What is the Difference Between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist?
Health coach. Fitness guru. Wellness instructor. Recipe blogger. Personal trainer. So many titles of food “experts” seem to be floating around the media these days, and it can be extremely confusing for consumers to understand who is the real deal and who is not. In the food and nutrition industry, perhaps the most confusing professional discrepancy is the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist.
The two designations that are most commonly heard in the field of food and nutrition are “nutritionist” or “certified nutritionist,” and “registered dietitian” or “registered dietitian nutritionist” (1). While they might seem like interchangeable titles, the abilities of nutritionists and dietitians are, in fact, quite different.
What is a nutritionist?
In the United States, having the general title of “nutritionist” comes with less regulations and tends to have a broader meaning. Because the title is not regulated or protected, anyone can refer to themselves as a nutritionist without any professional training; this is unlike a designation such as doctor, whereas someone cannot refer to themselves as doctor until they have completed the educational training to do so (2). Nikki Carroll, a nutrition and dietetics technician who is studying to become a dietitian, says "Even my dog or dog trainer can decide to call himself a nutritionist on the side—without a lick, no pun intended, of formal education or experience. (4)” Because of this, many people who claim to have a specialty in nutrition while calling themselves a nutritionist, in reality, have no concrete ability to back up their claims.
Individuals who refer to themselves as nutritionists may write for an online blog or sell products at a health store, but it is always important to check out the professional background or credentials of someone making nutrition claims before taking any dietary advice from them (3). Nutritionists typically do not have any professional training and therefore should not be involved in the process of giving medical advice; in nearly every state, it is actually illegal for a nutritionist to do so (2)(5).
There is, however, a way for nutritionists to obtain legitimacy in the nutrition field, and this is by becoming a certified nutrition specialist, or CNS (2). To become a CNS, one must complete an advanced degree in the field of nutrition or a related field that meets the requirements necessary to earn the credential. They must also complete 1,000 hours of supervised practice in nutrition (6). The person must then pass a nutritionist certification board, and can then officially gain the protected title of CNS and may begin practicing as one (2).
The most important difference to note between a certified nutrition specialist and a dietitian is that only a dietitian can provide medical nutrition therapy. Even with a certification, a CNS may only communicate health information that is appropriate to their set of background knowledge and training. Appropriate topics may include providing recipes, advocating for a heart healthy diet, or suggesting the use of probiotics, but may not include things like dictating feeding tube calculations and instructions, ordering lab tests, or diagnosing an eating disorder (5).
To sum up, nutritionists have no official certifications or qualifications until they become a certified nutrition specialist. Even then, dietitians may refer to themselves as nutritionists, but nutritionists may not refer to themselves as dietitians (7).
What is the difference between a dietitian and a Nutritionist-A Registered Dietitian, or RD, is someone with the educational background, credentialing and licensure that allows them to give nutritional advice in a medical setting. The term Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, or RDN, is synonymous with RD, and is just a newer title (5). RDs have the capability to tailor nutritional recommendations based on a patient’s medical history, help manage chronic diseases, give guidance to those suffering food allergies or insensitivities, and support patients through a myriad of other practical lifestyle applications (10).
To become a Registered Dietitian, one must complete a bachelor’s degree at an accredited university, where specific courses such as organic chemistry and human metabolism must be part of the coursework (2). To become accredited, a university must be approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics, so not all universities with a degree in nutrition offer the pathway to become a Registered Dietitian (7). After earning the degree, one must complete a Dietetic Internship or similar supervised practice program that includes 1200+ hours in clinical, community wellness, and food service management rotations (2) (8). Once the internship is completed, the person is eligible to sit for a national examination administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, and if passed, they may include the letters RD or RDN after their name (7). RDs must obtain licensure in the state in which they are practicing, and to maintain their registered status, must complete 75 continuing education credits every five years (1) (3). To learn in more detail what the exact path is to becoming a Registered Dietitian, click here.
As a dietitian progresses further into his or her career, he or she may pursue certifications in specialized areas of practice such as diabetes education, renal nutrition, or oncology nutrition (1). Due to the education and training they have received, dietitians have earned their credentials, and should therefore not be referred to as a nutritionist in a professional setting (3).
The bottom line is that nutrition is not common sense, but rather, it is a specialized science (9). Although the terms “nutritionist” and dietitian” are used interchangeably, the two professions have distinctive qualities that are important to note. It remains imperative that before going to any health professional for nutrition advice, credentials are sought out by the patient to ensure they are receiving quality care by the most qualified provider.
RD Nutrition Consultants LLC, is the industry leader in Consultant Dietitian Services Nationwide. We specialize in providing contract Registered Dietitian services in a wide variety of healthcare and wellness organizations.
Occhipinti, A., & M. (n.d.). Certified Nutritionist vs. Registered Dietitian: What's the Difference? Retrieved from https://www.afpafitness.com/blog/certified-nutritionist-vs-registered-dietitian-whats-the-difference
What Is The Difference Between A Nutritionist And A Dietitian? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://nutritionsciencedegree.org/what-is-the-difference-between-a-nutritionist-and-a-dietician/
Registered Dietitian vs. Nutritionist | Clinical Nutrition Center. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.clinicalnutritioncenter.com/meet-our-medical-weight-loss-professionals/registered-dietitians-nutritionists/registered-dietitian-vs-nutritionist
Kassel, G. (2018, February 22). What's The Difference Between A Dietitian And Nutritionist? Retrieved from https://womenshealthmag.com/weight-loss/a18569273/dietitian-vs-nutritionist/
Occhipinti, M. (n.d.). 3 Ways to Give Nutritional Advice Legally. Retrieved from https://www.afpafitness.com/blog/3-ways-to-give-nutritional-advice-legally
How to Become a Certified Nutrition Specialist® ™. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nutritioned.org/certified-nutrition-specialist.html
Lehman, S., & Fogoros, R. N. (n.d.). What Are the Differences Between a Dietitian and Nutritionist? Retrieved from https://www.verywellfit.com/dietitian-nutritionist-difference-2506622
Dietetic Internships. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.eatrightpro.org/acend/accredited-programs/dietetic-internships
Sass, C. (n.d.). Nutritionist vs Dietitian - Cynthia Sass - Nutritionist and Author. Retrieved from https://cynthiasass.com/about/nutritionist-vs-dietitian.html
What an RDN Can Do for You. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://eatright.org/food/resources/learn-more-about-rdns/what-an-rdn-can-do-for-you