Many people think that the terms ‘dietitian’ and ‘nutritionist’ mean the same thing. However, even though they both represent the same profession, they have very different qualifications, education requirements, and daily roles.
In many regions, including the U.S., a dietitian is a board-certified nutrition and food expert. Dietitians generally have a solid background in all aspects of nutrition, including human health. On the other hand, a nutritionist has knowledge about nutrition and food, but they may or may not have formal education in nutrition, and they may not be board certified. Regulation of nutritionists depends on which state they practice the profession, but in general, it is laxer or non-existent.
Here is a more detailed breakdown of key differences between a dietitian and a nutritionist:
Education, Qualifications, and Role of a Dietitian
To become a dietitian, one has to first obtain an undergraduate degree in human nutrition from an accredited institution. The courses that one needs to take include microbiology, biology, chemistry, anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, and more specialized coursework in all aspects of food and nutrition. Following graduation, all dietitian graduates in the U.S. are required to complete a one-year internship at a nutrition program accredited by the Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics. This unpaid internship exposes the candidate to various fields of clinical and practical nutrition that include population, health, and disease management, counseling, and food systems. At the end of the internship, the student must pass the National Board exam before being registered to practice in any state. Many dietitians go on to pursue advanced education and obtain a Master’s or a Ph.D., but these are not required for most jobs. More importantly, to maintain their licenses, the dietitian has to continue professional development by undertaking continuing education credits to keep up with this rapidly changing specialty.
Dietitians have many functional roles which include following the literature on diet trends and making recommendations to their clients on healthy food choices, developing diet and nutrition programs that are tailored to the needs of each individual, working in coordination with the food industry and advising on food labeling, manufacturing, ingredients, and monitoring products for safety, food sustainability, etc., working with healthcare professionals to manage patients with complex health issues and nutritional problems, working in research and development at a university or a hospital, working with the appropriate government department to develop nutritional strategies for target populations, teaching at a university or college; educating governments, the food industry, healthcare professionals, students, and the public on food and nutrition; developing diet plans for individuals with heart disease, obesity, diabetes, allergies, cancer, etc; and working in collaboration with pharmacists to provide nutritional requirements for patients with different disease conditions and nutritional needs.
Education, Qualifications, and Role of a Nutritionist
Nutritionists may come from any academic background, and some may have no formal nutritional training at all. A nutritionist may go by several names, including head coach, wellness coach, nutrition specialist, or registered nutritionist. As such, there is no formal governing body that regulates nutritionists. However, in some states, the title of a nutritionist is protected for those who have obtained formal education and training. Therefore, if you see the title “Registered Nutritionist”, it does not necessarily mean that the individual is licensed or registered with any particular state organization.
To become a nutritionist, one can complete a nutritional program at any college, but there is no licensing exam, and one does not have to register with any formal organization. But this does not diminish the role of nutritionists. Some have an excellent education in nutrition and diet, and many even have a bachelor’s degree. Many nutritionists also provide excellent advice to consumers on nutrition and diet.
Dietician or Nutritionist: Which is right for you?
Nutritionists have good knowledge of diet and nutrition, but they generally work with individual clients, unlike dietitians. While dieticians have more formal regulatory requirements, this does not mean that there is no scope for nutritionists. Nutritionists can perform many important functions including:
- Educating the public on how to live a healthy lifestyle
- Creating a diet and exercise plan for individual clients
- Providing support to clients who are seeking ways of losing weight
- Giving presentations on health, nutrition, food storage, and preservation
- Tracking the progress of the clients and motivate them to adhere to the diet plans
- Working with a physician to manage, monitor, and track obese patients who undergo bariatric surgery
- Assessing patients with sleep apnea and make dietary recommendations
- Teaching at colleges and nursing schools
Dietitians are licensed and credentialed individuals who are board-certified in their field. They usually have a solid background in food and diet. Nutritionists may have the same educational background but are usually not board-certified, licensed, or regulated. However, both these professionals provide a valuable service to patients. There are several certification options for nutritionists who are serious about pursuing a career in this profession. These include NASM Certified Nutrition Coach, International Sports Sciences Association Nutrition Certificate, American Council on Exercise Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Precision Nutrition Certification, Nutritional Exercise and Sports Trainers Association Fitness Sports Nutrition Coach, and American Fitness Professionals Association Nutrition and Wellness Certification to name a few.
For those interested in food and nutrition, formal education as a dietitian is recommended as this may provide greater opportunities in the job market.