Dieticians and nutritionists are skilled professionals that educate patients on the proper dietary principles necessary for leading a healthy life. Almost 60,000 nutritionists work across the U.S., serving patients from newborns to senior citizens. They address existing health conditions directly attributable to a poor diet and little exercise, or they may assist health patients of diverse cultures prone to chronic malnutrition or disease. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that epidemic levels of improper nutrition and immobility are the direct cause of 580,000 fatalities a year – equal to fatalities caused by tobacco, and thirteen times the number of deaths caused by gunshots. With more than one-third of all Americans considered obese, it’s no wonder the health professions are expected to increase the number of licensed dietitians and nutritionists by 21 percent from 2012 to 2022 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The educational pathway to licensed professions in nutrition begins at the level of the associate degree and progresses in depth and specialization up through the doctorate. Early coursework is designed around foundation studies in biology, chemistry, nutrition and psychology. The BLS reports that the majority of dietitians and nutritionists complete a bachelor’s degree in fields such as foods and nutrition, dietetics, clinical nutrition and food service systems management. Most degree programs leading to a 4-year degree require supervised internships. For online students, internships are arranged at locations convenient to their homes. Many nutritionists return to school after graduation to earn advanced degrees to broaden their professional credentials for career advancement. Colleges, universities and private schools have developed a wide range of online nutrition degree programs tailored to the educational needs of students who have work and family obligations. Asynchronous course delivery systems used in online degree programs enable students to attend school on their own schedules, from wherever they connect to the internet.
Nutritionists that complete advanced degrees earn the dietitian designation. Depending on education and experience, nutritionists work in hospitals, clinics, senior and extended-care facilities, public schools, cafeterias, governmental social service agencies, holistic medical practices or as consultants.
Each advancement in degree leads to increased roles and earnings in the nutritional field. Nutritionists can work as self-employed entrepreneurs, in hospital settings, public schools and a variety of holistic and alternative medicine environments. Depending on level of education, nutritionists play a key role in most health-related enterprises. Some work as educators, researchers, food service health specialists or nutritional supplement and food manufacturing consultants. Ongoing education helps nutritionists stay atop of emerging science, government regulations, and treatment methods. The following guide was created to assist prospective students in choosing the right nutrition degree online along with a timeline for the degree completion at each level, from associate to doctorate. Learn about the attributes of a high quality online nutrition degree program, about licensing and certification and hear from a graduate of an online dietician program.
A 2-year, associate online degree program provides an educational foundation for students seeking entry level roles as dietetic technicians (DT). To work as a dietitian or nutritionist requires completion of a bachelor degree; however earning an online associate degree can prepare students for entry into a bachelor degree program or work as a DT. The associate degree program is comprised of core lower-division college requirements in the humanities, arts, ad sciences that can be transferred to four year schools. Other courses may include introductory studies in healthcare systems, human physiology, microbiology, organic chemistry, mathematics and social sciences common to the nutritionist professions. Earning an online associate degree can also save students in tuition costs they might otherwise spend on the first two years of a bachelor degree program.
Employers of nutritionists require the bachelor degree as the minimum education for a food and dietary science position beyond an entry level role. An online bachelor’s degree in nutrition extends beyond introductory courses to a curriculum that includes food science, vitamins and minerals, food service operations management, medical terminology, clinical nutrition, nutrition counseling, energy metabolism and metabolic integration and professional communication. The online nutrition degree requirements at the bachelor level include a supervised internship at a related institution. Aside from possible orientation sessions and internships, most programs are delivered entirely online. Following graduation, students go on to practice once they complete state licensing and/or certifications. (See a discussion of certifications below).
Working dieticians who want to advance in the field enter master’s degree programs with progressive academic studies. The master’s curriculum provides the critical knowledge for graduates to sit for their certified clinical nutritionist (CCN) examination. The online master’s degree in nutrition typically begins with a concentration of studies in advanced research methodology and statistics. Students may undertake graduate studies in community health, medical nutrition therapy, health promotion/disease prevention, foundations of project management and clinical health behavior change. Learn more about earning an online master’s in nutrition with our guide.
The online doctorate in nutrition and dietetics represents the highest educational accomplishment in the field and qualifies the graduate to take post-secondary teaching or research positions. Nutrition doctorates may work at an extensive range of educational or research professions. They take jobs with colleges, universities, public and private research facilities, food manufacturing firms and governmental organizations related to health, nutrition and consumer protection. Students are required to research, write and defend a dissertation. Coursework previously completed as part of a master’s degree may be waived, allowing students to focus on their PhD courses and research. The curriculum can include advanced studies in public health systems, epidemiology, macronutrients, protein, fats and carbohydrates and vitamins and minerals.
So far, this guide has outlined the major types of online nutrition degree programs and choosing the type of degree based on previous education should now be abundantly clear to potential students. The challenge then becomes determining whether schools on the student’s short list offer courses that nutritionists require. Online degree programs establish their own entry requirements, their nutritionist curriculum and graduation milestones, but not all online dietician degree programs share the same academic proficiency and student support systems. However, there are indispensable attributes native to high-quality online programs, including:
To be effective and meet the goals of its students, an online nutrition degree program must present an entire virtual package, from course registration to class assignments, allowing students 24/7 access to all materials. An asynchronous course is delivered through an interface that includes multiple options for communications between faculty and students. They can include online chats, discussion boards, streaming lectures, multimedia presentations, email and video conferencing. Schools offer sample courses that demonstrate the system and help students to assess their aptitude to online learning. Class materials must always be available and students should have the opportunity to start where they left off, rewind media to review or re-learn class lectures and presentations. The interface may come from a standalone system such as Blackboard, or developed by the university as a proprietary learning system. While students learn at their own pace, the interface must rigorously announce upcoming tests, research deadlines and other course milestones. Professors must use the system to provide key links to research resources in nutrition and dietetics, also available 24/7.
