Updated June 14, 2021
Many people erroneously use the terms “dietitian” and “nutritionists” as synonyms. While these professions share many similarities, they also share many differences.
The differences between these professions determine what they legally can and can’t do and where they can work.
This article explains the key differences between a dietitian and a nutritionist.
Dietitian vs. nutritionist
The largest difference between a dietitian and nutritionist is how their titles are legally protected.
Every dietitian is a nutritionist but not every nutritionist is a dietitian.
What is a registered dietitian (RD)?
Registered dietitians (RDs) — also known as registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) — are food and nutrition experts who meet academic and professional requirements.
These requirements include:
- Earn at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university or college. By the year 2024, a minimum of a master’s degree will be required.
- Complete a dietetic internship, which requires a minimum of 1,200 hours of supervised practice in three areas of dietetics: clinical dietetics, community dietetics, and food service management.
- Pass a national exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration.
- Complete continuing education to maintain registration.
Dietitians are regulated healthcare professionals licensed to assess, diagnose, and treat nutritional problems.
Many dietitians work in the treatment and prevention of disease, often in hospitals or other healthcare facilities.
They may also work in community and public health settings, sports nutrition, and academia.
What is a nutritionist?
There is no standard definition for the title “nutritionist.” States that do define “nutritionist” in statutes or regulations, however, do so variantly.
A nutritionist is one who may or may not have:
- A degree in nutrition
- Supervised practice hours
- A certification
- Continuing education units to maintain competencies
Those holding a master’s or doctoral degree do have the option of becoming a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS). This program shares some similarities to that of the dietitian route.
But many requirements for the academic and clinical preparation are not as specific nor are the requirements for clinical preparation as rigorous as those for a dietitian.
Additionally, most employers do not recognize this certification and require the registered dietitian credential.
Nutritionists may work in areas of public health, such as Women, Infants and Children (WIC), performance nutrition, and academia.
It’s still important, however, to remember that the title “nutritionist” is not regulated in a handful of states. This means anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, even if they have no academic background in nutrition.
Who can give nutrition advice?
A person who is not licensed as a dietitian can offer eating and healthy living resources to otherwise healthy people.
This means you can dispense nutrition advice based on established resources such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which helps all Americans choose healthy eating patterns (1).
For instance, you can recommend that someone limits their calories from added sugars by cutting back on sugary breakfast cereals and soda.
Or you can encourage people to consume a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, legumes (beans and peas), nuts, seeds, and soy products.
In other words, you can recommend a healthy eating pattern that accounts for all foods and beverages within an appropriate calorie level.
What is not legal, however, is providing medical nutrition therapy. That is, to prescribe or give advice on how to treat or manage a disease with nutrition.
For example, you cannot recommend that a person with diabetes eat specific foods at specific times to manage their blood sugar levels.
The bottom line
While similar sounding, registered dietitians and nutritionists are not the same.
In contrast to a nutritionist, the registered dietitian credential is a protected title.
However, this doesn’t mean those who call themselves nutritionists — or have the name in their job title — aren’t qualified to provide sound, evidence-based nutrition recommendations.
But the advice must be general — such as vegetables and fruits are a great source of vitamins and minerals — and they cannot prescribe, treat, or diagnose nutrition conditions.