A dietitian can be a nutritionist, but a nutritionist isn’t necessarily a dietitian. What the what? Although most people use the terms interchangeably, there is actually a big difference between the two.
The short answer: A dietitian has to meet specific standards in education and supervised training, as well as pass a national registration exam. And a nutritionist…just has to call herself a nutritionist.
More specifically, a registered dietitian (RD) must have at least a bachelor’s degree with coursework that has been approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the agency which oversees and confers professional credentials in the U.S. After completing the required coursework — which includes classes in food science and nutrition, biochemistry, physiology, medical nutrition therapy, and many, many more — students must complete 1200 hours of supervised practice from an accredited dietetic internship program. After the completion of the internship, students are eligible to take the registration exam and, after passing, use the title “registered dietitian.” In order to keep their credentials, dietitians must also keep up with continuing education requirements, so they stay up to date with the newest nutrition information.
In contrast, there is no regulating board for nutritionists, which means anyone can claim the title at any time. This isn’t to say that there aren’t nutritionists out there who are highly educated, experienced and keeping up with the latest developments in food and nutrition — there is just no way to know for sure without asking some very specific questions and hoping you can trust all the answers.
Obviously, as someone studying to be a dietitian, I am biased toward RDs. There is a reason I am going through the multi-year process of becoming a registered dietitian rather than a choosing a short nutrition training program and starting work immediately. Part of it is the greater number of job opportunities available, but I also admire the amount of learning and training RDs go through before beginning their practice. I don’t just want to be someone who knows a lot about nutrition, I want to be an expert.
You can trust that a dietitian will be a nutrition expert. That’s the biggest difference.
• Qualifications of a Registered Dietitian at the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics