Registered Dietitian or Nutritionist: What's the Difference and Why it Matters
So you’ve decided it’s time to get help with your nutrition. Maybe you just found out you’re diabetic, struggling with disordered eating, or want to learn how to meal plan for a busy week. Sure you can do a google search and find thousands of opinions from so-called experts, but how do you know who’s advice to take? Whether we’re talking about weight loss, medical diagnoses, or disordered eating- nutrition is a nuanced and individualized topic.
In today’s society, nutrition information is overflowing from social media, gym trainers, life coaches, etc, etc. This is why it is growing more and more important to use Registered Dietitians (RD) for all matters involving nutrition. While a Nutritionist may have good intentions, without the necessary education, inappropriate nutrition counseling may cause more damage than it does help. Registered Dietitians are trained and educated in nutrition from a lengthy and scientifically based process. Just as you would not allow someone to fix your car engine only because they know how to drive, you should not entrust your nutritional well-being to someone just because they eat “healthy” or call themselves a 'Nutritionist'.
Let’s go over what the difference is between a Registered Dietitian and a Nutritionist and why these differences are so important.
The primary and most important difference between an RD and a Nutritionist is the education that is required. In order to become a Dietitian, one must complete a 4 year bachelor’s degree approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). This degree lays the groundwork of education for a Dietitian through courses like microbiology, advanced human nutrition, organic chemistry, and medical nutrition therapy. This is a difficult degree to obtain and covers all areas of nutrition to prepare individuals who will provide medical nutrition therapy in the setting of hospitals, ICU, community centers, schools, etc. Because nutrition is so broad and yet specific to certain populations, this education is crucial in providing the absolute best care. In contrast, there is no education requirement to become a nutritionist. This lack of structured and mandatory education may put patients at risk. Additionally, beginning in 2024 a Master’s degree will become mandatory for anyone who wishes to become a Registered Dietitian.
Following the completion of an accredited bachelor’s degree, an individual wishing to become an Registered Dietitian must complete an ACEND-accredited supervised practice internship. This step of the process must provide at least 1,200 hours of supervised practice in the field of dietetics. Depending on the internship, participants will gain experience in specific areas such as pediatrics, eating disorders, geriatrics, clinical, or school nutrition. This hands-on experience is invaluable to Dietitians in training, as it provides hands on practice under the supervision of experts already in the field. An internship is part of the education path of a Registered Dietitians due to the complexity of human nutrition and the need for real life practice before working with patients alone. Just as a doctor must do a residency to practice medicine, a Dietitian MUST complete their 1200 hours of supervised practice to learn how to provide medical nutrition therapy. An internship and supervised practice hours are not a step in becoming a Nutritionist.
After completing both the bachelors degree and 1,200 hour internship, the final step in becoming a Registered Dietitian is to pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s (CDR) dietetic registration exam. Similar to how the well-known bar exam is used to ensure lawyers are adequately educated to practice law, this exam ensures your Dietitian is adequately educated to provide medical nutrition therapy you can trust. There is no test required to become a Nutritionist.
Once the RD credential is earned, it must be maintained through continuing education that is monitored by the CDR. Because nutrition is a science,it is crucial for dietitians to stay up to date as new studies and information become available. This ensures the nutrition therapy you receive from an RD is current and supported by the most recent science. No continued education is needed for Nutritionists!
So who can call themselves a Registered Dietitian or Nutritionist?
Only those who have completed all of the steps listed above may call themselves a Registered Dietitian. In some states, a license is required to further protect the use of the RD credential and consumers who are searching for nutrition help. RDs also have the option to use the title Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) if they would like. On the other hand, there is no regulation of the term Nutritionist. Some who use this term may have a bachelor’s degree in nutrition or could have no training at all. This creates a dangerous situation for those who are searching for help with their nutrition- as mentioned earlier, nutrition is a very personalized and nuanced topic. Think of it like this: if you were to hire someone to help you with exercise, would you want someone knowledgeable in how to prevent injury or someone who tells you how many squats you must do- no matter how bad your knees are? Similarly, someone not properly trained in dietetics may not know that the diet they prescribed you will spark the eating disorder you battled in your teens or that your chronic low blood sugar requires more carbs than they want you to eat. While Nutritionists often have the best of intentions and set out to help others with their nutrition, Registered Dietitians are the only nutrition experts and should be used as such.