Online Programs

Careers in Nutrition Education: Webinar with Dr. Anastasia Snelling

In a recent Webinar, Dr. Anastasia Snelling, Program Director for the online MS in Nutrition Education and Melissa S., a graduate of the program, discussed careers in of nutrition education and how the degree prepares professionals for the field.

The following is a partial transcript of the archived presentation, which can be viewed in full here.

Program Background

Dr. Snelling: We have a really exciting webinar today – we get to think a little bit more about not only how the online MS in Nutrition Education program transfers knowledge, but also how it translates into skills, and then actually into a career and into a field that's really exciting.

Perhaps most importantly, students are very interested in what the curriculum offers. We have both science-based coursework and applied course work. Science-based coursework includes the science of nutrition, basic nutrition, nutrition epidemiology, sports nutrition, vitamins and minerals.

The applied coursework is also very important. In courses such as Nutrition Education Methods I and II, Changing Health Behavior allow you to take the knowledge that you've learned about nutrition and apply it into social marketing campaigns or nutrition education programs. More specifically, and because I work in the schools, we have a course called Health in the School Environment where you can learn about health promotion programs.

Why American University

Melissa S: First of all, I wasn't looking to move somewhere else to go to an in person graduate program. I planned on keeping my full time job, so finding an online program was really, really appealing to me. I didn't have to completely uproot or change my life to change my career.

What I also really liked is that when I was researching programs I found that AU really seemed to have a unique program that was ahead of the curve compared to others.

I also did see that other master’s level programs were more clinical nutrition. And as somebody who does not have a science background, it was nice that this was a program that didn't require me to have a dietetics degree. And, this wasn't going to be focusing just on the science. As Dr. Snelling said, there's this nice balance of the science-based coursework, which is great for knowledge base. But I especially love the applied coursework where some of the projects we completed were really applicable for the real world. So I felt like it was just a really unique opportunity, and exactly what I was looking for that could balance keeping what I liked about the jobs that I had had previously, but also being able to move into the nutrition field.

Important Skills Needed to Be a Nutrition Educator

Dr. Snelling: A lot of the work that we do in developing our courses is to generate an understanding of the science of nutrition. But we also really want to translate that into a skill, because that's what a prospective employer is going to want to see.

  1. Responding to basic and advanced nutrition questions. This behavior is something that everyone has to do. And it has been estimated that in any one day a person can make 200 decisions about what they're going to eat and drink, when, where, how much, and so forth. As you can imagine, people always will have a question for you. Sometimes a very basic question and then sometimes a little bit more elaborate. So, responding to nutrition questions first starts with understanding the science of nutrition so that you can answer those.
  2. Designing nutrition social marketing campaigns. So moving then to taking this nutrition knowledge and really helping people and motivating them to change is really where social marketing campaigns come in. So one of the skills you learn is really thinking about designing these social marketing campaigns. Nutrition is very much a science. But designing a social marketing campaign takes in a very different part of your brain to think about and being creative. If you are a creative person and you like this design process, it's really neat to be able to pair a science with this creative art and energy. So that nutrition social marketing gets people thinking about why soda may not be good for them, or why water is good for them.
  3. Developing, implementing and evaluating nutrition education programs. Whether they be for an individual, if you want to do nutrition coaching, or whether you want to go into an organization and teach a weight management program, or teach a community about diabetes education, you’ll need to be able to design and develop a program for a specific audience, understand how to implement it, know that people read at a sixth grade reading level for any health literacy materials is really important.
  4. Debunking nutrition myths. So I'm sure you'll have a client say, ‘I've heard this’ about specific diet choices. And you have to debunk that myth by explaining to them why tea is not going to get rid of warts, or whatever it might be. But that is understanding the science of nutrition and understanding what a fad is versus what we know from research.
  5. Communicating strategies for behavior change around nutrition habits. Along with social marketing and nutrition education programs is communicating for strategies for behavioral change. And as I said at the beginning, if a person is making 200 decisions every day about how much and what kind of food they are eating, you know that many times people have one or two behaviors that they might want to change. They want to drink more water. They want to eat less sugar. They want to cut down on their sodium. So as a nutrition educator, you're goal is to help them develop strategies so that they can be successful in behavioral change. That might be by surrounding themselves with a social network that also has that priority, that is by setting goals appropriately rather than saying I'm going to do this overnight.
  6. Understanding and translating nutrition research. It's also being able to understand research literature. It's translating that literature into knowledge. And communicating that one study does not mean that we're going to change all of our guidelines for nutrition. But if more research comes around and it's replicated, then maybe our nutrition guidelines might change.
  7. Nutrition coaching. You may have heard of health coaching, it's very much part of helping people change behavior, which is based on what we call motivational interviewing. But essentially, it's helping people after they become aware through a social marketing campaign that soda may not be as good for us. It's then helping them on a one on one basis make that behavioral change and make it successful.

Important Skills Learned in the MS in Nutrition Education

Melissa S: My position does involve a lot of health communication skills. I do social marketing campaigns and create materials for the child care providers that we work with. There are many exercises that we did in health communication that I certainly have to keep in mind. I'm creating newsletters, leave behinds, and one page documents for folks who might not be familiar with our program.

