Dietician vs. Nutritionist

September 8, 2022

Dieticians and nutritionists both use food to help make a difference in people’s lives, but their titles aren’t entirely interchangeable. From certification requirements to unique specialties, we’re looking at the nuances that differentiate these two roles and sharing tips for deciding when and why to work with one.

What Is a Dietician?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines a registered dietitian (RN) as a “food and nutrition expert who has met the minimum academic and professional requirements to qualify for the RD credential.” Rather than a DIY approach to long-term health, a dietician will partner with you to develop a realistic eating plan you can stick with, and offer “out-of-the-box strategies to help with meal planning, grocery shopping, and mindful eating.”

Dietician Certification Requirements

Although many states have additional regulatory laws required to practice, all RDs must fulfill these three requirements before becoming certified:

  • Have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university with course work approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Subjects studied include everything from culinary arts and sociology to nutrition science and chemistry.
  • Complete a supervised practice program at a health care facility, community agency, or a food service corporation.
  • Pass a national exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration.

From here, some RDs pursue additional specialty certifications awarded through the Commission on Dietetic Registration or other medical organizations in areas such as pediatric nutrition, diabetes education, and sports. All RDs are required to complete continuing education to maintain registration throughout their careers.

dietician vs nutritionist

What Is a Nutritionist?

Similar to a dietician, a nutritionist can partner with you to help develop healthy eating habits and meal plans, or educate you on portion control or specific diets that may be beneficial based on your health goals.

Certified Nutritionists

Unlike registered dietitians, the title of nutritionist can apply to anyone offering general nutrition advice. Unlike dietitians, this field isn’t as regulated, although many nutritionists do have advanced degrees and pursue certification, especially since some states (though not all) require that nutritionists be certified or licensed in order to legally practice.

For those who choose to pursue certification, it starts with a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as nutrition, health science, or food science. Certification requirements from the American Nutrition Association (ANA) state that candidates must earn a master’s degree in nutrition and complete 1,000 hours of supervised experience before sitting for the Board of Certification for Nutrition Specialists’ CNS exam.

Founded in 1993, the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS) is a separate legal entity offering nutrition certification, but is affiliated with several non-profit organizations in the nutrition field—including the ANA—and offers several certification options to support professionals through a combination of “education, experience, and by meeting the highest standards of science and practice of professional nutrition care validated by their performance through examination.”

Types of Nutritionists

In the wellness world, there are a variety of ways you might encounter a nutritionist or seek out working with one.

Clinical Nutritionists

A clinical nutritionist works in a variety of medical settings like doctors offices, clinics, and hospitals. They’re typically charged with providing medical nutrition therapy through tailored diets, and work closely with doctors and nurses to develop meal plans to support their patients based on specific medical conditions.

Sports Nutritionists

A sports nutritionist spends their time working with athletes, coaches, and teams to help ensure top performance. From high schools to professional teams, nutrient timing, supplementation, injury prevention, and unique personal needs are all taken into account to help athletes support their bodies.

Food Service Nutritionists

Cafeterias, restaurants, the government, and other large-scale food companies are places where you’ll find food service nutritionists. Following national or state policies, they help guide feeding plans, develop menu disclaimers, and give advice for handling special dietary concerns and food allergies.

Holistic Nutritionists

Holistic nutritionists specialize in functional nutrition, a type of dietetics that’s focused on the optimal physiological functioning of your cells. These types of nutritionists complete a course approved by the National Association of Nutrition Professionals—followed by 500 hours of practical experience—before sitting for a certification exam administered by the Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board.


When to Hire a Dietician or Nutritionist

dietician vs nutritionist

There’s a lot of free advice available online, so why choose to invest in professional help? Here are a few times in life when you might want to consider getting some extra support.

  • After a recent diagnosis: From diabetes and high cholesterol to arthritis and Hashimoto’s, a dietician can help you sort through general guidance and develop a customized plan that feels empowering.
  • During a major life transition: Transitions are hard for a multitude of reasons, and they can also be disruptive to our usual patterns of stress, sleep, and eating. When life feels turned upside down—after having a baby, moving, changing jobs, or other big life change—it could be a good time to seek guidance from someone who can help you find your footing again.
  • If you’ve tried everything else: If you’re a perpetual do-it-yourselfer who’s tried just about everything and still isn’t feeling 100%, consider bringing in a professional to partner on achieving your health goals.

Tips for Working With a Dietician or Nutritionist

Whether you’re vetting someone to work with or preparing for your first meeting, here are some questions and pointers to guide your planning.

  • Know your goals. Are you looking to adopt a paleo or plant-based diet? Lose weight? Balance your blood sugar? Manage a health issue like diabetes or autoimmune disease? Knowing your ‘why’ is a critical first step before signing on the dotted line and working with an expert.
  • Keep a food journal. Whether you choose a dietician or nutritionist, they’ll likely ask you about what you’ve been eating. Keeping a detailed food journal can help guide your conversations and give them a sense of what you’re consuming in the course of a week, which will help them make tailored recommendations. You can also take pictures of your meals and keep them in a folder on your phone.
  • Consider your lifestyle. Dietitians and nutritionists can help with more than just the food on your plate, including other aspects of health like stress management, motivation, and social pressures. Consider the ways you interact with food outside of your home, which is a controlled environment. They’ll likely have great tips for selecting balanced menu options, how to enjoy healthier cocktails, or brainstorming ideas for non-food related activities.

This article is related to:

Healthy Diet, Healthy Living

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Nicole Gulotta

Nicole Gulotta is a writer, author, and tea enthusiast.

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