What Is the Difference Between a Nutritionist and a Dietitian?

While many people continue to mistake the terms dietitians and nutritionists, they're not synonymous with one another. These professions are, without a doubt, related, but they're not interchangeable.

So what is a dietitian? What is a nutritionist? How do these professions vary and what similarities do they share?

Consider this your guide to all of the questions above and many others relating to these health care professionals.

What is a dietitian?

A dietitian advises people on healthy eating. This type of practitioner creates food and nutritional plans to promote healthy eating habits which can prevent and treat illnesses. They base these decisions on the professional education they receive in a specialty area.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Dietitians and nutritionists advise people on what to eat in order to lead a healthy lifestyle or achieve a specific health-related goal.”

Specific regulations and rules surround both dietitians and nutritionists in the United States, but only nutritionists who become registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) can declare themselves dietitians, also known as registered dietitians (RDs). RDs have more regulations and must adhere to stricter rules as they must obtain certain licenses and certifications to practice as healthcare professionals in health care facilities, private practices, and other care facilities.

RDs can work in many different departments, from schools to hospitals to healthcare facilities to food service businesses, and so much more. They can even join the academia ranks by doing research at colleges and universities for public health and food issues, as well as become teachers and professors, or work for sports and athletic teams and organizations.

As Schools.com states, RDs explain nutrition issues, assess health needs and diet, develop meal plans, evaluate the effects of meal plans and change, promote nutrition in communities, stay updated on nutritional science research, help manage chronic diseases, help navigate food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances, and develop weight loss programs.

How to become a dietitian

As All Allied Health Schools points out, dieticians are experts in nutrition science. You become a professional in this field by obtaining a bachelor's degree in nutrition or a related field/specialty.

With that said, not all degrees are created equal as you should earn your degree and do your coursework from a program accredited by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Some programs have bachelor's degree and master's degree tracks, making the time of schooling longer based on the program. In many cases, an internship is also necessary.

That's how one becomes a dietician — by gaining knowledge and expertise through schooling, as well as securing formal training through an internship while gaining qualifications and credentials necessary to be lawfully registered as an RD.

What is a nutritionist?

In the United States, a nutritionist isn't as regulated as a dietitian, so while titles don't always mean everything, they're important in the food industry and nutrition world. As a result, nutritionists in themselves shouldn't help with kidney disease and other diseases related to food and health, although a nutrition professional can help in the role of food by creating meal plans and nutrition programs.

Of course, that should be taken with a grain of salt as nutritionists have less severe guidelines and regulations to adhere to than dietitians, with some nutritionists having more professional backgrounds and schooling than others. However, certified nutrition specialists (CNS) do have to have certain training and schooling to hold that title, unlike nutritionists.

Nutritionists can offer support in eating disorders and creating meal plans, but most of their work/expertise revolves around food behavior. They teach people about general nutrition. A main difference in these professions is that a dietitian can help diagnose eating disorders and create meal plans for managing health problems.

How to become a nutritionist

A nutritionist, in most cases, is easier to become than a dietician as nutritionists aren't nationally recognized. However, some states require nutritionists to have certain credentials or to be licensed.

If no guidelines are stated by the state, then a person can simply say he or she is a nutritionist by having knowledge of food, nutrition, wellness programs, etc., and this can make qualifications for a nutritionist confusing and misleading for people looking for help and nutritional advice.

Without a background in biochemistry, physiology, or another advanced degree, it's hard to assess if a person is qualified to be a nutritionist. At the same time, people with relevant backgrounds (all the way to a doctoral degree) can be a nutritionist.

Health coach and nutrition expert get thrown around a lot. Without prior experience, proper certification, or relevant degrees, those terms don't mean a whole lot, whether these people claim to be nutritionists or not.

Nutritionists can become dietitians to gain credibility, knowledge, and skills, which can lead to higher-paying jobs, proper nutritional counseling, and practical experience.

For example, the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists offers nutritionists the opportunity to earn the certified nutrition specialist (CNS) credential, which requires the completion of a master’s degree or doctoral degree in a field-related discipline, among other requirements.

While all RDs can be considered nutritionists, not all nutritionists are considered RDs. To make that leap, credentials, education requirements, and licenses need to make an appearance.

Dieticians and nutritionists are not the same and shouldn't be used interchangeably, and knowing the distinction between the two can ensure you're getting proper medical nutritional advice. While a nutritionist can certainly have specific credentials that make him or her credible and an expert in his or her field, an RD is nationally recognized and must meet and follow certain criteria.

Deciding between the two occupations comes down to what you want to do for a living, if you want to seek higher education, if you want to work for clinics or hospitals, and so much more. Luckily, there are many different professions to pursue in health, from nutrition consultant to sports dietetics to food service managers to clinical nutritionists to dietetic technicians to working in prisons or public health clinics. Likewise, it's essential to get proper treatment based on these distinctions, and depending on your wants and needs.

Above all else, these professions demand expertise, knowledge, and care in people's overall health and wellness. Obesity is, unfortunately, an epidemic in the United States that leads to many heart disease problems.