Voluntary accreditation is the hallmark of a high-quality institution offering a nutrition degree online. Accreditation assures students, other schools and employers of the academic integrity and dietetic fidelity of the courses and degrees offered online. Independent, unbiased accreditation agencies evaluate academic performance and student support offered at participating programs using a benchmark established by professional organizations. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes the expertise of six regional accreditation agencies. There are also accreditation organizations that evaluate nutrition degree programs. For example, The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) is the agency evaluating programs that prepare students for registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) or registered dietetic technician (DTR) designations. ACEND participants are updated on changes in career and academic educational requirements that may update the college curriculum and degree program. Students may also want to investigate if potential online nutrition degree programs hold an accreditation by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission. Accreditation ensures employers, other educational institutions, a federal financial aid programs that the school’s dietician degree programs meet the benchmarks of a quality education.
Evaluate prospective online nutrition degree programs for the extent of student resources. These can include campus clubs for nutrition or healthcare-related students, faculty mentors in the field, employment and career fairs, job counselors, job boards, memberships in national or international nutritionist organizations and internship opportunities with relevant, high-quality health institutions. Ask admissions counselors what percentage of students complete the degree. What professional organizations have partnerships with the school? Where have graduates taken jobs?
Online degree programs typically offer students application, enrollment and course start dates throughout the academic year – but not all of them. Course and semester length is determined by each online institution. Some schools operate by the semester or quarter, others by the number of classes students may attend each year. Many colleges have adopted the fall/spring/winter quarter system offering accelerated class sessions that begin as soon as the previous class has concluded. It is also common to find summer intensives or orientation courses that begin each school year. The reality of having to wait six months to enroll in a class can wipe out the benefits of asynchronous distance learning.
Most of the states in the country require practicing nutritionists and dieticians to hold a license and/or relevant certification. Each state establishes licensing requirements and testing procedures. States with licenses and certifications typically require professionals to complete ongoing nutritionist education to retain credentials. Commonly sought licenses include the:
To earn a registered dietitian certification, students must be graduates of a bachelor degree program offering curriculum approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics. The degree must include a formal supervised internship. After passing the national exam of the Commission on Dietetic Registration, graduates may use the title, Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). Grads of associate degree programs that are working as dietetic technicians under supervision of an RD may also test to earn the registered dietetic technician (DTR) credential.
Professional nutritionists holding advanced degrees can sit for the test by Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists to become certified nutrition specialists (CNS). Another popular certification, the certified clinical nutritionist (CCN) requires passage of a national exam from the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board. The American Nutrition Association offers a detailed breakdown on credentialing.
Becky M. is a registered dietician in Columbia, MO. She began her career as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) with a senior assisted living center after completing her associate degree in general studies. It wasn’t long before she was convinced that senior homes could offer residents a good-tasting diet that addressed their nutritional needs. She completed her bachelor of science in nutrition via an online degree program in 2013 and now is a registered dietician at the same nursing facility.
How satisfied are you with your online nutrition degree?
It was the absolute right thing to do. I make more than twice what I was earning as a CNA. And I make a lasting impact on the residents’ health.
What aspects of online learning helped you the most?
So many. The best thing was I could finish those two years without a break in employment. I’m an online freak anyway, so it was natural to do my research and submit my papers right from my apartment.
Can you give a practical example of something you learned and have put into practice?
My class in nutrition for the elderly population was extensive and covered virtually every challenge I see in my daily rounds. Diet plays a major part in treating senior conditions like malnutrition, obesity, dehydration, osteoporosis and hypertension. One diet plan does not treat every patient the same way, but the right diet helps every senior at my center.
Did you miss the social aspects of a campus education?
I’m a little older now and I don’t need parties and coffee klatches at school. I was already over-extended with my partner, my friends and the physical demands of my CNA job anyway. I had a goal and I nailed it.
The field of nutrition presents a wide range of options for potential students, ranging from certificates through to doctorate programs, in addition to numerous concentration areas. After considering the type of degree best suited to their individual needs, students can use the search tool below to find programs not only fitting these requirements, but also factoring in important qualities such as internship opportunities, proper accreditation, and flexible course offerings.
The virtual learning environment is a great fit for online nutrition degree programs. A good program teaches students how to use online tools that benefit them in school and beyond and prepares students to take licensure tests after graduation. Valuable features also include internship programs, affordable tuition and job placement services after graduation. Using our comprehensive methodology that includes a variety of metrics, we’ve compiled the Best Online Nutrition Degrees for 2015-2016. Find the best of the best right below.
|1||East Carolina University||97.96|
|2||University of North Florida||97.86|
|3||University of Southern Mississippi||97.63|
|4||Jacksonville State University||97.09|
|5||Mississippi State University||97.07|
|6||Oklahoma State University-Main Campus||96.97|
|7||South Dakota State University||96.89|
|8||University of Nebraska-Lincoln||96.76|
|9||North Carolina State University at Raleigh||96.23|
|10||University of Memphis||96.15|
|11||The University of Alabama||95.88|
|12||Arizona State University-Tempe||95.82|
|13||Central Michigan University||95.59|
|14||University of Massachusetts-Amherst||94.84|
|15||University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign||94.67|
|18||University of Bridgeport||93.19|
|19||New York Institute of Technology||93.08|
|22||New York Chiropractic College||91.10|
|24||Maryland University of Integrative Health||89.25|
|25||Loma Linda University||88.82|