Seeking out nutrition advice can be confusing, as the terminologies of nutritionists and dietitians are thrown around interchangeably and loosely. What truly is the difference, if any, between the two and why might you choose one over the other?
Read on to learn what the differences are between a registered dietitian and a nutritionist and why knowing matters.
Dietitian vs Nutritionist
The difference between these titles is more than just a technicality. In fact, it can impact your decision on which professional title you want to work with or heed advice from.
Overall, the main differences and similarities for a dietitian vs a nutritionist depend on education and work.
Dietitian vs Nutritionist: Education and Credential Difference
A nutritionist is an individual who has acquired some nutrition-related knowledge through their own self-teaching or academic coursework. Nutritionists may have completed an undergraduate or graduate degree in nutrition and potentially worked as a research assistant, wellness educator, etc.
Certification programs may also offer credentials, including the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (CNS). This is a more comprehensive and elite program for advance-degreed health professionals, including Medical Doctors (MDs) and Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs).
However, some individuals who market themselves as "nutritionists" lack any form of standardized education.
In contrast, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), or casually a dietitian, is technically a nutritionist accredited by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).
A dietitian has completed extensive schooling and training, including education in nutrition and numerous science courses. They likely have also taken classes in management, psychology, and other diverse disciplines.
Following undergraduate coursework, prospective dietitians must apply and be matched to a dietetic internship with the potential to obtain a graduate degree and conduct research. Internships require hours of supervised practice with rotations generally in a multitude of settings, including hospitals, food outreach programs, and food service management.
Upon internship completion, RDNs must pass a national exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), obtain appropriate licensure, and complete continuing education requirements.
After obtaining licensure, dietitians can take a national exam for various other specialties and expand their credentials. Common specialties include gerontological nutrition (CSG), sports dietetics (CSSD), pediatric nutrition (CSP), renal nutrition (CSR) and oncology nutrition (CSO).
Bottom Line: Nutritionists may have a varying level of education, but it is not standardized. Dietitians all have at least an undergraduate degree and completed a nationally recognized internship and accreditation process.
Dietitian vs Nutritionist: Differences in Work
In most states, both nutritionists and dietitians can provide nutrition counseling, health coaching, or give nutrition advice on the internet. This can be where the confusion comes in for what the differences are between a dietitian and a nutritionist.
However, not all nutrition or food-related roles can be done by a nutritionist. Some roles only allow dietitians to do the work because of the educational standard.
In the following settings, only dietitians - not nutritionists - are qualified to be hired:
• Hospitals, providing both inpatient and outpatient care. Some dietitians may also direct foodservice operations in these settings by overseeing food purchasing and production and managing staff
• Working with collegiate or professional athletic teams
• Working in corporate wellness to provide nutrition guidance
• Community and public health settings including government health departments and programs (i.e. Women, Infant, and Children program)
• Universities and medical centers, educating students or potentially conducting research
In the following settings, either a dietitian or a nutritionist could be in these roles:
• Having their own nutrition consulting business (some states only allow dietitians)
• Providing nutrition advice at gyms or on various websites
• Non-traditional work settings, including journaling and writing, assisting celebrities and professional athletes and working with pets
Bottom Line: Dietitians are only allowed to be hired for certain positions such as in a hospital, working with high-level athletes, or with government agencies. Nutritionists or dietitians may have non-traditional roles or have their own practice for providing nutrition consulting.
Conclusion: Difference Between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist
When it comes down to it, both dietitians and nutritionists display nutrition-related knowledge. The primary difference lies in dietitians' acquired skills met through ongoing experiences, first starting in their standardized education and internship.
Dietitians have broad, unique knowledge and experience in nutrition, along with an understanding of other disciplines. While they both can offer nutrition-related advice and guidance, dietitians display the most extensive experience and knowledge unless nutritionists have undergone a rigorous certification program, including CNS. However, a nutritionist could also have just gotten a certification from an online course that provides little or no scientific education.
When choosing between a dietitian and nutritionist, select the one who has the most experience and knowledge in the area of interest. For instance, if managing diabetes, your best bet lies with the individual established in that field. And if looking for recipe development, a dietitian generally has more training in the kitchen than a practicing doctor who went through the CNS program.
All-in-all, stay wary of so-called "nutritionists" who may have only gained knowledge through google searches and bogus and incompetent nutrition sources. Instead, confine in a well-seasoned dietitian!
If in doubt if someone is a dietitian or a nutritionist, politely ask. All dietitians can also be called nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians.