Finding the Right Master's in Public Health in Nutrition Program: A Comprehensive Guide

Published on: Nov 30, 2023

Choosing to start grad school for public health nutrition is an exciting decision. Immediately a world of options opens up for you, both academically and professionally. You’ll first have to make a decision about whether you want to have a more general MPH and take elective coursework in nutrition, or find an MPH program where your focus from the outset is nutrition. This is just one example of the type of decision you’ll need to make and choosing the right program is critical. Once you’re enrolled, it would be very difficult to change universities and the program you attend can have a significant impact on your career options. While this might be nerve-wracking, the goal of this post is to empower you with the perspective and information needed to make an informed decision.  

This article will share ideas and information on how to research and determine the right public health nutrition program based on your learning style, preferences for format (that is, online or in-person), and professional goals. Some programs prepare you to take the registered dietician exam upon graduation, which requires having completed a dietetic internship1

Our goal is to show you how to adopt a personalized approach to ensure that the program you choose aligns with your unique needs and objectives. We aim to provide valuable perspectives and insights to help you navigate the process of selecting an ideal public health nutrition program and conclude with an overview of ten programs.

What is a Master's in Public Health Nutrition?

If we’re going to give advice on how to choose the right program, let’s first start by defining what this degree is. A master's in public health nutrition is a graduate-level program that focuses on the intersection of public health and nutrition. This degree can be called a few different things depending on the program (MPH in Nutrition, Master’s in Public Health Nutrition, Public Health Nutrition). The degree aims to provide students with advanced knowledge and skills in assessing, understanding, and addressing nutrition-related issues at the population level. Students who complete this degree should be well-equipped to make significant contributions to public health initiatives related to nutritional science and food. 

The objectives of a Master's in Public Health Nutrition program may vary slightly depending on the university offering the program, however we can say that an overarching goal is to train individuals to have the skills needed so that they can improve the nutritional well-being of individuals and communities. This degree also emphasizes the development and implementation of effective interventions and policies that can address nutrition-related challenges and improve public health outcomes. Topics might be related specifically to food and nutrition science, such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases, but the lens through which they’re viewed will be a public health one. That is, you’ll look at these health issues with an eye toward the social, community, cultural, and environmental/economic factors that led to these health issues. 

There’s an incredibly wide variety of topics that you can address as a public health nutritionist. The Healthy People 2030 objectives related to food and nutrition are everything from what you might think are obvious goals (increasing vegetable consumption for all ages, reducing cholesterol and high blood pressure) while others are more specialized like increasing the number of workplaces that offer employee nutrition programs or reducing sodium consumption3.

Why Does This Degree Matter?

When you work as a public health nutritionist, you’ll have the opportunity to directly benefit those you’re working with. This degree is a nice hybrid of a field like public health where you don’t always interact directly with the people whose health you’re hoping to improve, and a field like medicine or nursing with direct patient interaction. This work is critical as many people in the United States don’t get the recommended amounts of healthy foods, putting them at increased risk for health problems3.

Those working as public health nutritionists can develop policies and programs to target issues like food insecurity, malnutrition, and food access disparities. They work collaboratively with governments, non-profit organizations, and communities to create effective programs that are uniquely designed for vulnerable populations to reduce health inequities. Others working in public health nutrition may conduct research to build an evidence base to inform policy decisions and steer the development of public health interventions.

Core Areas of the Degree

Much of the MPH in nutrition will cover the core areas of public health to start and then have a focus specifically on nutrition. While each program will be different, here are some of the key areas that many will have:

  • Nutritional Assessment:

    You’ll learn how to complete nutritional assessments of people and communities. This can include dietary evaluations.

  • Program Planning and Evaluation:

    A key component of any public health degree, the focus here will be on designing, implementing, and evaluating programs that are specifically related to nutrition. A section of the RD exam focuses specifically on planning and evaluation4.

  • Public Health Policy and Advocacy:

    In order to improve the nutritional status of individuals, understanding of the impact of policy on food systems is key. This can include policy development processes and explain the importance of advocating for evidence-based nutrition policies. An example of nutrition-related policy is the recent executive order renewing a council on nutrition and physical fitness5.

  • Health Promotion and Education:

    Another key component of any public health degree, this will give you the knowledge necessary to promote healthy eating habits, develop nutrition education materials, and conduct community-based interventions to improve nutritional outcomes.

  • Food and Food Systems:

    This can cover everything from microbiology and food safety to nutrients and nutritional biochemistry. Food systems relate to the broader aspects of food production and policy, as well as the environmental and social aspects of food.

  • Cultural Competency:

    Especially given the personal and social nature of nutrition and eating, learning about cultural competency is critical. Lack of cultural competency has been cited as a barrier to health services6.

In addition to the skills you’ll acquire through your MPH, completing a master’s in public health nutrition will make you well-prepared to have a meaningful impact in public health practice, research, policy development, or community advocacy. You’ll also have a good start in preparing to take the registered dietician (RD) exam by having completed a master’s degree, although you’ll need to complete a dietetic internship7.