Also, in the nutrition education methods courses, being able to actually create a nutrition education lesson from start to finish following the step wise program… I might not be using that just yet in my position, but I know that's something that my boss loves that I have that background and those skills because they are hoping that we can get some additional funding so that I can do more of that. But really, I'm sure I could find something from every single class that I took that has or will be beneficial in my position.

Demand for Nutrition Educators

Free GuideDr. Snelling: Here’s the not so good news. People are suffering from chronic disease at an alarming rate. And whether we talk about cardiovascular disease, we talk about cancer, or stroke, the leading causes of death and disability are all connected with eating behaviors. Now I'm not saying that the other behaviors like smoking or physical activity are any less important. They all are important. But many times, many people are interested in improving their diet, even just a little bit. So it's what many times we frame as a gateway behavior. A behavior that once people start eating a little bit more fruits and vegetables, or they start drinking water more, then they're more likely to then perhaps reconsider, should we start walking more or doing other positive health behaviors.

So the demand of having people with an expertise in nutrition education is really critical, although we have large trends of chronic disease. For instance, there are large groups of people who are at risk for these diseases. They don't have them yet, but they're at risk. We call them either pre-hypertensive or pre-diabetic.

And that's really, to me, the focus of nutrition educators, is to help the people who don't already have a chronic condition but are heading towards that, to reverse what the trajectory could be. The other piece of it is, and this is something talked about in work site health promotion, is helping the people who are healthy stay healthy. If you have a young population who doesn't have any pre-diabetes symptoms or signs - how do we help those people who are healthy, stay healthy? And how do we help this other group who are heading towards a chronic disease, to reverse or make some lifestyle changes?

What we know is that when people are overweight, they can change some of these signs and symptoms by simply losing 10% of their body weight. So let's say a person is 180 pounds and 5' 10". Just by losing 18 pounds can make all the difference in the world. So they may not have hypertension at that time, but by losing that, they can put themselves into what we would call a much safer zone.

So whether we're talking about a community, a school, a worksite, an elder home, whatever it might be, every place feeds people. And therefore, nutrition educators can be everywhere within that community, as well as at a policy level, if that's something of interest to you.

The Affordable Care Act put a lot of emphasis on prevention and promotion. So if you're interested in policy, you're interested in serving the under-served, so the women, infant, and children program, or the SNAP program, those are all places where nutrition educators can really take their skills and really have a very satisfying career with a degree such as this one.

Job Outlook - Nonprofits

Nonprofits have a large part of the health segment, meaning that many times nutrition and health programs come out of the work of nonprofits.

Locally we do a lot with a capital area food bank here in DC. Most communities have food banks that really serve that most vulnerable population in order to look at providing them with food, especially during the leaner times in their month, when their SNAP benefits may have run out. But what's really unique about food banks now is they're not only saying, we just need calories. They're saying, we need quality calories. And so they're really looking to nutrition educators to help in bridging this, that before it was just any food would do. And now we're becoming more selective, because we know chronic disease patterns in some of our most vulnerable populations, those rates are just as high as in other populations.

So as you can see, whether there are job titles a nutrition educator, there are some in grant writing, the Center for Nutrition in schools, gardening is a huge piece of this. So most schools now, because of the healthy hunger-free kids act, our WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, many schools now are going-- the pendulum is swinging back where they have gardens, where they're cooking their meals on site. So here again, 15 years ago they had put all microwaves in schools. Now they're getting rid of all those microwaves and reheating of food, and we're starting to talk about local foods, growing our own foods, preparing our own foods with kids.

Working in Nutrition Education at a Nonprofit

Melissa S: The organization that I work for is a sponsor of the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which is another USDA nutrition program. Dr. Snelling mentioned WIC and SNAP. And the CACFP, where I work, is one that I think is probably significantly less known compared to SNAP and WIC. We work with child care providers that either run centers or offer childcare in their home. And they get reimbursed for serving meals and snacks to children following a meal pattern. So we are making sure that they're serving proper portion sizes based on the children's ages and that they're getting the right food groups throughout the day. I've been with this organization a little over a year.

One of the positions that I started out in was a program assistant, but also doing part time as a food program monitor. In that position, I actually went to these child care centers, unannounced, during their meal or snack time. I would observe the meal that they were serving, making sure that they were serving the right food groups and portion sizes. I’d give them technical assistance on things that they might be able to do to improve the meal time environment. It’s not just about the food that they're eating, but encouraging things like family style, so that the children learn to take as much food as they are hungry for, and passing food on to others. So there is a whole lot of things that we sort of focused on in a CACFP.

But in the last few months, I've actually transitioned into a brand new role for our team, Communications Specialist. So it's new, which is exciting. But it also means I have to be a little flexible and fluid in what I might be doing. I am focusing on building a website and social media pages. And ultimately, whether it's our website or social media, or the newsletters that I mentioned previously, it's all about finding resources that are going to benefit the child care providers that we work with so they might find a new healthy alternative rather than serving frozen chicken nuggets, so we can give recipes and tips for how to talk to children about trying new foods. It really all comes down to supporting these child care providers and making sure that they're getting the resources that they need, and in their preferred environment.

