Registered Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: What is the Difference?

One of the top questions I am asked is “What is the difference between a registered dietitian vs a nutritionist?” There is A LOT that goes into answering this question! In my opinion being knowledgeable about the difference is VERY important. When seeking help for your health, knowing you are working with an educated professional is crucial! You wouldn’t go and see an unlicensed doctor, would you? Let’s finally answer the question on what the difference between a registered dietitian vs nutritionist!

What Does the Title Registered Dietitian Mean?

Registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN) are food and nutrition experts who can translate the science of nutrition into practical solutions for healthy living. RDNs use their nutrition expertise to help individuals make unique, positive lifestyle changes. The field of dietetics has been around since the 1830’s, with the creation of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) in the early 1900’s.  The first exam and the RD credential has been in use since 1970. The ADA is now called the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and continues to be a growing and exciting field!

You may see registered dietitians us either RD or RDN interchangeably. There is no difference between a registered dietitian (RD) and a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). The later was added in 2013 to communicate a broader concept of wellness and treatment of conditions. Also, by adding the “N” is highlights that all registered dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians.

woman stressfully working at a laptop computer

Education Requirements of an R.D.

The path to becoming an RD is not quick or easy! These are the minimum requirements to earn the RD/RDN credential:

  • Have completed at least your bachelor’s degree from a U.S. regionally accredited college or university approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). Beginning on January 1, 2024, the CDR is raising the minimum required education level for prospective Registered Dietitians from a Bachelor’s degree to a graduate degree.
  • Complete an ACEND accredited supervised training program completing 1200 hours. Basically, work as an intern 40+ hours per week for 6-12 months and the majority of internships are unpaid.
  • Pass a national exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR)
  • Complete continuing professional education requirements. Every 5 years you recertify and provide proof of completing 75 hours of either coursework, self-study, or online modules.

Some states provide licensure/credentialing that come along with their own list of requirements. For example, in the state of Massachusetts where I live there is a Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (LDN) license we must hold that requires 35 hours of continuing education for recertification every 3 years.

In addition, some RD/RDN’s hold certifications in specialized areas of practice through the CDR. Some areas include pediatric or renal nutrition, sports dietetics, nutrition support and diabetes education.

Click here to learn about my education and experience!

So, What Does the Title Nutritionist Mean?

The most important difference is that the term “nutritionist” is NOT regulated. There are no requirements for calling yourself a nutritionist, nutrition expert, nutrition coach, health coach or wellness consultant. Meaning any person can give themselves one of those titles without any formal education, training, licensing, or certification. But, as a reminder it is illegal to call yourself a dietitian without completing all the above mentioned criteria.

To add another layer of confusion there are some certifications that you can complete that fall somewhere between nutritionist and RD/RDN.  If you see someone with the following credentials this is what they mean:

CNS- Certified Nutrition Specialist, they have a master’s or doctoral degree in a related field and have completed 1,000 hours of supervised practice and pass a national exam

CN- Certified Nutritionist, they completed a 2-year college degree or a six-class distance learning program plus pass an exam.

CNC- Certified Nutrition Consultant, they had to pass an open book exam.

Where Do Registered Dietitians Work?

As I mentioned, the path to becoming a RD/RDN takes a long time and a lot of work but in the end there are endless opportunities! While not necessary, many RD/RDN’s choose to work in hospitals or other health care faculties right out of the gate to gain a wide variety of experience and exposure. Other areas include working in sport nutrition, corporate wellness, food and nutrition related business and industries, community and public health settings, education, research, government agencies and of course private practice!

women explaining food label to another woman

Why See a Registered Dietitian?

Registered Dietitians are qualified to help you with a whole lot more than just your diet or desire to lose weight. There are countless ways they can provide education and recommendations that will make your life healthier (and often easier!) than you are even aware of. Here are some examples of ways they can help you. Are you or do you have:

  • Struggling with an eating disorder, binge eating or emotional eating
  • Considering a new supplement routine
  • Considering expanding your family, currently pregnant, dealing with infertility or are postpartum
  • A family and are struggling to get them to eat healthy
  • Working the night shift and are having trouble adjusting your meals/diet
  • Been diagnosed with: high cholesterol/blood pressure/lipids
  • Been diagnosed with diabetes, kidney disease, or other chronic diseases
  • Have digestive problems
  • Caring for an aging parent
  • Want to gain or lose weight
  • Want to improve your performance in sports
  • Thinking of having or have had weight loss surgery

Honestly, the list could go on and on! And as you age the reason to see a RD may change. As we age our metabolism, hormones, and nutritional needs continue to change so it is ALWAYS a good idea to check In with a RD/RDN expert.

The Bottom Line

Phew! That was a lot to take in, right?

There are more nutrition enthusiast than ever before offering all sorts of advice and opinions. What works for one person may not work or even be inappropriate or dangerous for another person. This is why knowing the difference between a registered dietitian vs nutritionist is so important! You can now evaluate what formal training and credentials the person providing the nutrition advice has and whether they are a credible source!

If you want diet and nutrition advice, see a well-trained nutrition professional (check their credentials) and not a “nutritionist”. Nutrition is NOT common sense. It is a specialized science. You want someone who has experience practicing and in your particular area of need. In additional to education and credentialing, talk with them to make sure they are someone you feel comfortable sharing personal information with.

Ready to work with a Registered Dietitian?

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