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Dietitian vs. Nutritionist

Usmaan Farooqui

Written By: Usmaan Farooqui

Published: 5/11/2022

Dieticians and nutritionists both help individuals make healthy choices about their food habits. But, despite the obvious overlap between their roles, they have contrasting qualifications. The most significant difference is that dieticians must be nationally certified by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, while nutritionists can often practice without this requirement. Given this, dieticians and nutritionists can each treat a unique set of wellness concerns and can therefore have very distinct career trajectories. This article describes the key differences between these professions, so that you can decide which occupational path better suits your goals, skills, and interests.

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What is a Registered Dietitian?

Dieticians — also known as registered dieticians (RDs) or registered dietician nutritionists (RDNs) — are health professionals who are trained to help patients overcome or manage chronic medical conditions including obesity, diabetes, various eating disorders, and kidney disease. They assess nutritional needs and craft meal plans that allow patients to meet specific goals such as improving circulation, lowering blood pressure, and maintaining healthy salt levels.

RDs are employed in many different healthcare settings including hospitals, out-patient clinics, and nursing homes and may work alongside physicians and nurses to provide care. To ensure they remain well-informed of advancements in food science, dieticians typically must publish research and attend medical conferences.

What is a Nutritionist?

Unlike RDs and RDNs, nutritionists don't have a formal title. While they may advise clients on healthy eating habits, many states put restrictions on the kind of treatments nutritionists can offer. For instance, they are usually not qualified to address health conditions in the same capacity as healthcare professionals and generally may not provide counseling or medical nutrition therapy, though those with certification may be able to provide a wider range of services.

While they may advise clients on healthy eating habits, many states put restrictions on the kind of treatments nutritionists can offer.

In general, nutrition experts may offer their clients tips on how to eat well, often to preserve their health or meet short-term objectives like building muscle mass and losing weight. This may involve guiding them on what to eat and how to supplement food intake with proper exercise. Nutritionists may also help clients achieve their lifestyle and wellness goals, such as going vegan, cutting out certain sources of protein, or meeting vegetarian dietary needs.

Difference in Education Requirements

As healthcare professionals, dieticians must have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in food science or a related field. Additionally, their degree must be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND), which is part of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to ensure it meets accepted standards for educational excellence in the field. Aside from including a practical component that allows aspiring dieticians to develop hands-on experience — such as an internship — an ACEND-accredited degree covers coursework in key subject areas including:

Microbiology, organic chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, and nutrient metabolism

Management theories related to food delivery

Ethical standards and regulatory procedures that apply to dieticians and nutritionists

Food service techniques and knowledge of food systems

Counseling and behavioral change theories

While there is typically no educational requirement for nutritionists, many professionals have an accredited bachelor's degree in nutrition science. Certified nutritionists also tend to hold master's degrees in nutrition or related areas such as public health and nursing.

Necessary Trainings

Dieticians who want to become RDs must meet strict, mandatory certification requirements in all 50 states in order to practice. After earning a bachelor's degree, they must complete a minimum of 1,200 supervised hours through a dietetic internship recognized by ACEND and pass a board exam. Maintaining an RD license requires completing 75 continuing education credits every five years as well as paying annual dues.

Certification requirements for nutritionists vary by state, with some expecting them to be formally trained and others having no such prerequisites. Where certification is required, nutritionists can choose to become Certified Nutrition Specialists (CNS) through the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists. To be eligible, applicants must have a degree accredited by the Accreditation Council for Nutrition Professional Education. Alternatively, they may hold a master's or doctoral degree in a nutrition-related discipline. As part of meeting these educational requirements, individuals must complete 35 hours of coursework in nutritional fields. Applicants also need to complete 1,000 supervised clinical hours and pass a certification exam.

While the RD and CNS tend to be the most common, both dieticians and nutritionists can gain additional certifications in areas including health coaching, sports dietetics, and oncology, to name a few. These certifications are voluntary and are offered by various professional organizations.

Dietitian vs Nutritionist Career and Salary Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an overall favorable career and salary outlook for both dieticians and nutritionists. Those employed in this field earn a median annual salary of $61,650, which is significantly higher than the national average for all occupations, and the number of jobs is expected to increase by 11% through 2030. These numbers reflect rising interest in the wellness industry, where diet plays a significant role, and which experts claim will continue growing in the coming years. Unsurprisingly, dieticians and nutritionists can find work in healthcare facilities, food and beverage production companies, sports centers, and universities.

However, while both may have favorable chances for future employment, nutritionists and dieticians may often pursue very different career paths. As healthcare professionals, RDs may choose to serve patients in care facilities like hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, and private practice. Nutritionists can also find employment in these environments as well as various corporate settings, but some may opt to work more closely with individual clients as consultants or self-employed contractors. These latter individuals may further their careers by working as fitness instructors, lifestyle coaches, and even nutrition writers.

Dieticians and nutritionists can find work in healthcare facilities, food and beverage production companies, sports centers, and universities.

Dietitian vs Nutritionist: Which One is Right For You?

Whether you're better suited to a career as a dietician or nutritionist will depend, in part, on your personality, professional goals, and the type of work environment you envision for yourself. You'll likely succeed in both roles if you're passionate about healthy lifestyles and food science, and if you have a knack for motivating others. But, if you're committed to working in the healthcare industry as a credentialed professional, becoming an RD might be the more satisfying career path. On the other hand, if you're interested in keeping your career opportunities open and are considering going into business for yourself at some point in the future, pursuing a nutritionist role may better align with your aspirations.

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