What is a Dietetics Degree?

Dietetics is the field of science concerned with how nutrition and healthy eating affect our overall health. The dietetics major is a professional program which prepares students to earn a dietitian license, which is required by many states.

Degree programs in dietetics focus on foodservice systems management, clinical nutrition, and community / population health. The curriculum spans general chemistry, biochemistry, and microbiology, the food and nutrition sciences, human physiology and anatomy, the psychology of human behavior, and the design, implementation, and management of effective nutrition programs.

Program Options

It is important to select degree programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).

Bachelor’s Degree in Dietetics – Four to Five Year Duration
The bachelor’s degree program in dietetics combines coursework in the general biological and social sciences with specialized dietetics courses like basic and applied nutrition, food and food systems management, and professional dietetics practice. A standardized practicum component is an integral part of the program.

Here is a snapshot of a typical dietetics undergraduate curriculum:

  • General Chemistry – essential concepts of atomic properties, atomic interactions, reaction chemistry, thermodynamics, chemical kinetics, and equilibrium
  • Elementary Statistics – data analysis, probability, and statistical inference; statistics as a means of communication and a tool for decision making
  • Nutrition Health and Disease – nutrient needs for maintaining positive nutritional status, diets to fit specific health needs, primary nutritional care
  • Foodservice Systems Management – organization and management of foodservice systems; areas within foodservice systems including production and service management, sanitation and safety, cost control, and human resources; daily business operation procedures
  • Principles of Food Preparation – standards and techniques in food preparation with emphasis on factors affecting food quality, practical experience in food production in accordance with food standards, sanitation, and safety
  • Nutrition in the Life Cycle – modification of nutritional needs with changes in the life cycle; the significance of nutrition for growth and development from conception through adolescence, influence of nutrition on the aging process
  • Management of Quantity Food Purchasing and Production – purchasing, specifications, and procedures related to quantity food production, management, menu planning, standardized recipes, merchandising, cost, and quality control
  • Nutrition Education and Communication – objectives, methods, resources, and evaluation techniques for educational programs in commercial and community settings in dietetics
  • Experimental Food Study – food components and their interactions, chemical and physical principles applied to foods, recipe testing and formulation, developments of experimental techniques applicable to food science
  • Community Nutrition and Assessment – nutritional assessment applied to community and clinical settings, assessment protocols and practice, nutrition counseling strategies, program planning and evaluation, legislation, and public policy
  • General Psychology – basic methods and concepts of psychology which have broad relevance to interdisciplinary study
  • General Microbiology and Public Health – basic concepts of microbiology and its practical applications to medicine, public health, and the environment
  • General Microbiology and Public Health Laboratory – lab techniques in isolation, enumeration, and identification of microorganisms
  • Principles of Human Physiology – physiology of human organ systems and principles of homeostasis (the maintenance and regulation of stability and constancy in cells, tissues, and organisms)
  • Principles of Human Physiology Laboratory – lab exercises in the physiology of mammals
  • Principles of Human Anatomy – study of the gross anatomy of the human body; skeletal, specimen, and cadaver study
  • General Organic Chemistry – common organic compounds and basic principles
  • General Biochemistry – overview of major areas in biochemistry including enzymology, bioenergetics, and carbohydrate, lipid, and nucleic acid metabolism
  • Advanced Nutrition I – research in human nutrient requirements and metabolic interrelationships of proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids found in foods
  • Advanced Nutrition II – research in human nutrient requirements and metabolic interrelationships of vitamins, minerals, water, and non-nutritive substances found in foods
  • Medical Nutrition Therapy I – the healthcare team and roles in the nutritional care of clients in various settings, assessment strategies and record keeping for clinical dietetics, quality assurance, nutrition education for outpatients
  • Medical Nutrition Therapy II – analyzing and integrating research in nutritional diet therapy, application to healthcare in clinical and community environments, designing dietary components of patient care plans, diet counseling techniques
  • Structural Oppression and Social Foundations of Health – health status of ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation communities in the United States; impact of personal and cultural beliefs, lifestyle / behavior patterns, racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, and healthcare on individual and group health; effective health promotion strategies

Master’s Degree in Dietetics – One to Two Year Duration
At the master’s level, dietetics students learn how to redesign healthcare processes, use information technology, develop effective healthcare teams, coordinate care, and measure performance and outcomes. They often share classes with other health majors such as graduate nursing and public health students.

Programs typically allow students to choose their culminating experience from among two or more options. The traditional thesis option involves research study that is planned, executed, and written in thesis format. Other common options include a non-thesis research project or biomedical research writing. Some programs require that master’s candidates also pass a comprehensive exam in order to graduate.

