Feeding the Future: A Complete Guide to a Career in Public Health Nutrition

Published on: May 31, 2024

Food trends like the low-fat craze of the 1980s that led to products like Snackwell’s cookies and the high-fat craze of the 1990s supported by the Atkins diet have come and gone, but there remains a susceptibility of the general public to the draw of a fast-fix solution to improve their health and appearance. It’s almost impossible to go to a news website or open a social media platform without a suggestion of the right diet and healthy eating plan to improve your health (see titles like “Women Need to Exercise and Eat Differently Than Men: Here’s How” on CNN.com and “Can Dieting Actually Lead to Long-term Weight Loss?” on NYTimes.com)1,2. Given the prolific nature of these articles, the need for reputable, tailored support and advice based in nutritional science is larger than ever. 

This is where public health nutritionists come in: these individuals can have a variety of titles (e.g., nutritionist, registered dietician, public health dietician) but all have the goal of improving the nutritional well-being of individuals and communities.

A career as a public health nutritionist gives you the opportunity to directly benefit those you’re working with by providing resources and education around topics like healthy eating, physical activity, and nutrition science. A degree in public health nutrition is in many ways the best of both worlds: your work ultimately improves health at the population level by improving individual health, but you also get the chance to work one on one with people more like medical or nursing positions allow. Many people in the United States don’t meet the recommended guidelines for healthy foods, making work in public health nutrition essential as poor nutrition puts people at an increased risk for health problems3.

What is Public Health Nutrition?

Before we dive deeper into the education needed to become a public health nutritionist, public health nutrition programs and potential career options, it’s important to take a moment and define what public health nutrition is. Public health nutrition and nutrition generally are the type of topics where many of us might have a gut sense of what they mean having heard the term so many times over the course of our lives, but would struggle to succinctly define it.

It’s so tenuous that qualitative public health research was conducted to define the term, with 24 nutrition experts from the EU, USA and Australia agreeing that components of the definition of public health nutrition should be “population-based, focus on health promotion, food and nutrition systems focus, wellness maintenance, primary prevention, applies public health principles, education, environmental and political descriptors4.”

The Public Health Nutrition journal is a leading academic research journal whose scope highlights the role of global health and health systems by publishing work with the goal of “understanding the causes of, and approaches and solutions to, nutrition-related public health achievements, situations and problems around the world... The journal is of interest to epidemiologists and health promotion specialists interested in the role of nutrition in disease prevention; academics and those involved in fieldwork and the application of research to identify practical solutions to important public health problems.”5

The next question, of course, is what does this mean for the day to day work public health nutritionists do? Taking these definitions from broad and theoretical to narrow and practical, public health nutritionists work directly with people to come up with healthy eating plans, providing on-going counseling related to nutrition and diet choices, give presentations and develop community education surrounding healthy eating, and can work to develop programs and local policies to addresses bigger-picture nutrition issues like food insecurity and health inequities related to food and nutrition. 

In this capacity, public health nutritionists work cooperatively with local policy makers to develop policies and programs that specifically address the food and nutrition issues of their communities. This might be things like advocating for new farmer’s markets or the development of new parks and playgrounds to provide opportunities for physical activity.

How Do I Become a Public Health Nutritionist?

The first step on your journey to working in the greater world of nutrition is deciding what your ultimate focus should be. While other areas of public health allow for starting an MPH program and then deciding your focus, it’s more critical here to decide whether you’d like to do an MPH in in health promotion or health policy with a focus on community health, or Master's in Public Health Nutrition program that will prepare you to take the registered dietician exam upon graduation, which requires having completed a dietetic internship6. Similar to how the Council for Education for Public Health accredits public health programs and schools to ensure that public health coursework offered meets educational standards, the Commission on Dietetic Registration provides standards and criteria for registered dietitians6

A graduate-level program in public health nutrition delves into the intersection of public health and nutrition. This program may go by different names depending on the college or university, such as MPH in Nutrition, Master’s in Public Health Nutrition, or simply Public Health Nutrition. The primary aim of this degree is to equip students with advanced knowledge and competencies in evaluating, comprehending, and tackling nutrition-related issues at a individual and population level. Graduates of this type of program should graduate with the skills necessary to make substantial contributions to public health initiatives concerning nutritional science, healthy eating and food.

Although specific objectives of a Master's in Public Health Nutrition program may vary among universities, a common overarching objective is to train individuals to effectively improve the nutritional welfare of both individuals and communities. Additionally, these programs emphasize the formulation and execution of efficient interventions and policies aimed at addressing nutrition-related challenges and enhancing public health outcomes.
For any public health professional, there are a variety of skills needed for success like adaptability, empathy and resourcefulness. Someone working as a public health nutritionist will need all of those skills, as well as skills like motivational interviewing to motivate behavior change.The Commission on Dietetic Registration, the organization that provides credentialing for both Registered Dietitians (RD) and the Registered Dietician Nutritionists (RDN), share that the practice of dietetics is “to develop, provide and manage quality food and nutrition care and services. Dietetics encompasses ethical, safe, effective, person centered, timely, efficient and equitable practices8.”

