There are a handful of questions I get on a regular basis, one of which is,
“What’s the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?”
Great question. And while I can’t say that this is going to be the most riveting of posts, it’s worth the quick explanation.
There is quite a bit of confusion in regards to the two titles, now even more so since the term, “nutritionist” was recently added on to Registered Dietitian (RD), to now read, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). It’s a hell of a mouthful, if you ask me, and many RDs still haven’t adopted it, but that’s another article.
Why the merge?
Well, if you think about it, what’s more familiar to you? Dietitian or nutritionist? The public is very familiar with, “nutritionist” where as, “dietitian,” on the other hand, not so much. Unfortunately, most people have a skewed idea of what RDs are, and I don’t blame them. Do a quick google image search of, “dietitian” and all you’ll see is fruits, vegetables, and women in white lab coats. So it comes as no surprise that people very often associate them with hospitals, strict meal plans, and view them as the food police; but why wouldn’t they?
So, a few years back, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which is the largest organization of nutrition professionals, thought it would be pretty nifty to combine the RD with nutritionist so that the public could better relate and understand that we don’t all work in hospitals. Their goal was to rebrand the RD and market them as THE nutrition professional, because well, most of us do A LOT more than tell people to eat more fruits and vegetables and wear white lab coats.
Has it worked? Not sure, but there you go. So let’s break it down a little more; it’ll be quick.
In the simplest of terms, an RD/RDN is a Licensed nutrition practitioner who is a formally trained and educated nutrition expert, and one who can legally diagnose and intervene in the treatment of disease. RDs are registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration, which is the national credentialing and administrative body of all Dietitians, and are overseen by their state’s governing body that regulates licensure and enforces the rules and laws of nutrition practice.
In order to become an RD, one must obtain a Bachelors degree in Dietetics by an accredited college/university, complete a 1200-hour, supervised dietetic internship, and lastly sit for the national registration examination. When passed, the credentials, RD, are earned, which is a protected title, and can only be used by someone who has gone through this whole process.
In the US, the title, “Nutritionist” is not legally protected, nor is it really regulated, and tends to have a broader, more generalized meaning. Additionally, nutritionists typically don’t have any professional training or formal education, so in other words, anyone can use it.
This then means that there are many people walking with this title who may have taken a weekend course on nutrition and are now giving out diet and nutrition advice. This can be very misleading and confusing to someone who doesn’t understand the differences, and may be put in harm’s way, given they have an underlying medical condition that this person does not have the expertise to deal with.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that someone who is not an RD doesn’t have extensive formal education and is highly knowledgeable, but in my experience, this is rarely the case. This also doesn’t mean that there aren’t unethical RDs, however, we are required to abide by some pretty strict standards and have worked our tails off to get where we are. Misdiagnosing or treating someone beyond our skill level could result in the loss of our license and title, ending our career.
In a final point, what distinguishes one from the other lies in the depth, scope, duration, and type of education and training.