The content of the dietetics master’s curriculum varies depending on the area of interest chosen by each student. Examples of possible concentrations / research areas include:

  • Renal nutrition – the specialist in renal nutrition works directly with adult and/or pediatric patients with acute kidney injury or chronic kidney disease
  • Pediatric nutrition – the pediatric dietitian provides medical nutrition therapy for infants, children, and adolescents
  • Sports dietetics – the sports dietitian provides individual and group / team nutrition counseling and education to enhance athletic performance
  • Gerontological nutrition – the gerontological dietitian provides nutrition care to promote quality of life and optimal health for older adults
  • Oncology nutrition – the oncology dietitian works directly with individuals at risk for, or diagnosed with various types of cancer
  • Pediatric critical care – the specialist in pediatric critical care nutrition provides medical nutrition therapy for critically ill infants, children, and adolescents
  • Obesity and weight management – the specialist in obesity and weight management works with patients and clients to help them manage their weight through healthy nutrition, behavioral health, exercise, and physical activity

At most schools, some courses are mandatory regardless of the individual focus area. These are examples of possible compulsory courses:

  • Research Design and Methods – examination of study designs and methodologies used in conducting original research and in better understanding of the research of others; students develop an original research proposal
  • Community Nutrition Experience – supervised practice experience in a variety of community settings emphasizing nutrition education and the operation of federal, state, and local nutrition programs
  • Nutrition Therapy Experience – supervised clinical and outpatient practice experience; students nutritionally assess, diagnose, monitor, and evaluate patients with complex medical / surgical conditions
  • Advanced Topics in Foods – advanced topics in foods, foodservice, and food science with application to current issues of dietetics practice; new foods, biotechnology, quackery, processed foods, and supermarket trends
  • Advanced Topics in Nutrition – selected advanced topics in human nutrition with application to current issues of dietetics practice
  • Development of the Entrepreneurial Dietitian – conceptualizing, planning, and marketing a dietetics private practice or start-up enterprise; related legal and ethical issues

Degrees Similar to Dietetics

Food Science
The subject matter of food science degree programs spans the areas of biology, biochemistry, and chemical engineering. Students learn how to apply these foundations to examine food properties and develop foods that are sustainable.

Naturopathic Medicine
The practice of naturopathic medicine or ‘naturopathy’ is centuries old. This alternative wellness system is built on the belief that the body can heal itself. It combines modern medical methods with a broad range of natural therapies to aid recovery, prevent illness, and boost overall health. Massage, herbs, exercise, nutritional counseling, and acupuncture all fall under the umbrella of naturopathy.

This degree program is designed to give students the knowledge and experience for safe, compassionate, evidence-based, competent, and ethical nursing practice.

Nutrition Science
This degree field is concerned with the complex relationships between the body, nutrients, and health. Classes cover human nutrition and how the body processes nutrients.

Public Health
Students who enter degree programs in public health look at how access and lack of access to healthcare, health education, and funding affect the spread, treatment, and prevention of disease. Epidemiology – the science concerned with the spread and control of diseases and viruses – is the science at the heart of public health.

Social Work
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. Students who pursue a degree in the field gain the knowledge and skills, as well as the ethics and values, to work for social justice for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. The typical curriculum examines issues such as child welfare, mental health, poverty, aging, domestic violence, and marginalized groups.

Skills You’ll Learn

In addition to knowledge of the scientific aspects of food and understanding of the impact of diet on health, dietetics graduates come away from their studies with a diverse set of transferable skills, including the following:

  • Ability to explain complex information and issues simply
  • Ability to motivate others
  • Ability to prioritize work and work under pressure
  • Attention to detail
  • Business skills
  • Computer literacy
  • Designing and delivering learning programs
  • Empathy
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Negotiation
  • Record keeping and report writing
  • Strong verbal and written communication
  • Tactfulness / ability to deal with sensitive issues
  • Teamwork
  • Time management
  • Trustworthiness

What Can You Do with a Dietetics Degree?

In addition to creating nutritional programs in many different settings, dietitians apply their knowledge and skills in other ways as well. Employment and private practice / consulting opportunities for dietetics graduates exist with:

  • Cancer centers
  • Community nutrition education programs
  • Corporate wellness programs
  • Correctional facilities
  • Diabetes treatment centers
  • Food banks
  • Food companies (examples: Kraft, General Mills, Nestlé) – improving nutritional quality of prepared meals and the accuracy of food labels
  • Government agencies and programs (examples: Food and Drug Administration – FDA; US Department of Agriculture – USDA; Women, Infant, and Children’s Nutrition Program, Head Start, The Area Agency on Aging) – increasing public awareness of nutritional habits and standards
  • Health clubs, spas, and wellness centers / spa resorts
  • Homeless shelters
  • Hospices
  • Hospitals and clinics
  • Individual clients with celiac disease
  • Individual clients with diabetes
  • Individual clients with eating disorders
  • Individual clients – sports nutrition
  • Individual clients – weigh management
  • Health insurance companies and health maintenance organizations (HMOs)
  • International food organizations
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Media – writing cookbooks and food-related magazine columns
  • Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as CARE, Oxfam International
  • Nursing homes and senior care facilities
  • Outpatient clinics and facilities
  • Pediatric healthcare specialists
  • Pharmaceutical companies – conducting research, clinical trials, interventions
  • Public health agencies
  • Rehabilitation facilities
  • Researchers – researching how dietary changes affect health
  • Restaurants
  • Schools and School Boards
  • Trade associations (examples: Dairy Council, Agriculture Council of America, American Association of Meat Processors)
  • Universities


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