This Is the Difference Between a Registered Dietitian and a Nutritionist

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Are you thinking about hiring a dietitian or a nutritionist but aren’t sure exactly which one to pick? Before you take the leap, it’s important to understand exactly what these roles involve and how these professionals can help you achieve your health goals. People often use the terms “dietitian” and “nutritionist” interchangeably, but while the two professions have many similarities, there are some key differences that define what each one can do — and these are worth taking into consideration.

To better prepare yourself to make informed healthcare decisions, it’s wise to learn about what each of these nutrition professionals does, including the credentials they need, along with how you can find the right nutritionist or dietitian to work with. This quick guide will help you learn these — and more — important considerations.

What Is a Registered Dietitian, And What Do They Do?

Dietitians are experts in nutrition. A dietitian’s job is to guide their patients toward healthy food choices in order to treat various health conditions and serious medical symptoms that may require hospitalization. Dietitians can treat a variety of conditions, including eating disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, kidney failure, diabetes and allergies, among others.

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A professional dietitian is someone who’s registered to a practice, employed by a private healthcare provider or running their own business. It’s an absolute must that any practicing dietitian registers with a professional body in order to conduct business legally. They can also work in various industries, including education, media and public health relations. You’ll likely hear people refer to these professionals as “Registered Dietitians” (RD); this is because “dietitian” is actually a legally regulated, restricted, recognized and protected professional title. RDs must earn certain credentials to be legally allowed to call themselves dietitians — the title itself is protected by law.

Dietitians typically specialize in one of four different areas of practice. These include community, food service-management, clinical and research branches. A community dietitian sets diet initiatives to contribute to the wellbeing of an entire population. Food service-management dietitians are responsible for overseeing that organizations follow food safety guidelines. A clinical dietitian usually works with a hospital or practice and supervises long-term patients who are in need of constant care. You’ll find research dietitians in educational settings, at organizations and at research hospitals. They’re part of teams that focus on learning more about food and how it affects people’s bodies.

What Does a Nutritionist Do?

A professional nutritionist is responsible for giving advice and information about how to eat healthier. However, they’re unable to use food to treat specific medical conditions, and the title “nutritionist” isn’t regulated by law like an RD’s profession is. While nutritionists may work alongside dietitians in a hospital setting, many of them work as freelance consultants. You’ll also find nutritionists in the food industry and in research, education, media and other non-clinical settings.

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When it comes to nutritionists — as with dietitians — it’s vital to take credentials into consideration. It is possible for nutritionists to obtain professional certifications, but not all of them decide to take this extra step. Due to the fact that uncredentialed nutritionists may not have updated training and education, they may not be aware of the latest developments in their fields and consequently may not provide the most helpful health advice.

Assessing Dietitian and Nutritionist Credentials

Credentials are always important to consider when researching a potential dietitian or a nutritionist. Because dietitians treat various medical conditions, they require national board certifications. They also need to have at least a bachelor’s degree, demonstrate more than 1,200 hours of supervised practice and obtain continuing education credits every five years. Many states also require them to be licensed in order to open a practice. A dietitian must continue educating themselves throughout their career in order to provide guidance that follows the latest health standards.

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There are two interchangeable credentials for dietitians: Registered Dietitian (RD) and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). These designations can be used interchangeably. According to Berkeley Wellness, “The RDN designation…highlights the fact that all registered dietitians are nutritionists but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians. This is an important distinction because in some states you can call yourself a nutritionist without any formal nutrition education, training, licensing, or certification, but it’s illegal to call yourself a ‘dietitian’ without proper credentialing.”

Meanwhile, a nutritionist’s career starts with an interest and passion in the field. Like becoming a dietitian, a nutritionist can also take their education a step further and obtain official credentials that allow them to work as a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS). The education for the license focuses on science-backed nutrition advice, covering all areas of nutrition. In addition, to obtain CNS credentials, a practitioner needs to hold a master’s or doctorate degree, pass an exam and demonstrate at least 1,000 hours of experience in supervised practice. A nutritionist can also undertake further education and certifications to continue developing their knowledge of modern practices.

What Treatment Options Are Available?

Dietitians are able to treat a wide variety of common health conditions. However, what they treat at an individual level may depend on their practice. A dietitian might work with a chemotherapy patient on their nutrition plan, work to prevent diabetes or even work in a hospital to cater to patients who require care to recover from being malnourished. It’s important to note that a dietitian can also specialize in treating eating disorders and will often work with a team of doctors and therapists to help patients.

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Nutritionists, specifically those with CNS accreditations, can provide some of the same treatments as an RD if they possess sufficient education and knowledge. They can prescribe nutrition therapy and even get involved with community programs, but they’re unable to provide treatment for eating disorders and other medical conditions. It’s extremely important to note that nutritionists should always give advice that’s backed by science.

Which One of These Professionals Do You Need?

If you’re thinking about getting help learning about nutrition or making healthy changes to your diet, this checklist of questions may come in handy when you’re trying to figure out whether you need a dietitian or a nutritionist. Ask yourself the following as you’re making your decision:

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  • Do you have diabetes or any other medical condition that requires a change in diet?
  • Do you need a customized diet program that focuses on treating health symptoms?
  • Do you feel like you might have an unhealthy relationship with food?
  • Do you feel like you get sick often?

If you answered “yes,” you may need a dietitian.

  • Do you want to learn more about how to reach your health goals?
  • Are you noticing irregular bowel movements?
  • Are you confused about which diet is right for you?
  • Do you want advice on weight loss?

If you answered yes, you may need a nutritionist.

Whether you need a nutritionist or a dietitian, it’s always important to do thorough research on their training and credentials to make sure you’re getting advice from an expert in the field.

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