Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: Is there a difference?

The short answer: it depends!

You’re finally to the point where you’re ready to get help or make changes surrounding food. And you’ve decided to consult an expert. But there are a lot of people out there who claim to know about nutrition. There are dietitians and nutritionists and doctors and health coaches, and more! So who can you trust? Who is the expert?

First off, I will explain the distinction between a dietitian and a nutritionist and why it matters. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Every Registered Dietitian is a Nutritionist, but NOT every Nutritionist is a Registered Dietitian.” To become a registered dietitian requires a 4 year degree in nutrition or dietetics from an accredited school. The coursework is very heavy on the sciences, as the field of dietetics is science based. It also requires supervised practice hours under a registered dietitian before taking an exam to become registered (similar to nurses taking their boards). After registration, dietitians must complete continuing education (currently 75 credit hours over a 5 year cycle). Additionally, dietitians also must be licensed or certified to practice in their state, depending on what the laws are for that state. All of this assures that only individuals who are qualified to work as a dietitian are allowed to use that title. Registered dietitians may also choose to use the term “nutritionist” or “registered dietitian nutritionist” if they wish, which explains the first part of the phrase, “Every registered dietitian is a nutritionist.” (See http://www.eatrightpro.org for more info)

The term “nutritionist,” however, is not a protected title in most states and anyone may decide to call themselves that. This is also true for coaches: health, wellness or nutrition coaches. Typically, all a person must do is take a nutrition certification course, followed by a test or exam. Because there are many different agencies offering courses, the amount of education a person may have can vary greatly. The amount of time to complete the certification is often shorter (sometimes only a few weeks) and anything from a quiz to an exam is needed for completion. Often no supervised practice under another health professional is required. And there is no credentialing agency or governing body to regulate what coursework is needed. This means that little to no scientific study may be done by someone calling themselves a nutritionist. As you can see, “not every nutritionist is a registered dietitian.”

There are also other people who may give out nutrition advice, including health professionals. Many popular diet and general nutrition books are written by doctors. But doctors may only have ONE CLASS covering basic nutrition in all of their medical schooling! Likewise, we must remember that not everyone who holds the title of doctor is a medical doctor.

As you can see, registered dietitians are the nutrition expert, and rightly so, given all the coursework and hours of hands on experience needed prior to being able to practice. So how can you tell the difference? Is there a way to know for sure? Here are a few steps one should take to make sure they are seeing a nutrition expert, as well as someone who is also a good fit for them.

  1. Look for their credentials. Those letters after their name mean something and a simple Google search will help you figure out what they mean. Bethany Motley, RDN means that I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. I could also use the credential RD for registered dietitian. Some dietitians have completed higher education such as a masters or doctorate, and others have advanced certifications. These can be helpful to understand, depending on what you are seeing a dietitian for. Some examples include CDE for certified diabetes educator or CSSD for certified specialist in sports dietetics. But overall, if RD or RDN is not one of their credentials, they are not a dietitian!
  2. Ask about their education and prior work experience. If you are unsure of their credentials, ask about where they went to school, what their degree was in, and what sort of work they have done leading up to this point. As I said above, if their degree is not nutrition or dietetics, they likely aren’t a dietitian. Ask about internships, clinical rotations, past jobs and even volunteer work. This will also help you understand where they may specialize, or if they’ve worked with clients like you in the past.
  3. Find out what areas they specialize in, if any. This last step may or may not be important for you. It all depends on your reasons for seeing a nutrition expert. But it’s a good question for you to ask before choosing someone to work with. That way you’re upfront with them about what you hope to learn, gain, or accomplish by working together. If they are honest, they’ll help you find someone who is qualified if they don’t believe they can help you.

There are many wonderful health professionals who help people in the area they specialize in. Just like how I see a dentist for my teeth and not for a broken leg, it’s important to see a nutrition expert for all your nutrition needs! Ultimately, the choice is yours for who you choose to see, but I hope you will consider a registered dietitian.

I would be more than happy to have you reach out to me and we can schedule a time for a brief phone call or video meeting to talk about your nutrition needs.

Feel free to send me an email at bethany@bethanyrd.com, and thank you for considering me for your nutrition needs!

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