Understanding the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist can be important when looking for a specialist to help you with your diet plan. Though you may have a general idea of the foods you should and shouldn’t be eating, a specialist can provide more tailored guidance based on your unique goals, your food sensitivities, and even your genetic background.
The terms “nutritionist” and “dietitian” are often used interchangeably because both dieticians and nutritionists are involved in the study of food and the way our diet influences our health.
It should be noted that if you have a consultation with both a dietician and a nutritionist, while they might have some similar knowledge and goals, a dietician has much higher credentials.
Below, we’ll discuss some of the differences between dietitians and nutritionists, so you can seek out the right support.
What is a Dietitian?
According to various official boards such as the British Dietetic Association, dieticians are the only nutrition-based professionals regulated by law. A dietitian, or “Registered Dietitian” can only use this title (RD), if they’ve been registered with the correct professional entity.
Dietitians must undergo stringent training and dietitians are highly educated in the science of food and nutrition. Over a number of years, these professionals acquire the expertise required to provide medical nutrition therapy and counselling tailored to the needs of individuals. They are often qualified to work as part of a clinical team (including doctors and physiotherapists) to treat complex conditions influenced by diet, such as IBS, diabetes, and bowel disorders.
Dieticians can also work in the food industry, education landscape, or in public health relations, hospitals, research institutions, and local communities.
Dietician Credentials: How Does Someone Become a Dietitian?
To earn the credentials of a Registered Dietitian or Registered Dietitian Nutritionists, professionals must complete the criteria set forward by the governing body in their countries, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Most professionals will need at least a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics or related scientific areas. Some of the courses you may take at a post-graduate level include:
As of the 1st of January 2024, all registered dietitians in the United States will also need to hold a master’s degree in Dietetics. In addition to a formal education, professionals also need to undergo an internship with an appropriate group, such as the NHS in the UK, or a doctor’s surgery in the US.
Internships expose students to anywhere between 800 and 1200 unpaid supervised hours in medical practice, introducing specific areas of study, in-depth projects, and case studies outside of those hours. Students must also pass an exit exam mirroring the board exam content before they complete their internship.
In the US, earning a position as an official dietitian requires national board certification. 13 states, including Nebraska, Alabama, and others, also require licensure, which involves additional requirements, like passing a jurisprudence exam. Once you earn your license, you’ll need to keep up with your professional education by constantly completing further education credits.
Are There Different Kinds of Dietitians?
There are four main areas of practice for dietitians, including:
- Clinical dietitians: People who work in inpatient and outpatient hospital settings. These professionals offer support to a wider medical team in treating chronic and acute conditions related to diet. Dietitians working for long-term care facilities can also provide supervision for the nutrition of people with chronic conditions. Clinical dietitians can also offer education about nutrition for those with special nutritional needs, like those diagnosed with chronic illnesses. Clinical experts may work as consultants for other groups, like schools.
- Community dietitians: Community experts often help design and implement programs aimed at entire communities, rather than individuals. For instance, these professionals might create campaigns which help communities to reduce the risk of diabetes. Community dietitians can also advocate for public policies with a focus on improving health via food.
- Food service management dieticians: Food service management dietitians oversee the development of safe and nutritionally-adequate food which meets specific food safety guidelines. These experts can assist with the creation of rules for nutrition on an international basis or oversee production in an organization like a school or military base.
- Research dietitians: A research dietitian works in a hospital or university environment, operating within a research team headed by an initial investigator. These professionals work on studies to learn more about how certain foods and substances effect our health. For instance, a research dietitian may explore the growing prevalence of gluten intolerances in a community environment.
After earning their credentials, dietitians can also choose to specialize in a specific subcategory of the industry, such as sports dietetics, or paediatrics. Some professionals choose to run private practices, offering services like nutritional counselling, or nutrition therapy.
Who Might Need a Dietitian?
A dietitian is an expert you might need to speak to if you need medical assistance in dealing with a condition linked to food. You might work with a dietitian after a cancer diagnosis, to create a diet that supplements your treatment and helps you to stomach food when dealing with nausea. Dietitians can also work with people on the prevention of common conditions.
If you discover with your DNA test from CircleDNA that you’re genetically predisposed to certain health conditions like diabetes, you could work with a dietitian to find ways of reducing your risks. Dietitians can also help with:
- Acute and chronic illness: In hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, dietitians treat a range of people, from people who need nutrients via feeding tubes, or people who are clinically malnourished. Dietitians can also help people undergoing bariatric surgery, and people with chronic kidney issues who have many nutritional issues.
- Eating disorders: Following additional training, dietitians can specialize in conditions like eating disorders. In these cases, dietitians often work alongside a team of doctors and therapists to help ensure recovery. Dietitians working with people who have eating disorders may address bulimia, anorexia, and similar problems.
- Sports diets: Sporting or athletic dietitians can specialize in improving nutrition for athletes who need to achieve peak performance. These dietitians frequently work in sports teams, athletics companies, and physical therapy clinics.
What is a Nutritionist?
A nutritionist, or registered nutritionist, doesn’t have the same medical experience or accreditation as a dietitian. In the United States and UK, anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist”, though registered nutritionists must have a professional education in nutrition.
Nutritionists provide advice and information about healthy eating and food and can assist with simple diets for goals such as weight loss. However, nutritionists do not support people with medical conditions in most cases, though it is possible to have both a nutritionist and dietitian in your recovery team.
To become a “registered” nutritionist, a nutritionist will need to register with the “Association for Nutrition” in the UK. In the US, there are a number of states where professionals can apply for titles like “Certified Nutrition Specialist, or “Licenced Dietitian Nutritionist”.
Because anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist” in most parts of the US, it’s particularly important for people seeking help with their diet to do their research into the person giving them food and dietary advice. There are a handful of states which mandate licensures, such as Ohio and Montana. In states where the “nutritionist” title is regulated, a license indicates a person has a similar healthcare education to a nurse or a doctor.
Who Would Need a Nutritionist?
In states where the use of the term “nutritionist” is regulated, those operating under a license will have legal standing to treat health conditions, similar to a dietitian. However, most unlicensed nutritionists are only equipped to provide advice and guidance on eating habits.
A nutritionist may be able to work with you on creating a plan for healthier eating after you discover you have an insensitivity to dairy or wheat. Nutritionists can also provide nutritional advice to people who are recovering from an illness or condition which may make it difficult for them to consume the right foods.
Notably, following nutrition advice from someone who doesn’t have the correct knowledge and training can be dangerous, particularly if you have food-related health conditions. If you’re considering consulting a nutritionist, you should always ask whether they have state licensure, certifications, or another credential to prove their skill.
While dietitians go through years of training and specialist apprenticeship work to develop their understanding of the human body and how it responds to food, nutritionists can sometimes start providing advice without any licensure at all.
Finding the Right Support for Your Diet
Following the right strategy for food intake and nutrition is an important part of living a healthy life. There are countless different kinds of diets you can explore, and some can help with everything from low energy levels to IBS. A nutritional expert such as a nutritionist can give you advice on how to make certain changes to your diet, like cutting out red meat, or adapting to a vegan lifestyle.
Alternatively, a dietitian deals with medical conditions related to your diet and the consumption of food. Dietitians have higher credentials, and work alongside other medical professionals to ensure you’re getting the right nutrition to fuel and support your body.
If you discover you need help with your diet after your DNA test reveals important points about your body and nutritional needs, speak to your doctor about whether you need a dietitian or a nutritionist.