Last Updated on September 26, 2021
Jobs in Nutrition and Nutritional Science
Young people who have grown up as competitive athletes are keenly aware of how closely correlated nutritional intake and top athletic performance are. Eating healthy simply makes you feel better, and active people understand this intuitively from personal experience. For this reason, nutritional science is an excellent career choice for individuals who are passionate about sports and seeking a career in a field with a bright future.
What is Nutritional Science?
Carbs, electrolytes, sugars, proteins, minerals – these vital fuels power athletes to win championships, get everyday people through long days, help children grow healthy and strong, and help patients get well.
Nutritionists and dietitians carefully formulate diets that are just as important for performance as the training and practice athletes undergo. Rooted in biology, chemistry, and health studies, nutritional science is an excellent career option with great employment prospects in the sports industry and elsewhere.
According to the National Library of Medicine, nutritional science is the study of nutrition processes as well as the components of food, their actions and interactions, and balance in relation to health and disease.
How do we know what food is healthy and what to avoid? Where do the dietary recommendations for athletes, kids, and seniors come from? How do we know how much protein, fiber, carbs, etc., to include in our diets?
These guidelines come from the cutting-edge work done by nutritionists and dietitians working in the ever-evolving field of Nutritional Science.
Whether working in a lab to isolate compounds found in our food, conducting large scale studies looking for links between diet and health, advising schools on how to provide students with healthy meals, or helping individual athletes or other patients achieve better health and performance through nutrition, Nutritional Scientists perform vital work and enjoy fulfilling and lucrative careers.
What Kind of Organizations Hire Nutritionists and Dietitians?
- Professional Teams
- Olympic Teams
- Collegiate Teams
- Collegiate Leagues
- Sports Medicine Clinics
- School Districts
- Federal, State, and Municipal Agencies
- Private Clients
Nutritionists v. Dietitians
These two roles have a lot in common and in some cases are used interchangeably, but in some settings there can be notable differences.
“Nutritionist” is often used to refer to anyone who offers advice on nutrition to individuals or organizations. “Dietician” is a type of certified healthcare professional who performs the role of a nutritionist, but also can diagnose and treat eating disorders and other health conditions.
Sports nutritionists usually hold a Certified Nutritional Specialist credential, a special certification that requires a master’s degree in nutrition.
A registered dietician (RD) is a board-certified food and nutrition expert. Like a lawyer or doctor, having the title of registered dietician means that they have gone through extensive schooling and maintain professional accreditation.
A registered dietician will need to complete a one year dietetic internship, pass the registered dietician Exam, and keep up with continuing education requirements.
Nutritionists and dieticians work with athletic organizations, schools, hospitals, or long-term care facilities to make expert recommendations on how to provide high quality nutrition to sustain an entire group of people.
Sports nutritionists work to keep whole teams functioning at their best by providing carefully researched and nutritional regimens. They may also work with individual patients or athletes to ensure that they are getting the nutrition needed to maintain peak performance.
Many nutritionists also practice in a very similar way (operating on evidence-based practices) and base their decisions on studies which have proven time and time again to support their recommendation, but they are not legally obligated to do so. In some cases but not all, a registered dietician will be focused more on long-term chronic illnesses, while a nutritionist will focus more on promoting healthy choices and lifestyles for their patients and the general public.
Registered dieticians rely on evidence based practice, controlled studies, and peer-reviewed findings. The research around diet, health, and exercise is constantly being added to and updated, so keeping up with different theories, conclusions, correlations, and causations is instrumental to the success of a Registered Dietician.
Where do Nutritionists and Registered Dietitians Work?
Percent of Total (Based on 70,900 total jobs in 2018)
Hospitals (State, Local, and Private)
Nursing and Residential Care Facilities
Outpatient Care Centers
What does a Registered Dietitian do?
- A registered dietitian works with individual patients to craft specialized diets and wellness plans to improve their quality of life and help reach their health goals.
- This is one part deducing a patient’s needs, one part research, and one part counseling the patient (along with all of the paperwork, tracking, and administrative tasks).
- As a RD and a patient form a working relationship, the RD will be consistently evaluating the effects of the meal plans, and making changes as needed, and documenting the progress of the patient.
