Best schools for plant-based nutrition?

Author: 

Micaela Karlsen, MSPH

Question: 

As a graduate student looking to branch out and obtain a Ph.D. in the field of nutrition, I am currently in the midst of searching colleges for areas of research.

Would it be possible to ask here regarding the best universities to attend based on their utilization of plant-based approaches to research on nutrition?

Answer: 

This is a common question, and unfortunately at the present time there isn't a clear answer for this. At the moment, there are no accredited degree programs offering nutrition, medical, or other advanced science degrees that specifically focus on plant-based nutrition.

There is a non-accredited diploma program in Nutrition Education and a continuing medical education course for physicians in Lifestyle Medicine offered by the Wellness Forum Institute for Health Studies.

If you are interested in pursuing a PhD or other doctoral degree in nutrition, the American Society for Nutrition Program Directory maintains a list of all nutrition graduate programs in the US.

Certain naturopathic, osteopathic, or chiropractic medical programs may offer perspective on nutrition and/or lifestyle medicine, and these may be among the most friendly to plant-based nutrition. For most traditional educational tracks, it will be up to you the students to round out your education by seeking additional information and education in plant-based nutrition, as opposed to the general field of nutrition.

As I (Micaela Karlsen) was investigating possiblities for pursuing my doctoral degree, I found a wide range of variation in the interest and open minded-ness of nutrition faculty with respect to plant-based nutrition. There is variation among schools, variation among programs (public health or epidemiology takes more interest in dietary patterns, whereas biological and molecular nutrition is more focused on mechanisms and less on dietary patterns), and a lot of variation among individual faculty. The most important thing with respect to graduate school is to find a situation where you will receive good training in foundational knowledge, methods specific to your field, and critical thinking.

To maximize your attractiveness as an applicant, you will want to prepare yourself as effectively as you can by taking prerequesite coursework seriously, getting involved in extracurricular opportunities that complement your area of interest (research, interventions, clinical setting, educational, etc.), and creating personal relationships with faculty who may be able to write letters of recommendation when the time comes for you to apply. You want to start building your knowledge base and experience as much as possible.

When you are applying and choosing a school, it's essential to find a school, program, and department where you will be able to find the right mentor - a professor or faculty who cares about your eduation and about you personally, a person or people who will be available for questions, a teacher who will also offer you valuable opportunities for collaboration and make the space for you to pursue what you are interested in. Finding the right mentor is essential, and may matter even more than the location of the school or other important factors.

If you wish to pursue graduate training, try to take full advantage of the opportunity to build your knowledge base in nutrition science, epidemiology, research methods, or whatever fields match your interests. You can learn to think critically and rigorously evaluate scientific conclusions, and that will serve both your career and the future field of plant-based nutrition. We more people who can think critically, respond to the public's confusion, evaluate evidence carefully, and advance the field through systematic and rigorous work. The evidence speaks for itself, so become a person who can intelligently interpret the evidence.

Even though there is no one school that offers a degree in plant-based nutrition (hopefully one day there will be!), there is definitely an active community of plant-based nutrition. Pursing a path towards graduate study means you will become a member of both the academic and the plant-based community, and we will all be grateful to you for helping to bridge the two.