We are also looking to improve the training that we're offering to our providers, so we plan to hold more in-person trainings. That’s something I look forward to, and I know my supervisor looks forward to as well, is actually implementing the skills that I gained in the nutrition education methods courses, where we created a training program from scratch, and being able to use those skills to create something for the child care providers here in Idaho.

Job Outlook - Government

Dr. Snelling: In the government, as you can see just by the job titles alone, USDA, Health and Human Services, our Veterans Affairs School Systems, this is a really large employer of health. And the government takes it very seriously trying to help people live a healthier lifestyle. So if you're in the DC area, USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion is a great arm to the USDA. They hire a number of nutritionists and nutrition educators, in order to produce training materials.

  • The Department of Health and Human Services has an office of disease prevention and health promotion, sometimes called ODPHP. They work with the Surgeon General's office in order to produce Healthy People 2020, as well as to work with other agencies to provide nutrition information.
  • In terms of Veterans Affairs, interestingly, one of the students in my class works for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Texas. He is a Certified Diabetes Educator, and is getting his Master's in Nutrition Education. So we're seeing firsthand somebody who actually works in this population and are becoming acutely aware of the needs of our veterans when they return home.
  • Armed Services is another very popular place. One of our graduates of our health promotion management program actually runs the Marine Corps Health Promotion Program. But they're always looking for nutrition educators to work with them. Any part of the armed forces is going to care about the health, nutrition and physical activity practices of our armed forces.
  • Public health departments are in every state. So if you're interested in working in a state agency, that would be a place that they're also very focused on creating environments where people can be healthy. The Affordable Care Act gave out putting prevention to work in communities. And so a lot of state health departments got these grants and are working with policies and programs to create healthier environments where people can live, work, and learn.
  • And the last one, as you can imagine, close to my heart, would be the school systems. And whether you're talking about early childhood to college, there is a role for nutrition educators to play. We're learning more and more that early childhood intervention is really important. And although you may say ‘what can I teach a two-year-old?’, you're really working with the family unit at that time, trying to help the mom and the dad and the guardians to live a healthy lifestyle, and what kind of food choices would be best for their toddlers. But all the way up, where as I said, the USDA puts out a number of team nutrition educational materials for educators. But we need nutrition educators to fill in the gap between what these education materials are and implementing those into a school garden program.

Job Outlook: Corporate and Private Industry

Dr. Snelling: As you can see, there's just great deal of opportunities in corporate and private industry. It's just letting you think creatively of what kind of environment you will thrive in.

  • Food Production Companies - this one is, perhaps, more of that corporate side, but nonetheless an important piece because food companies all have advocacy groups in companies. And sometimes we may have little faith in food companies, but they are trying to provide healthier products. They rely on nutrition educators to coach them, as well as to help them frame those products.
  • Gyms, Health Clubs & Spas - This is a huge part of helping people, meeting them where they are. So meeting them where they might work out, meeting them where they work, this is all places of trying to create cultures of health in our corporate environments in order to help people live healthier lives.
  • Independent Consultant/Entrepreneur – Many of our students, we would put them as entrepreneurs. They have great ideas and they're trying to find where they can contribute or start a business. She was not a graduate of ours, but we featured her in a recent webinar, was the woman who started the 6 O'clock Scramble. And the 6 O'clock scramble, if you're a mom and you have kids, you know it's just that sort of bewitching hour, if you will. But the time you get home from work and you've got a whip up a meal in order to feed your family. And so she went ahead and was in this predicament and started a website, giving lots of tips to people on how to make this hour a productive hour and feed your family a healthy meal. But that is only one example of an entrepreneur.

There are so many opportunities. And that's where that creative thinking of trying to find a creative idea and make it happen in the field of nutrition, the possibilities are endless.

Changing Careers

Melissa S: I would just say, in general, that for me, changing my career was a big deal. And I put a lot of time and thought and research into making the decision to pursue this master's degree. And I am so glad that I did. I was actually one of the students in the first cohorts. So I really didn't know exactly what I was getting myself into by doing this. So I'm glad that new prospective students can hear from alumni and current students, because I think it's been wonderful for me.

I'm still doing a lot of the things that I like about my previous jobs. But being able to apply the strengths that I had with the nutrition knowledge that I've gained, and again, a lot of this I can't stress enough the applied courses that we do in this program are just-- I mean these are projects and assignments that I can show to my boss now and I think are strong selling points. I just love the program. And even though I was putting so much time and effort into it, it never felt like a chore. It was just something I loved and it was a perfect match.

I don't think I'd be in the position I'm in now if I hadn't done the MSNE program. So I'm so glad that I found it and really honored to be one of the first graduating students for the program. And I'm sure the program's only getting even better with each class.

More on Careers in Nutrition Education

Career Opportunities with a Master’s Degree in Nutrition Education

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