becomes more aware of the problems associated with an incorrect diet, the demand for this profession will increase.

Another reason for the increase in demand for dietitians and nutritionists is the aging baby-boomer population. As this generation grows older, they look for ways to stay healthy. This will drive the need for dietitians and nutritionists, especially those working with the elderly and aging baby-boomer population. In addition, there will be a demand for those in this profession working in grocery stores and helping consumers make healthy lifestyle choices.

Best Degree Path to Becoming a Dietitian or Nutritionist

The job prospects for dietitians and nutritionists should increase over the next decade. In fact, BLS reports an added 5,900 jobs in this profession through 2029. Currently, there are about 74,200 jobs, but by 2029, the profession should see a projected employment of 80,100 jobs. Dietitians and nutritionists with advanced degrees and/or certifications in specialty areas should see the best job prospects. Individuals with experience, especially those working in outpatient care centers and hospitals, will also see favorable job prospects.

Job Prospects for Specialty Dietitians and Nutritionists

Dietitians and nutritionists carry out similar tasks. But within the general branch of the occupation, there are specialties. Following are examples of various types of dietitians and nutritionists and what they do.

Clinical dietitians and nutritionists

These specialized dietitians and nutritionists are often found in:

  • hospitals
  • long-term care facilities
  • private practice

They provide medical nutrition therapy to patients. They create customized nutrition plans based on the patient’s individual needs. They often provide counsel and advice on how to improve patients’ health through dietary changes and nutrition. In medical facilities and doctor’s offices, clinical dietitians work with patients with specific diseases or conditions, such as:

  • diabetes
  • digestive disorders,
  • kidney issues

Community dietitians and nutritionists

Community dietitians and nutritionists work with a broader population or specific groups of people, such as adolescents or the elderly. These specialized nutritionists create programs and counsel the public on food- and nutrition-related topics. They work in:

  • government agencies
  • health maintenance organizations (HMOs)
  • nonprofit agencies
  • public health clinics, among other settings.

Management dietitians

Management dietitians plan and develop food programs. They are often found in food service settings, such as:

  • cafeterias
  • hospitals
  • prisons
  • schools

tThey are managers who oversee the operations of food-planning programs. Management dietitians also oversee kitchen staff and other employees. They carry out budget-related tasks and business-related jobs, and they are responsible for buying food.

Final Thoughts on the Best Degree Path to Becoming a Dietitian or Nutritionist

If you have a passion to help others and an interest in nutrition and health, a career as a dietitian or nutritionist might be a good choice. The first step is to obtain the proper education. Both dietitians and nutritionists must hold a bachelor’s degree, preferably from an accredited institution, and become licensed in the state they wish to practice. Supervised training in the form of an internship is also required for the career.

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BDP Staff
May 2021

This concludes our article on the best degree path to becoming a dietician or nutritionist.

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris