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What is the Difference Between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist?

Updated: Jan 26

Both nutritionists and dietitians are nutrition experts who have studied the effects of diet, food, and lifestyle on your health. Both dietitians and nutritionists can be considered healthcare professionals, however, the titles should not be interchangeable. So, what is the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?

Well, for starters, dietitians have more education and typically have higher credentials and expertise. There's a lot more to it when answering the question, "what is the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist," so let's break down some of the major things that set each profession apart.



Dietitians

Simply put: a dietitian is a specialist in dietetics. This specific type of knowledge focuses on diet and how it directly affects health. A dietitian works with clients to modify their diet based on if they have a medical condition or just personal health and fitness goals.


To become a registered dietitian, you must complete the following three items:

  • A Bachelor's Program with coursework approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Accreditation Council For Education in Nutrition and Dietetics

  • A National Exam administered by The Commission on Dietetic Registration

  • Experience in a healthcare facility, community agency, or food service company, all of which must be accredited


A dietitian must also continue to complete professional education requirements each year in order to keep board certification. These are some of the bigger components in understanding "what is the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?" But perhaps the most significant of all being that after their names, dietitians are identified by the letters "RD" or "RDN."

Registered dietitians are often employed in food service, or as part of a team in hospitals, clinics, or other healthcare facilities. Universities also often have dietitians on staff who can help with the research and teaching of nutrition and diet to its students.


So again, when addressing what is the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist - perhaps the best way to differentiate the two is that one essentially works alongside the other in an assistance type of role.


Even though registered nutrition dietetic technicians are also accredited by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, most nutrition dietetic technicians have are only required an associate's degree, and they actually work alongside registered dietitians. After their names, they are identified by the letters "NDTR" (nutrition dietetic technician, registered).



Nutritionists

The title "nutritionist" is used in the United States to describe anyone who provides general nutrition advice. The regulation and mandatory requirements of nutritionists is not the same as that of dietitians. However, and this part is a bit scary, even those without professional training may legally be called nutritionists.


Nutritionists, unlike dietitians who can diagnose and prescribe diets for specific medical conditions, deal with general nutrition goals and specific behaviors around food and eating. Many nutritionists work in hospitals, schools, cafeterias, and long-term care facilities.


Some nutritionists do hold advanced degrees and would have had to be tested and pass The Nutritionist Certification Boards to earn the protected title of "Certified Nutrition Specialist," (CNS). This is especially true of sports nutritionists.


Still, only CBNS board-certified nutrition specialists can legally add "CNS" to their names after they have completed the practical experience requirements - so be on the look out for those differences if you're looking for someone who has indeed been certified.

So to Recap: What is the Difference Between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist and Why Should You Care?

This is a question I am most frequently asked, well maybe not so much the "why should I care," part, but definitely the "what is the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist, part - and understandably so, as they do seem like they would be quite similar.


Again, the biggest (and arguably the most important) difference is the education and requirements. The credentials of Registered Dietitians (RD) or RDN are those who have completed at least a 4 year Nutrition Science Degree, with at least 1,200 hours of in-the-field supervision, and have passed a board examination. None of this is required of a nutritionist, and as previously stated, some nutritionists have no experience or educational training at all.


So, why should you care? Simply put, apply the same standards to what you'd expect as far as a formal education when you visit a dentist, doctor, or a lawyer. The professionals who give us nutritional advice should also have a formal education. Particularly when it comes to patients with nutrition-related diseases or symptoms that can easily be treated using medical nutrition therapy. These symptoms can be treated by Registered Dietitians who have been trained to various levels of expertise.


Most other programs do not offer this type of training. Many online "nutritionists," promote what works best for them, which certainly may not work for everyone else. This is a misleading and false assumption. Everyone's body, goals, genetics, age, exercise, occupations, and so on play a factor in creating a plan specific to you.


Because everyone is different, each person must be treated as an individual and nutritional plans should be tailored to their specific needs. That's exactly the approach I take when working with my clients, learn more about my signature program by clicking here.

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