Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: What's the Difference?
One of the questions that I am frequently asked by others is, "What is the difference between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist?" All Dietitians are Nutritionists, but not all Nutritionists are Dietitians. Why? The difference lies in the education, supervised practice experience, credentialing requirements, and scope of practice. A Dietitian is a verified nutrition expert that may provide evidenced-based information, while a Nutritionist may simply be a quack.
Registered Dietitian or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RD, RDN)
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a Registered Dietitian is a food and nutrition expert who has met both academic and professional requirements set forth by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). These requirements allow Registered Dietitians to provide evidence-based Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT):
Earning a Bachelor's or Master's degree with course work and a Dietetic Internship or Coordinated Program accredited by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). (Note: In 2024, all incoming RDs will be required to have a Master's degree)
Completing a minimum of 1200 hours of supervised practice experience at an accredited healthcare facility, community agency, or foodservice corporation in areas of clinical nutrition, food service, community nutrition, and school nutrition
Passing the national Registered Dietitian examination administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration
Meeting continuing professional educational requirements (75 hours every 5 years) to maintain board certification and state licensure
Many Registered Dietitians also hold additional certifications in specialized areas of Nutrition practice, including pediatric, renal, diabetes, weight management, oncology, nutrition support, sports nutrition, eating disorders and more. Dietitians guide, educate, and empower the public to improve their food choices for overall health and wellness. They help translate the science of nutrition into practical solutions to facilitate behavior change. Dietitians may offer their services in a variety of settings, including health care facilities, nursing and continuing care facilities, home health, foodservice establishments, grocery stores, farms, food producers, community organizations, public health, schools, private practice, research organizations, and government agencies.
In the United States, the title "Nutritionist" is not regulated and does not have a uniform definition. The title can be used by anyone who offers general nutrition advice. A Nutritionist is a person who has studied nutrition and/or provides nutrition education or counseling. Some state licensure boards have enacted legislation that regulates use of this title and/or sets specific qualifications for holding the title, but this may not include an advanced degree in nutrition. A Nutritionist does not have to be credentialed and does not have to undergo the professional training, supervised practice experience, and continuing education requirements required for the Dietitian credential. Additionally, they may or may not actually work in the field of nutrition. Therefore, anyone can call themselves a Nutritionist and charge clients for services without this formal training.
Because Nutritionists may not receive formal nutrition education from an ACEND-accredited program, they are not qualified to provide Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT) and to prescribe diets. Medical Nutrition Therapy includes the provision of nutritional diagnostic, therapy, and counseling services for the purpose of disease management. For example, a Nutritionist would not be qualified to provide dietary guidance for Diabetes while a Registered Dietitian would be. If a Nutritionist provides guidance or recommendations for a disease state such as Diabetes, he/she may be practicing outside of his/her scope of practice.
So, what are Nutritionists qualified to do? Nutritionists are able to provide general, healthy nutrition guidance not tailored to specific disease-states. This allows them to be able to work in holistic settings and facilities such as gyms and exercise facilities, supermarkets, private practice, and advocacy.
If seeking a Nutrition expert for evidence-based guidance, a Registered Dietitian who has worked hard for his/her credentials is your best bet. As the field of Nutrition and the interest in it grows, it is important to receive the help you need and want from a recognized, credentialed expert in the field.
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