It turns out that many students aren’t exposed to nutrition as a career option at all.
A recent Women in Nutraceuticals panel about whether enough women are being trained in the field of nutrition turned into a larger discussion about whether today’s nutrition professions—from dietetics to nutraceuticals—are doing enough to encourage students to study nutrition in the first place. It turns out that many students aren’t exposed to nutrition as a career option at all.
“I don’t think that students at the high school level really understand what the nutrition field is about,” said panelist Nana Gletsu Miller, associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington. This is why, she said, she and her colleagues make a point of talking to high school students about “all the breadth of things that you can do with a nutrition degree and that it’s a legitimate field in healthcare.”
She added: “I think I heard once that a lot of people of color, especially underrepresented minorities, get the sense that working in nutrition is being in food service—like being in a cafeteria or preparing food in some way—as opposed to being a healthcare industry, very much like being a doctor or a lawyer and being part of the healthcare team.”
Panelist April Stull, associate professor of nutrition sciences at Baylor University, agreed. “Nutrition as a career option needs to be introduced early on to kids, and it also needs to be introduced as a science, because a lot of students are still connecting nutrition to home economics...I love home economics, but they need to know that nutrition is a science, and you can do so much more with nutrition.”
Students also need to be able to visualize rewarding career paths resulting from a nutrition degree. This is especially true for economically disadvantaged students. “When you’re going to school for a degree, you need an ROI. You need a job when you graduate,” pointed out panelist Brandi Reinbold, senior manager of certification at NSF. “You need to understand the path you’re taking because the stakes are higher when you’re going to school and you’re coming from an economically disadvantaged background. You must have a job at the end, and you’re not going to take the risks of choosing a degree that’s just interesting to you without understanding what that path looks like. That’s why I do think that education at the high school level about the very good opportunities in careers that exist in the nutritional industry—so that it is seen as a truly viable path and a good bet—is really necessary if you want to get those communities into these programs.”
Unfortunately, many students who want to pursue an education in nutrition face obstacles today. For instance, to become a registered dietician, students are required to complete a dietetic internship, which may be cost-prohibitive for those who need a paying job.
As panelist Michael McBurney, adjunct professor at the University of Guelph and Tufts University, pointed out, “It’s really expensive to go to university now in terms of tuition. If you have to live away from home and also support that…and then if there’s an internship requirement, I mean, that is a barrier that is insurmountable for somebody who is from a region or also has a racial barrier impediment...You’ll end up finding other job opportunities. You won’t fulfill your aspiration because you can’t overcome that without help.”
How can today’s nutrition professionals help make the nutrition career path more tenable for students?
It starts with funding, beginning with more scholarships and financial support. And once students do enter the field, they need to be paid well. As it stands, said Stull, “We’re losing people. There are fields that are way more attractive in health and wellness that pay way more than we do.”
In addition, professors need to tell students about the jobs that exist post-graduation. “Students need to be exposed to professors who really have an understanding of what’s going on in companies and job opportunities—not solely be focused on an academic career and research projects,” said McBurney.
In short, we need to create a “big picture of nutrition,” advised panelist Jeff Hilton, adjunct professor at Sonoran University of Health Sciences. “To me, it goes to the root of how do we paint a picture of what can be in terms of nutrition careers to some of these minority students who could be tremendous assets.”
Ensuring the diversity of those working in nutrition is critical in order to address the nutrition and health needs of all. As Stull said, “We need all ethnic groups and all genders to tackle food insecurity and nutrition-related diseases.”