When you think about careers in nutrition, your first thought may naturally be: nutritionist. While that’s undoubtedly the most common path for someone with a degree in this field, there are actually a wide range of career options for someone interested in food and nutrition. Whether you want to work in corporate America or a third-world country, with young children or the elderly, freelance or for a large company, there is a food-related job for you. Most require at least some education or experience in nutrition (preferably a degree in the field), and most have higher than average salaries.
A clinical dietician is someone who works with healthcare providers and patients in a healthcare setting – usually hospitals or long-term care facilities, although some are employed by insurance companies or schools or work independently – to create and supervise nutrition plans as part of an overall treatment plan. In some cases, these plans are short term, such as when a hospitalized individual needs a strict diet post-surgery. Other times, clinical dieticians work with patients over the long term, such as those with diabetes, obesity or heart disease, developing eating plans that will help them maintain their health or overcome a chronic condition.
For many clinical dieticians, creating an eating plan that meets the patient’s caloric and nutritional needs is only the beginning. Many factors influence how one eats, including economic status, cultural background, psychology, living conditions and support from others. In other words, a low-income individual who lives in an urban area without easy access to fresh foods is going to struggle with a healthy diet more than a wealthier person who can easily get to a large grocery store. Clinical dieticians, then, often have to help patients find ways to overcome barriers to meeting their nutritional needs and following the doctor’s orders.
To become a clinical dietician, you need at least a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, clinical nutrition, food, public health or another related field. Many dieticians opt to earn the Registered Dietician Nutritionist (RDN) credential, which requires a bachelor’s degree and 1,200 hours of supervised internship experience, as well as the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential, which requires a master’s or doctoral degree, 1,000 hours of professional experience and an exam. Either of these credentials can stand in for a license in states that require licensure; in fact, most employers require at least an RDN from dietician applicants.
The median salary in this growing industry – the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 15 percent growth by 2026 due to the increase in chronic disease – is $59,410. This means that half of dieticians earn more (the top 10 percent earn more than $83,000 annually) and half earn less (the lowest 10 percent earn less than $36,000).
Food Industry Professionals
Food is a major industry in the U.S., and from food manufacturers to promotional councils, there are opportunities in all sectors for jobs related to food and nutrition. From developing recipes and analyzing products for nutritional labeling to promoting and educating consumers about the nutritional value of specific foods, the food industry is full of opportunities for those who have a background in food. For instance, many food manufacturing companies hire food scientists to create new and innovative products that meet nutrition and food safety standards. Generally speaking, a food scientist has a background in applied food sciences or another related field, and some go on to earn advanced degrees in nutrition and dietetics. The median annual wage for these roles is almost $63,000, with about 7 percent growth predicted by 2026.
No discussion of careers in nutrition would be complete without mentioning chefs. Whether working in a restaurant or as a private chef, a knowledge of nutrition is useful. Although many chefs are more focused on learning preparation techniques, for many, the nutritional value of their meals is also a concern. For instance, a private chef may be charged with preparing a special diet for his or her client, carefully maximizing nutritional value while limiting calories. Chefs may also work for food manufacturers, weight loss companies or home delivery services, developing and testing recipes.
Formal education isn’t always a requirement for chefs, as many learn their trade on the job and climb through the ranks of restaurant kitchens – but many of the most successful chefs complete some form of culinary training, which often includes nutrition education. The American Culinary Foundation also offers certification programs for different types of chefs, including personal chefs, based on work experience and formal training. Earning a certification usually translates to higher earnings. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a chef is $49,950, with the highest paid chefs earning more than $78,000 per year. However, especially successful chefs, including those who parlay their experience into media (i.e., television shows and cookbooks) or open their own restaurants, can earn significantly more, often well into the seven figures.
International Aid Worker
If you’re looking for a million-dollar salary, working for an international food organization probably isn’t your best bet. However, the job satisfaction that can come from helping people all over the world access the food and nutrition they need can be just as rewarding. As an international aid worker, you will be on the front lines of helping to solve world hunger, which killed more than 3.1 million children worldwide in 2015 alone.
Working for a nongovernment organization on issues related to food security almost always requires you to have at least a master’s degree in a related field (like nutrition,) unless you have significant experience volunteering abroad. And even with a master’s degree, you still need to have at least one internship on your resume, which is most likely to be unpaid. Many relief workers in the field spent some time working in their organization’s headquarters as well, learning about the ins and outs of the mission before heading into the field.
On average, international aid workers earn $30,758. Starting salaries may be as low as $15,000 per year, and the highest earners bring home about $50,000 per year. However, depending on where you are working and your role, some of your expenses may be covered by the NGO, and the cost of living will be significantly lower than in the U.S.
