Dietitian versus Nutritionist: What’s the Difference?

If you’re looking to make some healthy changes to your nutrition and eating habits, there are some major benefits to working with an expert. However, with so many different titles and credentials out there, how do you know who to trust? And, what’s the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?

With nutrition, the two most common titles you’ll come across are dietitians and nutritionists. But, what’s the difference? Is there a difference between dietitians and nutritionists? And, how do you know which is the right fit for you?

Don’t worry. Today, I’m going to make it simple, and explain the differences between a dietitian and a nutritionist so you can make a more informed decision.

Is a Dietitian the Same as a Nutritionist?

Not all nutritionists are dietitians. But, all dietitians are nutritionists. That may sound somewhat confusing. But, allow me to explain.

Anyone Can Call themself a Nutritionist

The title “nutritionist” is not as regulated as the title “dietitian.” In general, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist after completing a nutrition program or course.

Only Trained Professionals can call Themselves a Dietitian

Dietitians, on the other hand, must complete an accredited nutrition program and do an internship before passing a national registration exam. Once registered, dietitians must stay up-to-date with the latest nutrition research and regularly complete continuing education credits to maintain their registration.

In other words, dietitians are required to complete more formal training and have a more standardized level of knowledge than nutritionists. As a result, dietitians usually provide more comprehensive nutritional services than nutritionists, including medical nutrition therapy, and nutrition counseling.

What’s a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist?

Like I said, all dietitians are nutritionists. So, to reflect that you’ll sometimes see the title “registered dietitian nutritionist” (RDN).

A “registered dietitian” (RD) and “registered dietitian nutritionist” (RDN) are the exact same thing, with the exact same training and education. But, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) allows dietitians to choose how they label their credentials.

Education and Training Differences

Education and Training Requirements for Dietitians

The criteria to become a Registered Dietitian is established by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND), which has specific requirements for people to become a Registered Dietitian.

1) Registered Dietitians Must Have a Higher Education Degree in Nutrition

Currently, registered dietitians must have at least a bachelor’s degree from an ACEND accredited program. But, in January 2024, all new dietitians will be required to have a master’s degree.

In the course of their education they take many of the same classes required for other health sciences degrees. For instance, before even starting my nutrition program, I had to take the following pre-requisites:

  • Biology

  • Microbiology

  • General Chemistry

  • Organic Chemistry

  • BioChemistry

  • Anatomy & Physiology

  • Statistics

After these science prerequisites, most dietetic programs then include classes that are more specific to the study of nutrition. For instance, these are some of the additional classes I took to become a registered dietitian:

  • Nutrition in the Lifespan

  • Macronutrient Metabolism

  • Micronutrients and Mineral Metabolism

  • Research Methods

  • BioChemistry

  • Community and Public Health Nutrition

  • Food Service Management

  • Medical Nutrition Therapy I & II

2) Registered Dietitians Must Complete 1,000 Hours of Supervised Practice

In addition to their education, dietitians must also complete an accredited internship, which typically takes place during their final year of study, and totals at least 1,000 hours. During their supervised practice they rotate between several places to get experience in different settings. Their rotations include healthcare facilities, community agencies, and food service.

For example, my rotations included the following:

  • 440 hours of Clinical Nutrition in the hospital setting

  • 160 hours of Food Service Management at a school

  • 100 hours of Community Nutrition at Head Start

  • 100 hours of Community Nutrition at a Private Practice

  • 200 hours of Nutrition and Exercise at a Cardiac Rehab center

3) Registered Dietitians Must Pass a National Exam

Once they’ve passed all of their coursework, and completed 1,000 hours of supervised practice, students are allowed to sit for a national exam that covers all areas of nutrition, and if they pass, they can then be called a Registered Dietitian.

4) Registered Dietitians Must Continue to Gain Training and Education

Like doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, dietitians also must continue to pursue education and training in order to maintain their credential. Dietitians must renew their certification every 5 years, which requires 75 continuing professional education hours. This helps to ensure that they are continuing to develop knowledge and staying abreast of the latest changes within the field.

Education and Training Requirements for Nutritionists

Unlike dietitians, there are no formal education requirements to become a nutritionist. Nutritionists can have a wide range of educational backgrounds, from a high school diploma to a PhD. And while some nutritionists may have completed coursework in nutrition, others may not have any formal nutrition education.

Nutritionists typically enter the field after completing a degree or certificate program in nutrition science, dietetics, food science, or a related area. However, because there are no formal education requirements, many nutritionists have degrees in other fields, such as psychology, sociology, or education.

Some states have licensure laws for nutritionists. But, these vary widely and most nutritionists are not required to be licensed.

Given the lack of formal requirements, it can make it difficult to assess the qualifications of a nutritionist.

What to Look for in a Nutritionist

If you’re considering seeing a nutritionist, there are a few things you can look for to help ensure that they are qualified and can provide you with the care and guidance you need.

First, it’s important to ask about their education and training. What degree or certificate do they have? Where did they study?

In some states you might see nutritionists with the title of Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS). To earn this credential, nutritionists must have a master’s degree or higher in nutrition, complete 1,000 hours of supervised experience, and pass a national exam. In some states, the CNSs and RDs are granted the same state license and are both allowed to practice medical nutrition therapy.

It’s also important to ask about their professional experience. Do they have any experience working with people who have similar health concerns as you? What kind of settings have they worked in?

You should also inquire about their approach to nutrition. What kinds of dietary theories do they subscribe to? What methods do they use to help their clients make changes? Do they focus on helping their clients make small, gradual changes, or do they encourage more drastic measures?

So, Which One Should You See?

Now that you understand the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist, you might be wondering which one is right for you. The answer depends on your needs and goals.

If you’re looking for someone to help you manage a chronic disease, such as diabetes, heart disease, or celiac disease, you’ll want to see a Registered Dietitian. These professionals have the knowledge and experience necessary to provide medical nutrition therapy, which is an evidence-based approach to manage and treat health conditions.

On the other hand, if you’re simply looking for someone to help you eat better and make healthier choices, a nutritionist might be a good fit. These professionals can provide guidance on making dietary changes and can offer suggestions on which foods to eat (and avoid). They can also provide support and motivation as you work to improve your eating habits.

The nice thing about dietitians is that they have a formally defined level of education and training that is required of them, so it’s somewhat easier to assess their qualifications. But, there are many nutritionists who are very knowledgable and specialized – I just recommend verifying their education and background before working with one.

Ultimately, the decision of whether to see a dietitian or a nutritionist is a personal one. And, it’s important to remember that both professionals can offer valuable insights and guidance on making healthier choices. When it comes to choosing any nutrition professional, you have to do your due diligence to find someone who:

  • Is qualified and knowledgable on the topic of nutrition

  • Can connect with you and understand your challenges

  • Understands how to translate knowledge into action, and motivate you to create change in your life

The Bottom Line

While there are definitely some similarities between dietitians and nutritionists there are several key differences. Dietitians are required to complete more formal education and training than nutritionists. Additionally, dietitians must pass a national exam and complete supervised practice before they can be credentialed, while nutritionists do not have to do either of these things.

That doesn’t mean that nutritionists can’t be knowledgable or helpful. It also doesn’t guarantee that all dietitians will be perfect. But it does give you a good idea of how to find qualified nutrition professionals. Ultimately, you have to find someone who not just has the right credentials or knowledge.

You also have to find someone you can connect with and feel comfortable working with.

My Approach to Nutrition Counseling

As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I offer online nutrition counseling to clients who want to take control of their health and reduce their risk of chronic disease. You can learn more about my services here.

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