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What's the Difference Between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist?


It's hard to know who to trust when looking for accurate, useful information about food and nutrition. There are new studies being published daily and food products being introduced constantly, and in this ever-changing world of nutrition, it's easy to get confused. Additionally, there are many opportunities for people to spread incorrect or speculative information to the public. However, there are certain professionals who are educated and trained to help you navigate the world of food and nutrition.

A Registered Dietitian

People are often confused about the difference between a "nutritionist" and a dietitian, but it is not accurate to use these terms interchangeably. Some registered dietitians (RDs) may refer to themselves as nutritionists, usually in order to simplify things for those who may not be familiar with the term dietitian, but not all nutritionists are RDs. RDs have met specific academic and experiential requirements set forth by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). The credential RD (registered dietitian) is a nationally-recognized, legally protected, professional title and it can only be used by those who are authorized by the CDR.

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An RD must have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in dietetics, nutrition or nutrition sciences. Approximately half of all RDs actually hold advanced degrees. The academic program for these degrees includes such coursework as food science, clinical dietetics, community nutrition, life-cycle nutrition, medical nutrition therapy, education methodology, biochemistry, microbiology, social sciences, human anatomy and physiology, and other culinary- and nutrition-related classes.

An RD has also completed a dietetic internship or supervised practice program where hands-on, in-the-field experience is gained. RDs have also passed the registration exam and must recurrently obtain continuing education credits in order to complete the recertification process. This process ensures that RDs are continuing to stay abreast of the latest research and practice information to best serve the public.

A Nutritionist

The title of nutritionist is not a nationally-recognized credential and both the definition and requirements for using the term nutritionist varies from state to state. In some states, the licensure laws distinguish the rules of practice for those calling themselves nutritionists, but in other states, there is a different story. Actually, in some states and U.S. territories where there are no nutrition or dietetic licensure laws, the term nutritionist may not be regulated at all. This means that anyone living in those states can call himself/herself a nutritionist even without any pertinent education or training in the field of nutrition.

However, in certain instances, people calling themselves nutritionists may certainly have some nutrition education, and some may even have obtained the required bachelor's degree in nutrition, but may have never completed a dietetic internship or passed the CDR's registration exam. These individuals may have a wealth of knowledge but still have not met the requirements for the RD credential. It's important to ask those referring to themselves as nutritionists about their specific education and training.

The Bottom Line

Registered dietitians are the nutrition experts, and their unique combination of acquiring formal education, completing the required internship experience, passing the registration examination and maintaining continuing education requirements and amassing hands-on skills in the field allows them to help people achieve their nutrition and wellness goals. RDs merge the art and the science of nutrition to help people meet their specific goals and needs to allow them to enjoy long, healthy, happy lives.

Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children. If you would be interested in working with Kari one-on-one, sign-up for FitDay Dietitian.

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