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When it comes to people who specialize in diet and nutrition, two titles commonly come up, but it turns out, there are important distinctions between them.
We’re talking about dietitians vs. nutritionists.
There are relevant differences between these two titles — and reasons to be mindful of who’s doling out advice about the best eating plan for you.
“All dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians,” explains registered dietitian Amber Sommer, RD, LD.
If you’re looking for science-backed, expert advice on healthy eating, how do you know who to turn to? Sommer explains.
The differences between dietitians and nutritionists
The distinction between a dietitian and a nutritionist is a matter of education and training.
Dietitians are recognized medical professionals. It’s a title reserved for people who complete specific education and licensure requirements. You can be confident a dietitian is an expert in matters related to the best eating plan for you and how to use food to fuel your body in a healthy way. And your insurance may cover visits to a dietitian.
Nutritionists, on the other hand, are a self-proclaimed title — there aren’t any requirements about who can or can’t use it. They typically aren’t covered by insurance because they’re not recognized as health professionals.
Nutritionists may or may not have formal training in the field. Some nutritionists may have completed some education related to diet or food science. They may have some experience counseling people about food and healthy eating habits. Or they may just have a passing interest in the field.
It’s something like the difference between your friend who owns a set of clippers and a licensed barber. Sure, you can get a haircut either way. But you can be more confident in the skills the barber brings to the table.
“Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. It’s not a title that implies any professional accreditation,” Sommer clarifies. “Being a dietitian means you’ve completed the requirements set by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to provide nutrition counseling and medical nutrition therapy.”
You’ll find dietitians in a variety of work settings, including:
- Hospitals and doctors’ offices.
- Nursing homes.
- Community health and wellness organizations (like gyms and recreation centers).
- Foodservice organizations.
- Food and beverage companies.
- Pharmaceutical companies.
- Government organizations.
Requirements to be a dietitian
You can be sure you’re talking with a dietitian if there’s an “RD” or “RDN” following their name, which stand for “registered dietitian” or “registered dietitian nutritionist.” Those credentials mean they’ve fulfilled the hefty educational requirements to have earned the title of a registered dietitian.
Some states require registered dietitians to also be licensed. That’s why you may also see the letters “LD” (licensed dietitian) in addition to the “RD.”
The requirements to become a registered dietitian in the U.S. include:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited dietetics program (master’s degree will be required effective January 1, 2024).
- Complete at least 1,000 hours of supervised practice.
- Pass the national exam (and obtain licensure if required by your state).
- Earn a certain amount of continuing education hours each five-year cycle.
- Commit to following a code of ethics specific to their profession.
You can call yourself a nutritionist without haven taken any of those steps.
In addition to earning RD and LD credentials, some registered dietitians may complete specialized training to be able to better counsel people with specific nutrition goals or health conditions. Each of those certifications may come with extra letters after their name, too.
Some dietitians may earn certifications in specialties like:
- Sports dietetics (CSSD).
- Gerontological nutrition (CSG).
- Pediatric nutrition (CSP).
- Obesity and weight management (CSOWM).
- Diabetes care and education (CDCES).
Some certification programs may be open to people who aren’t registered dietitians. So, a nutritionist could hold some certifications. But if the certifications they list in their name don’t include an “RD” or “RDN,” that’s a clue you’re not talking with a dietitian.
Why would you visit a dietitian?
Dietitians work with people to help them meet their personalized nutrition needs. They help design meal plans, as well as provide counseling to help people manage chronic conditions, improve their relationship with food and live healthier lives. A dietitian can help you create nutritional goals and stick to them.
You might consider seeing a dietitian if you:
- Have been diagnosed with a chronic condition that requires a change in your eating habits, such as diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease.
- Are living with food allergies or believe you may have a food allergy or intolerance.
- Want to lose or gain weight.
- Are an athlete seeking advice for optimal nutrition and performance.
- Are living with an eating disorder.
- Have concerns about whether your diet is providing proper nutrition.
Should you see a dietitian or a nutritionist?
Where you seek help matters. Especially if you’re living with a condition that affects your eating habits.
“If you want to be sure you’re getting the best evidence-based advice from a professional in the field, a dietitian is always going to be your best bet,” Sommer advises.
But that’s not to say some people who haven’t completed the specialized training it requires to be a dietitian don’t have anything to offer. If you seek counseling from a nutritionist instead of a dietitian, start by asking a few questions before taking their advice wholesale.
“Don’t be afraid to ask about their experience or their education,” Sommer encourages. “Your health is important, so you don’t want to put it in the hands of just anyone.”