Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: What’s the Difference?

You may have heard the terms “dietitian” and “nutritionist” used interchangeably; however, when you are seeking nutrition advice, it’s important to know the difference. That way, you can avoid guidance that could have a negative impact on your health. In this article, we discuss what makes someone a dietitian vs. a nutritionist, and what’s the difference between the two.

What is a Dietitian?

According to the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, Dietitians are the acknowledged experts within the field of food and nutrition. For dietitians to be eligible for credentialing, they must undergo extensive education and training.

Dietitians are also known by a more official title of “Registered Dietitian.” They use the acronym “RD” after their names to signify that they have met all the official requirements.

More recently, the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), which is the credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition, has created an additional title: Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). This is to further clear up any confusion between the titles of “dietitian” and “nutritionist.”

Someone with the RD credentialing can also use the RDN credential. They are synonymous and can be used interchangeably.

Education & Credentialing Requirements

The Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) establishes eligibility criteria for Registered Dietitians. This includes the following requirements:

  • Minimum of a bachelor’s degree; effective 2024, the minimum degree required will change to a graduate level degree.
  • Completion of a dietetic internship; this includes 1200 supervised practice hours in various settings such as clinical, food service and community-based settings, and commonly extends into more specific focus areas.  
  • Passing the registered dietitian examination; it includes a wide range of nutrition topics including medical nutrition therapy, food service management, food science, various research tactics, etc.

To maintain credentialing, dietitians are reevaluated every five years. During that time, they must complete a minimum of 75 continuing education hours.

If you are interested in learning more about the process of becoming a dietitian, and the various areas of specialization, check out this article.

What is a nutritionist?

The title “nutritionist” can be used to describe anyone who provides nutrition guidance. The person can have formal training from a college or university. Or, they can have a certificate from a company. Or, they can have no background in nutrition at all!

When you are receiving nutrition guidance from a dietitian or a nutritionist, know that quality of care can vary significantly. It can depend on the level and type of education, as well as the individual’s motivation for providing nutrition-focused care.

Education & Credentialing Requirements

There are none. in fact, there is no credentialing agency or organization that oversees the title of “Nutritionist.” This is a fundamental way that dietitians and nutritionists are different.

Due to the lack of a standard definition or regulation for the title “nutritionist,” it is possible for any person to call themselves a nutritionist regardless of education or experience. This can be dangerous and in fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has an online Incident Reporting Tool that collects information on harmful outcomes relating to this.

If you are considering working with a person claiming the title of nutritionist, do your research regarding the licensure laws in your state. Carefully assess if the “nutritionist” is certified to provide the care you are seeking.

How to Choose

Are you thinking about seeking guidance from a dietitian or a nutritionist? First, be sure that any nutrition guidance is based on evidenced-based research. You should feel confident that the practitioner is applying credible, well-researched methodologies within their practice.

Nutrition is a fascinating field. For this reason, many people enjoy learning to optimize their dietary intake and overall health. However, enthusiasm about a topic does not render someone qualified to provide professional guidance to others.

Questions to Ask

When seeking nutrition guidance, how can you be sure that you will receive top-notch care? Consider the following questions when seeking out a nutrition provider or program:

1. Is there a catch?

It is important to assess the mission of the individual, organization or company providing nutrition advice. Are they emphasizing specific products for sale rather than the service itself? This may be a red flag. Always consider the rationale for any recommendations made by your provider, particularly when it comes to purchasing products. Recommendations should be based on research and quality standards, and not made with the sole intention of yielding a profit.

2. Does it seem too good to be true?

Then it likely is! Dietitians are focused on long-term, sustainable results. Meanwhile some “nutritionists” are selling a product or plan that might work short-term, but does not yield long-term results. When the results wear off, you are more likely to resume the plan or program, thereby increasing the company’s profit.

Really give some thought as to whether the person advising you is promoting well-researched products and methods that establish and maintain long-term behavior changes. It is important to consider how results look in 6 months, 1 year, 3 years and so forth.

2. Does it do more harm than good?

To what degree could you unknowingly compromise your health to achieve the promised rapid results? Does the provider or company promote very low calorie diets that could contribute to disordered eating behaviors or a slower metabolism? How about a product that helps you shed weight fast, but mostly at the expense of dehydrating your body?

A dietitian will prioritize ethical approaches, and should promote well-researched and regulated products and evidenced-based (and safe) methodologies.

For other factors to consider when seeking out nutrition guidance, click here.

3. Will you need to keep buying certain products to see continued success?

The person providing nutrition guidance should not be focused on selling a specific product, whether it’s a “cleanse,” a certain protein powder, specific supplements you can only purchase through them, pre-packaged food that they sell, and so on. The goal of a nutrition program should be to bring about long-term behavior changes that rely on real, whole food. You should also not be required to give up all the foods you love to see success, which is not a realistic, long-term strategy.

Want to ensure ethical and reliable care?

If you want to be sure you are working with a credible nutrition professional that is certified to address any of your medical needs or concerns, then a Registered Dietitian would be the best option. In addition to their education and experience, dietitians uphold a strong Code of Ethics to ensure they provide honest and ethical care to their patients.

If you aren’t sure whether a Registered Dietitian can help you reach your specific health goals, read this article published by The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: 10 Reasons to See a RDN.

Want to learn more about the services we provide at Anderson’s Nutrition? Click here to read about our nutrition counseling programs, and other services provided by our Registered Dietitians.