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.
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.”
Although many states have additional regulatory laws required to practice, all RDs must fulfill these three requirements before becoming certified:
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.
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.
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.”
In the wellness world, there are a variety of ways you might encounter a nutritionist or seek out working with one.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Whether you’re vetting someone to work with or preparing for your first meeting, here are some questions and pointers to guide your planning.
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