One of the most common questions that I get is, “What is the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?” In short, all dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians. The difference lies in the depth and scope of education and training.
To be a dietitian you are required to complete a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, a 1200+ hour internship, pass a national exam, have licensure to legally practice in the state, maintain credentials with continuing education and follow an ethics code.
A nutritionist title can be applied to anyone that gives general nutrition advice. To have the title you are not required to complete any of the above; But some nutritionist do have advanced degrees in a certain area. Unlike dietitians, anyone can technically call themselves a nutritionist since it is not a job title that is legally regulated.
Dietitians pride themselves on evidence-based, scientifically sound nutrition advice so if you are receiving nutrition information from another source it may not:
Have Your Best Interest in Mind
They might just be trying to sell a product or just grab your attention. Consider this: Sound nutrition advice doesn’t grab some people's attention like “The 21 Day Flat Belly Plan.” Of course, this is not always the case.
May Not Tell the Whole Story
We’re talking, “Don’t eat fruit because it has sugar.” Well yes, fruit does have sugar, but it also contains vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Fruit intake has been shown to reduce the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.**
It Is Not Tailored to You
For example, a gluten-free diet is appropriate for some people (i.e. those who have Celiac disease) but following a gluten-free diet if you do not have a gluten allergy could actually lead to a B-vitamin deficiency.
Dietitians work in a variety of settings such as schools, businesses, clinics, athletic organizations and hospitals. Having a nutrition expert in the clinical setting is important. In a 2006 study of 106 medical schools found that on average, medical students received only 23.9 contact hours of nutrition instruction during medical school. An updated national survey in 2010 showed that number declined to 19.6 contact hours. It turns out even doctors aren’t always equipped with enough knowledge to counsel someone with specific dietary needs.
Many dietitians go on to specialize in a certain field, similar to a doctor specializing in a certain area of medicine. Some examples of this are oncology nutrition, sports nutrition, pediatric nutrition, diabetes nutrition and eating disorders. Other dietitians may work and specialize in areas that are not clinical like food service management, corporate wellness, public health or even writers of nutrition information or cookbooks.
Yes, a nutritionist can have education and experience in nutrition and yes, there are financial barriers to becoming an RD (as with any college degree) – resulting in a lack of diversity and representation in the field. This information is not to undermine those in the field promoting sound advice or attack those that call themselves nutritionists, but to educate about the difference and encourage critical thinking around nutrition headlines.
Bottom line is it is important to ask the person you are getting nutrition advice from what kind of training and experience they have that makes them qualified to give you advice.