- Quite often, registered dietitians work with important stakeholders in society like policy makers, industry leaders, and governmental agencies to help mold policies, awareness campaigns, and other special initiatives. This is generally done with the idea of promoting healthy lifestyles and food choices.
- Dietitians regularly consult with doctors to help create plans for individuals with complicated health issues. They may also be partnering with leaders in the corporate food industry to make sustainability plans or consulting on food systems. Also, dietitians regularly teach or lead seminars at public and private schools or in workplaces.
- Some dietitians focus their career on research and seeing the impact of different foods on different diseases and the human body as a whole and spend less time with individual patients.
- There is much more to the role of a dietician than telling patients to “eat this and not that.” The vast majority of registered dieticians reject that black and white approach, and instead base their recommendations on evidence-based principles and current available information.
What Does a Nutritionist do?
- Many nutritionists would be doing a lot of the same day to day tasks of a registered dietician, but it would be in a different scope. There are many nutritionists that work directly with patients in hospitals and health care facilities that plan diets with patients and work on wellness strategies. A nutritionist could also be taking individual clients and working with them directly, tracking their progress, and advising them on a healthy lifestyle.
- Generally speaking, there will be more employment opportunities for a nutritionist if they are registered as a dietician. However, that does not not mean that a nutritionist needs to be officially registered to do meaningful work and have a positive influence on their patients.
Where do Nutritionists and Dietitians Work?
Nutritionists and Dietitians are in demand in many settings. Walk in to almost any hospital or nursing home, and there will likely be a Nutritionist or Dietician on staff. Also, some clinics, cafeterias, and local and state governments will hire nutritionists and dietitians either part-time, full-time, or on a contract status.
How to become a Dietitian or Nutritionist
Both Nutritionists and Registered Dietitians generally require a bachelor’s degree in a field such as nutrition, public health, or dietetics. It will also be helpful to have a foundation in fields like biology, psychology, chemistry, and food service systems management even if individuals have studied a similar degree.
If you’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree and want to pursue competitive positions such as working with sports teams or professional athletes, earning a master’s degree is a must.
As part of your graduate and undergraduate coursework, you will complete supervised training in the form of internships. You may also complete an internship following graduation. Requirements vary by state, and some states are quite stringent while others are less regulated.
You’ll typically need to pass a national licensing exam and earn one or more certifications and licenses such as registered dietician (RD), Nutrition Dietetic Technician Registered (NDTR), Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), and Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS).
Many certifications have continuing education requirements to stay current. Once you’ve earned your degree, done your supervised training, passed your tests, and earned your certifications, the most successful nutritionists and dietitians are those who are driven to continue to develop their skills and knowledge base by reading the latest industry periodicals, attending conferences, and contributing research and articles.
Meeting other professionals both inside and outside your field as well as networking and building relationships with colleagues will open doors to you, help get your name out there, and ensure that you are considered for desirable opportunities that might be just around the corner.
What classes would I be taking to earn a Nutrition Science Degree?
Every program will vary, but it will likely have most if not all of these core components:
- Mathematics (Likely up to basic Calculus)
- Anatomy and Physiology
- Nutritional Science Courses (Introductory up to a Capstone)
- Social Sciences
Nutrition Science by the numbers…
The Bureau of Labor Statistics groups both dieticians and nutritionists together when collecting data. In 2019, the media pay was $61,270/year. In 2018 it was estimated that there were a total of 70,900 jobs in this field with an 11% growth rate (much faster than average).
What are the steps to become registered as a Dietitian?
To be a registered dietician (RD), or a registered dietician nutritionist (RDN) in the United States, you must be registered with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This association includes RD’s, RDN’s, researchers, educators, physicians, pharmacists, and other professionals. Here are the requirements to obtain the certification:
- Obtain a bachelor’s degree and receive a verification statement from a Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). More info on the accreditation process here.
- Until 2024, it is possible to graduate from any undergraduate program, and then go through an accredited bachelor’s or graduate degree in dietetics before embarking on the dietetic internship. Here is a link of programs in all 50 states (there is a drop down menu where you can narrow it down to see programs only in your state of choice.)
- Completed an ACEND-Accredited supervised practice internship or individual practice program.
- Pass a written exam from the commission on dietetic registration
- Some states require additional licensing or certification.
Continue to satisfy continuing education requirements to maintain licensure.