What Are the Differences Between a Dietitian and Nutritionist?

Dietitians and nutritionists are similar and can help improve your diet.
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Dietitians and nutritionists are both food and nutrition experts. They've studied how diet and dietary supplements affect your health. Both are considered to be healthcare professionals, but the two titles shouldn't be used interchangeably.

Dietitians

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (United States), a registered dietitian is someone who has:

  • Earned a bachelor's degree with coursework approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics.
  • Completed an accredited, supervised practice program at a healthcare facility, community agency or foodservice corporation.
  • Passed a national examination administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration.
  • Can use the letters R.D. (registered dietitian) or R.D.N. (registered dietitian nutritionist) after their names.
  • Completes annual continuing professional educational requirements to maintain registration.

Registered dietitians may plan food and nutrition programs and promote healthy eating habits to prevent and treat illness. They often work in food service or as part of medical teams in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities. Dietitians also work in university settings, where they may teach, do research or focus on public health issues.

In the United States, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also credentials dietetic technicians, registered. These dietetic technicians typically have an associate's degree and work with registered dietitians.

They're allowed to use the letters D.T.R. after their name.

Nutritionists

A nutritionist is someone who's studied nutrition in college and may have a graduate degree (M.S. or Ph.D.) in nutrition from an accredited college. Dietitians are considered to be nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians.

Some healthcare providers may also be nutritionists if they've completed some extra studies in the area of nutrition. They practice "clinical nutrition," which is usually considered part of an alternative or complementary medicine.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, clinical nutrition includes:

"The science of nutrients and how they are digested, absorbed, transported, metabolized, stored, and eliminated by the body. Besides studying how food works in the body, nutritionists are interested in how the environment affects the quality and safety of foods, and what influence these factors have on health and disease."

There are nutritionist certification boards, such as the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists, that require applicants to have at least a master's degree in nutrition (or related field) from an accredited college along with practical experience before sitting for their certification exam. Nutritionists who pass this test may refer to themselves as certified nutrition specialists (C.N.S.), which is a protected title.

The Clinical Nutrition Certification Board is another organization that offers certification as a certified clinical nutritionist (C.C.N.).

Licensure

While only a dietitian can use the title "dietitian," it's important to understand that the term "nutritionist" itself is not protected. In regions where nutrition and dietetics are not licensed or regulated, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, whether they're qualified or not. If you're going to work with someone who calls herself a nutritionist, be sure to check on her credentials.

Many (but not all) U.S. states and Canadian provinces require licensure to practice as either a dietitian or a nutritionist. These licensed positions are:

  • L.D. = licensed dietitian
  • L.N. = licensed nutritionist
  • L.D.N. = licensed dietitian nutritionist

The requirements for licensure vary a bit by location. Some states only license register dietitians, while others license nutritionists if they're certified by one of the above certification boards.

What About a Health Coach?

If you search online, you'll find all kinds of programs that train 'health coaches.' These programs are generally only a few weeks long and aren't regulated by any accredited educational regulatory agencies. They're often focused on more holistic ideas and alternative ideas such as functional nutrition, however they may not have adequate training to help anyone with any serious health issues.

How to Choose a Dietitian or Nutritionist?

If you feel like working with a professional to help you with your dietary concerns, the best thing to do is speak with your medical doctor or physicians assistant who can get you in touch with a dietitian or nutritionist who can fit your needs. This is especially important if you have a specific health condition such as diabetes, kidney disease, or cancer, or if you are pregnant or looking for a dietitian to work with your child. 

Sources:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "What are the qualifications of a registered dietitian?

University of Maryland Medical Center. "Nutrition."

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