Public Health Nutrition MPH Programs

MPH programs with a concentration in nutrition will initially cover the core areas of public health prior to focusing more on nutrition. This structure gives you the broad public health foundation necessary for any focus, and will likely introduce you to topics like health policy, chronic disease, health equity and health care systems, any of which can be integrated into a public health nutrition role.

While each program will be different, there are certain key areas that many will have:

Community Nutrition:

he goal of community nutrition is to have “community nutrition and dietetics professionals to provide nutrition services according to the needs of the individuals through primary, secondary and tertiary prevention9. This means you’ll learn how to address nutrition and dietetics to improve health by working directly with individuals and their communities, and how to influence local and environmental systems to improve population health.

Food Systems:

This term “refers to all the elements and activities related to producing and consuming food, and their effects, including economic, health and environmental outcomes10. Especially as society has relatively rapidly changed from one where people farmed and produced their own food to one where the majority of people are completely removed from the process by which food arrives on their dinner table, it’s essential to understand food systems. This knowledge will help you teach people about nutritional needs, how to develop meal plans, and how to emphasize healthy meals.

Medical Nutrition Therapy:

Medical nutrition therapy training might not be offered with all MPH programs as the emphasis is more on dietetics. It is focused on diabetes management via intensive nutrition counseling11. Medical nutrition therapy includes a nutritional assessment, the establishment of goals, and on-going counseling to reinforce new healthy eating behaviors11.

Environmental Health:

Environmental health is one of the core areas of public health you’ll likely take coursework in no matter what program you choose and we have an in-depth guide to the subject area. Environmental health explores the connection between people and their surroundings, and “advances policies and programs that reduce chemical and other environmental exposures in air, water, soil and food12”. Especially if you’re interested in health equity and social justice, working in the field of environmental health can address health disparities as “Black, Indigenous and People of Color and low-wealth communities are disproportionately burdened by environmental health hazards, systemic and structural racism and disinvestment, negatively impacting their health and well-being12.

This specialized training, in addition to the skills you’ll acquire through your MPH, will give you a strong preparation for a career focused on improving nutritional outcomes and community nutrition. Additionally, completing an MPH in nutrition will make you a step closer to taking the registered dietician (RD) exam as a master’s degree is a prerequisite in addition to a dietetic internship13.

Career Opportunities and Job Market

One of the exciting things about a career in public health nutrition is that there’s a broad range of options for your career path. Public health nutritionists can work in individual practice with counseling, as state public health nutritionists, within community health organizations, and in global health organizations. While the most obvious career options are working as a registered dietician or as a public health nutritionist, there are also opportunities to work in community health or in public policy. The types of opportunities in this capacity include things like working at the San Francisco Department of Public Health on their food pharmacy program that provides free healthy food and weekly recipes to priority individuals like those with Type 2 diabetes.

Local and state government:

State public health nutritionists are employed by the government and often work on policies designed to positively influence health and nutrition. These policies and projects can be things like initiatives aimed at addressing food insecurity and health equity by trying to eliminate food deserts, or developing nutrition programs that target population health will be delivered within health systems like a hospital or local community health organization.

Community health organizations:

Nutritionists working in community health organizations often work on nutrition programs designed to improve health by focusing on healthy eating and physical activity. Community health workers can be found in virtually all areas of public health and work to improve the health of individuals and eliminate health disparities. Within public health nutrition, their role in community health organizations might be to design a nutrition education program around optimal nutrition or organize events related to healthy food.

Global health organizations:

The goal of global health work broadly is to fully understand a health issue around the world, determine the causes and effects of said issue, and establish solutions for these problems14. Exploring nutrition issues in global health fits in with the larger global health field through the development of nutritional assessments for individuals and communities and the use of nutrition programs to prevent chronic disease.

Impacting Public Policy and Community Health

While each of the types of roles for public health professionals explored here function outside of the traditional health care system, there are also ample opportunities to work collaboratively with those in other health professions and to influence health policy. Especially if you pursue a registered dietician or clinical dietician career path, working within a health care organization is more likely. Many hospitals are now invested in helping patients with positive health behaviors in addition to addressing their acute concern and health issues. The Good Food, Healthy Hospitals program in Pennsylvania is an example of such a partnership where hospitals are improving the nutritional quality of their meal plans to positively impact health15.