Factors to Consider in Selecting a Public Health Nutrition Program

Given the number of accredited MPH programs, it can be overwhelming to start your search.  We’re here to help by showing you comprehensive ways to think about choosing a program.

Accreditation and program reputation:

One of the easiest things to check is that any program you consider is accredited. We offer a deep-dive into the importance of accreditation here, but the TLDR is that accredited programs meet public health educational standards and you need to attend an accredited program to be eligible for student loans. Program reputation is important too: you can consider published rankings, but more importantly try to find out how well respected a given program is by talking with people in the public health field.

Specialization options and curriculum:

Take a close look at the curriculum of each program to review the courses offered, the core areas of study, and how much you can tailor a program to your interests (if that matters to you). While most programs should cover the core areas of public health and the nutrition topics above, make sure to look at electives to see that they align with your interests.

Learning format:

on-campus, online, or hybrid programs. Consider whether you prefer a traditional on-campus program, an online program, or a hybrid program that’s a combination of in-person and online learning. There are many benefits to an online MPH program and it’s important to think about your learning style to determine which format will best suit your needs and match your personal and professional goals.

Duration and flexibility of the program:

The majority of MPH programs can be completed in two years, although there are many one-year programs. Think about whether you’d like to complete your degree as quickly as possible, whether it’s important to you to have a lot of choice in elective coursework, and whether you want online or in-person instruction.

Internship or practical experience opportunities:

One of the best ways to decide what you’d like to do after graduating is by getting hands-on experience while still completing your graduate coursework. Look for programs that offer this type of experience through internships, fieldwork, or research opportunities. These experiences can enhance your skills and provide real-world application of the knowledge gained as part of the program. This is especially important if you’d like to be eligible for the RD exam after graduation.

Faculty expertise and industry connections:

Review the faculty profiles on a program’s website. If you’re new to public health, it can be hard to tell what to look at to assess the qualifications and expertise of the faculty members. Some of the things you want to see are faculty who have diverse backgrounds and research interests. Qualified faculty not only provide a rich learning experience, but also can provide mentorship and connections that could lead to internships and jobs.

Financial considerations and scholarship opportunities:

As with any graduate degree, getting an MPH can be expensive. You should make sure you’re eligible for loans. We also have a comprehensive guide listing scholarships for MPH programs.

Why Should You Get a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition?

We’ve talked previously about public health careers and why you should study public health, but this section will be specifically focused on public health nutrition. Here are some of the main areas where you’ll benefit from having completed a masters in public health nutrition:

Career prospects and job opportunities for graduates:

Getting a master’s in public health nutrition sets you up for a wide range of career opportunities that you can tailor based on  your own interests. Common jobs and areas of employment include being a public health nutritionist and public health dietitian, or working in health promotion, community health and government as community health educators, program coordinators and policy analysts. The types of organizations where you’d work could be public health-focused like large health departments like the New York City’s Health Department, with a range of nutrition-related services offered, community-based public health organizations, and non-profits like Philadelphia’s Food Trust8.

Professional growth and earning potential:

A master’s degree has been shown to positively impact one’s earning potential over a bachelor’s degree9. By getting your MPH with a focus in nutrition, you’re also showing potential employers your commitment to this field. This can in turn lead to promotion opportunities and leadership positions, as well as higher salaries that come with these opportunities. According to Payscale, the average salary for a nutritionist is $50,782 in 202310.

Influence on community health and public policy:

By working in public health, you have the chance to influence health at the community level and have a bigger impact than by working directly with individuals. Working in a hospital or healthcare organization is a great way to influence community health by offering nutritional and educational programming. An exciting area of public health nutrition is that of policy. Working on public policy related to nutrition opens up many opportunities related to advocacy. Topics related to nutrition and public policy can include everything from healthy food marketing campaigns and programs to provide fresh fruit and vegetable coupons for people using public assistance programs like SNAP11.

Now You Know Why - What About Where?

As we’ve talked about before, figuring out where to start once you decide to pursue any kind of MPH can be challenging. We offer a deep-dive here into topics related to choosing a program: everything from online rankings, the difference between a school of public health and a public health program, cost and affordability, and career opportunities post-graduation. All of these are important considerations as you begin your search. Another thing to consider is whether you want an in-person program, an online program, or a hybrid of the two. 

If you’re thinking about sitting for the RD exam eventually, you’ll also want a program with good connections for the required dietetics internship. As you begin requesting information from schools, start thinking about how soon you might want to apply. We’ve put together an application timeline with guidance on the process to help you figure out next steps.

MPH Making an Impact

Profiles of Selected Master's in Public Health Nutrition Programs

You have many options for where to complete a master’s in public health nutrition, especially depending on whether you’re looking for a program that will prepare you to take the RD exam or one where the main focus is public health with a concentration in nutrition. Our goal here is to give you a broad overview of ten programs across the US where you can complete one.

About the Authors

Written by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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