Dietitian vs. Nutritionist

Dietitian vs. Nutritionist | What's the Difference?
Nutrition
Written By:
Adrien
Paczosa
RD
LD
CEDRD-S

In the debate between dietitian vs. nutritionist, there are many misconceptions about these two titles. Even though many people use them interchangeably, these are two distinct roles with very different backgrounds. Understanding the dietitian and nutritionist difference is crucial for knowing where to turn if you’re ready to improve your health and wellness.

So do you need a nutritionist or dietitian to bolster a healthy lifestyle or build better relationships with food? Who is the right person for the job? Let’s discuss the difference between a dietitian and nutritionist and find out which one is best fit for you. 

Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: The Key Differences

What is the difference between a nutritionist and dietitian when both professionals treat similar conditions and perform similar roles? The differences begin with whether they are board-certified, the process to gain their professional credentials, and when you might choose to work with each.

Let’s take a look at each of these more closely, including educational requirements and the conditions each professional is able to treat. 

What is a dietitian?

Simply put, a dietitian is a food and nutrition expert that has been board-certified. They are highly educated and understand the science behind food, nutrition, and the impact on your health. Dietitians need extensive training to gain the expertise necessary to practice within a medical environment. You can find dietitians in a range of settings, including community clinics, research facilities, outpatient eating disorder clinics, and hospitals.

Education

To become a Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), a person needs to complete the requirements of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

dietitians must earn a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent via an accredited university or college. It usually requires an undergraduate science degree, which includes courses in biochemistry, physiology, and anatomy, among others.

Moreover, from January 2024, dietetics students must also have earned a graduate degree. Beyond the academic requirements, dietitians must have completed an internship that has been accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics.

Finally, dietetics students must have completed a board exam. When asking, “What’s the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?” the most significant difference can be seen in the educational requirements to become certified.

Licensing

Every state that requires a license has its own process, but it will typically require providing proof of professional credentials, ongoing education and completing an exam. It may also involve continuing professional development via obtaining credits.

Types of Dietitians

Registered dietitians often choose to specialize in a particular area. These professionals may choose to work in inpatient or outpatient care. Each role requires a unique array of experience to qualify.

Conditions Treated

Dietitians are equipped to treat both acute and chronic conditions. For example, some dietitians may specialize in supporting people experiencing nutrition problems due to cancer treatment. Others may work with clients who need a nutritionist for celiac disease or diabetes.

Finally, dietitians may support those who suffer from eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating. Typically, these professionals will work with a broader clinical team on personalized eating disorder treatment to achieve the best possible health outcomes.

What is a Nutritionist?

The confusion regarding dietitian vs. nutritionist arises because many countries prefer to use the term “nutritionist” instead of “dietitian.” In the United States, nutritionists tend to possess credentials and training in nutrition from a broad range of sources, rather than specific degrees. 

The definition of a nutritionist tends to vary by state. More than a dozen states require specific qualifications to call oneself a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS). 

However, many states don’t regulate the term, thus allowing anyone to call themselves a nutritionist, regardless of their credentials or experience. This is why you need to be careful when hiring a nutritionist because there are no guarantees that they have any real training in the subject.

Education

When it comes to choosing a dietitian or nutritionist, what’s the difference? The short answer is that the biggest difference lies in the educational requirements. In states that don’t regulate nutritionists, no degrees or credentials are required. Anybody is free to refer to themselves as a nutritionist, while becoming a registered dietitian takes years. 

Even in states that mandate licensing, completing a couple of programs is often enough to qualify. Some of these programs may only last a matter of weeks, with no requirement to take an internship or have any professional experience.

Some nutritionists, however, may be physicians or nurses who have completed additional advanced health degrees or coursework. 

Conditions Treated

Certified Nutrition Specialists have the legal standing to treat medical conditions in most states. States with licensing requirements for nutritionists are authorized to treat any disease a registered dietitian is authorized to treat.

However, due to the fact there is less oversight, it is generally not recommended to seek treatment for serious illnesses from a nutritionist..

Nutritionist or Dietitian: Which One Is Right For You?

So, when comparing a nutritionist vs. registered dietitian, how do you know which one to choose?

Despite state laws that permit nutritionists to treat the same conditions as RDs, you should always be looking for a dietitian over a nutritionist. dietitians undergo more comprehensive training, have a deeper educational background, and typically have a greater range of professional experience.

You need the best possible support, whether you want to improve your gut health, get in shape, or overcome an eating disorder. Whatever your goals, taking the time to speak to a professional with knowledge and expertise will always have more value than someone who does not have the appropriate credentials.

Partner with Nourish

At Nourish, we aim to equip you with the knowledge necessary to continue your health journey. We provide virtual nutrition counseling with board-certified dietitians who work with you to create sustainable long-term plans so you can achieve your health goals sooner.

To learn more about Nourish’s commitment to affordable access to nutritional guidance and support, find a registered dietitian nutritionist near you today.