In a day-to-day sense, a nutritionist might work with clients on health eating by developing meal plans and providing on-going counseling around food choices. They can also give presentations in public settings like libraries and parks, or work in community health organizations to give presentations to the local population on topics like diabetes prevention and management. Nutritionists can also impact issues like health equity by targeting food systems through efforts like the Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Store initiative that works with bodegas and small corner stores to increase the amount of fresh and healthy food offered16. Programs like these can help to ensure the nutritional needs of local communities are met, and put structural processes in place to both address food insecurity and have better food options readily available to make it easier for people to make healthy choices instead of having the full burden of making a healthy choice on them. 

Nutritionists can also influence public policy by advocating for healthy eating programs like these and programs related to physical activity. Advocacy efforts related to physical activity can include compiling evidence from lived experience with clients about the benefits of physical activity, creating a plan to increase physical activity within the local population, and putting varied strategies in place to try to influence local policies that promote healthy living17.

Beyond the Basics: Advanced Opportunities in Nutrition

While we’ve covered the basics of an MPH in nutrition and how to choose the right program for you, it’s important to think further down the road. Exactly like how you can choose a specialization within your MPH, there are also specialization options within nutrition to consider.

Clinical dietetics:

As a title implies, these dieticians work in clinical settings (i.e., primary care offices, hospitals). They generally specialize on a particular issue related to diet, such as providing medical nutrition therapy for the treatment of diabetes and on average earn $69,680 per year18.

Registered dietetics:

Similar to clinical dietetics, registered dietitians (RD) and registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN) have advanced training in nutrition. This includes a master’s degree, supervised internship, and passing the RD exam. People with these degrees work to improve the health of populations by developing meal plans, oversee nutrition and meal plans in health care settings, and can work in schools to ensure food offerings are adequate and nutritionally balanced19.

Advanced research in nutrition:

Different from working directly with patients, another career option if you have a specific area of nutrition and health is to work in research. This would typically be for a university or pharmaceutical company to research diet or specific food issues like gluten intolerance.

With any of these options, staying on top of the latest research and initiatives has many benefits: it allows you to continually be learning and enables you to provide the best care to those you’re working with. The Commission on Registered Dietetics (the organization that oversees the RD/RDN credentialing process) offers subject-matter specific advanced credentials in specific topic areas that can enhance your skillset and help with advancing in your career20. These include topics like obesity and weight management nutrition, oncology nutrition, and renal nutrition for kidney disease20.

What’s Next?

As you can see, the role of public health nutritionists is critical for helping to improve the health status of many. It’s a unique subset of public health given the opportunity to work directly with people in a counseling role, more akin to what you might do with a dual degree in public health and social work. As you consider your next steps, consider how things like developing meal plans, discussing healthy eating and healthy behaviors, completing nutritional assessments, or even conducting research on dietary needs would be a fulfilling career path. All of these activities work to improve the health status of individuals, and you’d play a key role in improving their quality of life. 

Now it’s time to start working on your MPH application (here’s a timeline to get you started!) and think through the requirements to apply. Exploring MPH programs to find the one that’s the perfect fit for you is the first step on your journey in public health nutrition!


  1. https://www.cnn.com/2024/05/02/health/women-fitness-training-nutrition-wellness/index.html

  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/11/well/eat/dieting-weight-loss.html

  3. https://health.gov/healthypeople/objectives-and-data/browse-objectives/nutrition-and-healthy-eating  

  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14690043/ 

  5. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition 

  6. https://www.cdrnet.org/RDN 

  7. https://www.apha.org/apha-communities/member-sections/food-and-nutrition/resources 

  8. https://www.cdrnet.org/vault/2459/web//20230906%20Definition%20of%20Terms%20List-September%202023.pdf 

  9. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/food-science/community-nutrition 

  10. https://www.oecd.org/food-systems/ 

  11. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/dsmes-toolkit/reimbursement/medical-nutrition-therapy.html 

  12. https://www.apha.org/topics-and-issues/environmental-health 

  13. https://www.cdrnet.org/GraduateDegree  

  14. https://ghrp.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s41256-020-00142-7 

  15. https://www.media.pa.gov/pages/health-details.aspx?newsid=1834 

  16. https://thefoodtrust.org/what-we-do/corner-stores/ 

  17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17017289/ 

  18. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dietitians-and-nutritionists.htm 

  19. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/dietitian

About the Author

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 MastersPublicHealth.com 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

Dive Deeper in Research

hands holding nutritional items icon
Career Guides

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

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 (online or in-person), and professional goals.

specialization diagram icon
Career Guides

Master of Public Health Specializations: What are they and how should you navigate the decision?

In this article, we give an overview and our take on common specializations, including what coursework would look like and career options. 

MPH icon
Career Guides

Online MPH Programs: Benefits, Job Opportunities, and Costs

This article will explore many of these questions to help guide your higher education decision-making process and focus on an online master of public health programs.