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The Difference Between a Registered Dietitian and a Nutritionist

What truly is the difference between a dietitian and nutritionist and why might you choose one over the other?

The Difference Between a Registered Dietitian and a Nutritionist

Seeking out nutrition advice can be confusing, as the terminologies of nutritionists and dietitians are thrown around interchangeably and loosely.

So when it comes to a dietitian versus nutritionist, what truly is the difference and why might you choose one over the other?

Dietitian vs Nutritionist

What Is a Nutritionist?

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 and potentially worked as a research assistant, wellness educator, etc. 

Certification programs may also offer credentials, including Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (CNS) offering a more comprehensive and elite program for advance-degreed health professionals, including Medical Doctors (MDs) and Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs). 

However, most individuals who market themselves as a "nutritionist" lacks any sort of aligning experience and practice in health and nutrition.

What Is a Dietitian?

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 undergraduate work in nutrition, numerous science courses and even classes in management, psychology, and other diverse disciplines. 

Following undergraduate coursework, perspective dietitians must apply and be matched to a dietetic internship with the potential to obtain a graduate degree and conduct research. Internships generally offer rotations in a multitude of settings, including hospitals, food outreach programs, and foodservice 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. 

Work settings of RDNs can be quite diverse and may include:

• 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.

• Gyms, athletes at a high school or collegiate level, and corporate wellness programs, ultimately linking health, fitness, and nutrition together.

• Private practice, working under their own contracts and offering services to other companies, including food vendors and in-home healthcare.

• Nutrition-related business industries, working in communications, public relations, and product development.

• Community and public health settings, including health departments and working with legislation.

• Universities and medical centers, educating students or potentially conducting research.

• Non-traditional work settings, including journaling and writing, assisting celebrities and professional athletes, and working with pets.

Dietitians can also delve into specialty areas and expand their credentials. Common specialties include gerontological nutrition (CSG), sports dietetics (CSSD), pediatric nutrition (CSP), renal nutrition (CSR) and oncology nutrition (CSO).

Who Should You Choose?

When it comes down to it, both dietitians and nutritionists display nutrition-related knowledge. The primary difference lies in dietitian's acquired skills met through ongoing experiences, first starting in their internship. 

Dietitians have broad, unique knowledge and experience in nutrition, along with an understanding of other disciplines. And 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. 

So when choosing between a dietitian and nutritionist, select the individual who has the most experience and knowledge in the area of interest. For instance, if managing diabetes, your best bet lies with the individual with the most experience and knowledge in that particular field. And if looking for recipe development, a dietitian generally has more training in the kitchen over a practicing doctor who went through the CNS program. 

All-in-all, stay weary of so-called "nutritionists" who may have only gained knowledge through google searches and bogus and incompetent nutrition sources and confine in a well-seasoned dietitian!

Sydney Lappe's Photo
Written By Sydney Lappe, MS, RDN. Published on August 15, 2017. Updated on March 08, 2019.


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