New major attracting students with unique, holistic approach to wellness in nutrition

UAB News
Posted 3/29/23

A new undergraduate major in the School of Health Professions is preparing students for some of today's hottest career fields — and health care's toughest problems.

The Bachelor of Science …

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New major attracting students with unique, holistic approach to wellness in nutrition


A new undergraduate major in the School of Health Professions is preparing students for some of today's hottest career fields — and health care's toughest problems.

The Bachelor of Science in biobehavioral nutrition and wellness launched in fall 2021. It offers students the chance to "dive deep into the relationship between human health, mindfulness, nutrition, metabolism and food as medicine," according to its website.

Although many universities offer undergraduate nutrition degrees, UAB's new major is unique in emphasizing the "interaction between the science of nutrition with physical, mental and emotional well-being," said Douglas Moellering, Ph.D., associate professor and director of Undergraduate Programs in the Department of Nutrition Sciences. "There is a lot of data showing a link between cognitive ability, mood and the food choices we make."

Response so far has been strong, Moellering says. After its first semester, the program had signed up 16 students; it is on track to have close to 80 enrolled by fall 2023. One current student was drawn to nutrition after her mother had a heart attack. Another already has his own fitness company and wants to add a degree in nutrition to be able to expand his offerings. "Many students want to involve themselves in a preventive wellness and healthy lifestyle opportunity," Moellering said. "They all want to help themselves and their families and communities live healthier lives."

"When I read the degree page, I felt I had found a place I belonged, that aligned with my interests," said one current student when asked what attracted her to the major. Another student said that "working in health care made me realize how nutrition is the foundation to many diseases, but it isn't talked about enough."

Jobs plentiful

According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in health and wellness-focused occupations through 2030 will grow faster than the 7.7 percent average growth rate for all occupations. Some jobs are particularly hot. Athletic trainer jobs are projected to grow by 23 percent, adding 7,000 new positions to the 30,000 jobs available in 2020. Jobs for health education specialists are projected to grow by 12 percent, adding 7,600 new jobs to the 2020 total of 61,100. And jobs for dietitians and nutritionists are projected to grow by 11 percent, adding 7,800 positions to the 2020 total of 73,000. In separate research from LinkedIn for the company's 2022 Global Talent Trends report, there has been a 13 percent increase in job titles that reference "wellness" or "culture" since 2019.

Graduates from the Biobehavioral Nutrition and Wellness program "can work as fitness trainers, nutritionists, wellness teachers, counselors, health providers — and they can teach K-12 science as well," Moellering said. He noted that job growth is linked to the fact that "seven of the 10 health problems that the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] lists as main risk factors for chronic disease are nutrition-related," including heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. The new major also aligns with UAB's status as the first U.S. university to join the International Health Promoting Campuses Network and adopt the Okanagan Charter, "which calls for us to invest in health and wellness in every facet of the university," Moellering said. "This is the perfect opportunity for us to launch this program."

Leadership, psychology and navigating the "blog effect"

In addition to core nutrition science classes, coursework in the Biobehavioral Nutrition and Wellness major includes training in health technology and the nutritional care process, the psychology of eating behavior, effective communication techniques, and motivation. Students are trained to help others navigate the "blog effect," Moellering said. "Today, there is so much nutritional information out there, and you are not sure what the source is. We have special courses on how to evaluate and disseminate nutrition information that has been peer-reviewed and validated. We want our students to utilize their skills to provide accurate information that can better support communities at large, helping them live healthier lives and be active."

Before they learn to help others, students focus on themselves. During the major's foundational course, Well Being and You, students take a number of research-backed questionnaires "to evaluate their mind state, body state, physical activity and nutrition," Moellering said. "Then they choose which of those four areas they want to focus on for the rest of the course." Part of the training includes learning how to be a proactive change agent, able to find one's own motivation in new opportunities and help others do the same, he says.

Several current students talked about the impact of Well Being and You. "As a student, I use skills and techniques from that class every day," one said. "It has pushed me to think beyond myself and become a better version of myself," another student added.

Smooth transition to graduate training

The biobehavioral nutrition and wellness major is designed to prepare students for a smooth transition into graduate training in nutrition, Moellering says. UAB's Department of Nutrition Sciences is the only such department in the country with three NIH-funded research centers: the Diabetes Research Center, the Nutrition Obesity Research Center and the Precision Nutrition Clinical Center. Students can attend lectures on the latest research subjects.

Carleton Rivers, RDN, internship director for the M.S. in Nutrition Sciences Clinical Track/Dietetic Internship, and Lizzy Davis, Ph.D., R.D., program director for the Dietitian Education Program, each lead courses in the major. "We are in candidacy for certification as part of the major, which will allow students to go into any dietitian internship anywhere in the country," Rivers said.

Beginning in January 2024, the national Commission on Dietetic Registration will require a minimum of a master's degree before a student is eligible to take the credentialing exam to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. This makes acceptance into a graduate program even more important for career success. "Our major is designed based on what we know these professional programs require," Rivers said.

UAB's Clinical Track/Dietetic Internship is an intensive, one-year program that tends to draw students directly from undergraduate programs, Rivers explains. The Dietitian Education Program tends to attract second-career students who need additional courses to meet degree requirements, Davis says. The two-year program leads to an M.S. degree in nutrition sciences. "If at any point you want to go into nutrition, you can find a pathway in the UAB Department of Nutrition Sciences," Davis said. "That allows us to be able to cater to students in many different life situations."

The undergraduate major is the next step in the Department of Nutrition Sciences' efforts to expand educational offerings, Moellering notes. "We started with a minor in 2012 to fulfill prerequisites for graduate programs for those already in the workforce," he said.

In addition to graduate programs in nutrition, Moellering added, the major's curriculum is designed to allow students to meet the requirements for "medical school, dental school, physical therapy, occupational therapy, physician's assistant programs and more."