Food writers do more than just review restaurants. Someone with a background in food and nutrition can often find writing opportunities across the spectrum, from reporting on food news and trends for magazines and websites to working on reports and information for medical, governmental and aid agencies, among others. Opinions differ on how to best break into the field of food writing. Some argue that if you have a talent for writing, you can learn about food simply by being open-minded and looking for opportunities for new experiences. Others, including the culinary director of Food & Wine magazine, recommend seeking culinary education and experience in restaurants before embarking on a career in food writing, arguing that the writing ability can be developed. Because many food writers are freelancers, earnings can vary greatly. However, full-time writers on the staff of a publication earn a median salary of $61,820 per year, while technical writers earn $70,390.
Public Health Worker
A background in nutrition and food can open doors to opportunities in public health nutrition. In these jobs, you use your knowledge of the principles of healthy eating, nutrition and public health to design programs, policies and systems that support and maintain good health for specific populations. An example of a public health nutrition program is the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program offered to low-income mothers. Through this program, families receive vouchers for specific healthy foods that are proven to aid the development of infants and children, such as fresh vegetables, dairy products and tuna. A public health nutritionist is typically an RDN, often with additional education in public health, and earns an average of $59,000.
Weight Management Professional
Obesity is a serious problem in the U.S., with the National Institutes of Health reporting that one in three adults is overweight and one in three adults considered “extremely obese.” However, even people who aren’t significantly overweight are often concerned with losing extra pounds, and seek out help to do so. That’s where a weight management professional comes in. Using their knowledge of nutrition, these individuals work with clients to develop healthy eating plans that will allow them to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight once they achieve their goals.
Opportunities to work in weight management range from clinical dieticians in medically supervised weight management centers (often associated with hospitals) to consultants working with consumer-focused weight loss programs. A weight loss professional might also work with an employee wellness program, in a fitness facility or at a rehabilitation facility. Because there is such a wide range of employment opportunities, the requirements for becoming a weight loss professional and the earnings potential are wide ranging as well. For example, someone working in a clinical weight loss program most likely has to have at least the RDN credential and earns the same salary as a clinical dietitian. Someone working for a consumer weight loss program generally earns an hourly wage of about $7 to $15, plus commissions for selling food or memberships. These individuals don’t always have education or experience in weight management beyond their own personal experiences. In many cases, they serve in a motivational context, leaving the nutrition aspect to the developers of the branded food.
For those working in fitness facilities, the requirements are somewhere in the middle. The American Fitness Professionals Association (AFPA) and the American Council on Exercise (ACE) both offer lifestyle and weight management certification programs for personal trainers and other fitness professionals. These certifications typically require education in a health-related field, as well as evidence that you understand and can develop programs that integrate exercise, nutrition and lifestyle management for the benefit of your clients. Fitness trainers earn a median salary of $39,210, but additional certifications can increase those earnings.
Nutrition educators often fall under the category of health educators, although they are specifically nutrition focused. Spas, fitness centers, rehabilitation centers, weight management centers, and other organizations hire nutrition educators to teach courses on nutrition, healthy cooking and other related topics. For instance, a company might invite a nutrition educator to teach a cooking class as part of its employee wellness program. The salary for this work is comparatively low, at around $25,000 to $35,000 per year, but many educators work on a part-time or contract basis. Some nutritionists do this work as a side gig, teaching classes through extension or adult education programs to boost their incomes.
Not all Registered Dietician Nutritionists work for hospitals or healthcare providers. Many individuals seek out the advice and help of a nutritionist on their own as part of a commitment to living a healthy lifestyle or to lose weight. Some nutritionists opt to open their own practices, and they help clients develop healthy eating plans, establish healthy habits and reach their nutrition goals. Some consultants even go so far as to offer help with cooking and shopping, or provide on-demand coaching. Independent nutritionists can set their own hours and rates, and can earn up to $125,000 or more per year. As with clinical dieticians, education and experience counts, and those working in a state that requires licensure must adhere to the same rules as someone working for a hospital or other facility.
Schools, hospitals and other organizations that handle meals often have a dietary manager on staff to ensure that the food provided meets nutritional standards. For example, a dietary manager for a school develops menus, chooses recipes and oversees the preparation of food to ensure that it’s in line with federal school lunch regulations and meets the nutritional needs of the school population while still remaining on budget. Most organizations require dietary managers to have a minimum of an RDN credential, as well as experience working in food service. The salary for a dietary manager averages about $68,000 per year.