What is the Difference Between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist?

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Many people use the terms “dietitian” and “nutritionist” interchangeably. And while these professions have many similarities, there are also many distinct differences.

If you’re considering a career in one of these areas, understanding the unique features of these jobs is critical as you make your educational plans.

Below, we briefly outline the specific characteristics of each career and then explore how these jobs are similar and different.

DegreeQuery.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

What is a Dietician?

A dietician is a trained health professional that advises clients about food, nutrition, and proper diet. Recommendations they make regarding these issues are grounded in research-based evidence that is used to develop specific plans of actions for individuals to improve their health.

Additionally, dieticians might create nutrition programs for different groups. For example, dieticians are often consulted by school districts to assist in developing healthy school lunches for students.

Likewise, dieticians take part in research on nutrition, manage food services, and even take part in dietary policy development for local, state, and federal agencies. Some dieticians work in the field of education, working as professors at colleges and universities. Still, others enter private practice where they can provide highly individualized dietary counseling to clients.

A dietician usually has at least an undergraduate degree. These degrees might be in health, nutrition, food service, or another related area.

In some instances, a dietician might have to be certified or licensed to practice as a dietician. In the United States, the rules for licensure are established by individual states, so the requirements for getting licensed might vary depending on where you work.

This licensure component means that dieticians work in a regulated industry. That is, states have established standards for practice, which must be met in order to be licensed.

Dieticians can elect to sit for a national examination to become a Registered Dietician (RD) or a Registered Dietician Nutritionist (RDN). Though certifications like these aren’t always required, having a certification can be advantageous because it shows potential employers a commitment to advancing one’s knowledge and skills. As a result, dieticians that have a certification can often command a higher income than non-certified dieticians.

Dieticians also have a more rigorous educational pathway to getting their degree.

For example, many dietician degree programs require students to complete an internship experience. Usually, these internships take place in facilities in which students can apply what they have learned in school to a real-world environment in which people have special dietary needs. Internships at nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, and hospitals are common.

What is a Nutritionist?

Like dieticians, nutritionists are experts in food and nutrition. Typically, nutritionists work with individual clients to set dietary goals and offer advice on healthy eating.

For example, a nutritionist might be employed in a hospital where they advise individual patients about the appropriate foods to eat after surgery that will promote healing.

Additional tasks for nutritionists include evaluating the effectiveness of meal planning, providing educational materials to people about proper eating habits, and assessing the dietary needs of specific populations (i.e., the elderly).

To become a nutritionist, it is typically recommended to have at least a bachelor’s degree or higher in nutrition or a related field. However, because nutritionists are not as regulated as dieticians, the requirements for education vary from one state to the next. In some states, you don’t have to have any college education at all to call yourself a nutritionist.

Furthermore, since the title of nutritionist is not protected, licensure is not required in some states (though in others, it is). As with dieticians, licensure can be advantageous from employability and income perspectives. Getting certified can be advantageous as well, even though it is typically not required.

Regardless of the educational level, nutritionists work in many different settings, from public schools to hospitals to private practice.

Difference Between Dieticians and Nutritionists

Now that you know more about dieticians and nutritionists, let’s compare some of their differences to get a clearer picture of how these two occupations are distinct.

First and foremost, all dieticians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dieticians. This is because dieticians have specific training and licensure requirements that they have to complete in order to call themselves dieticians. In other words, only dieticians can use that term; nutritionists cannot call themselves a dietician unless they have become a registered dietician.

Second, the educational requirements for these occupations are quite different. On the one hand, dieticians must have at least a bachelor’s degree in a related field from an approved program, complete a supervised internship, and successfully pass the national examination. Additionally, dieticians must complete ongoing professional education to maintain their licensure.

Nutritionists, can, in some cases, practice without any formal education, certification, or licensure. It just depends on which state in which they practice.

However, some nutritionists have extensive training (i.e., a master’s degree or Ph.D.). In fact, to become a certified nutrition specialist, a nutritionist must have at least a master’s degree and complete a supervised internship experience. They must also pass a certification exam and take part in continuing education to keep the certification.

A third distinction between these careers is that nutritionists often – though not always – work with individual clients. In this regard, nutritionists typically work on a micro level and help individuals achieve their specific health-related goals. Dieticians, on the other hand, usually work on a macro level with much more varied audiences and in more varied applications than do nutritionists.

For example, where a nutritionist might develop a meal plan for a specific patient at a rehabilitation facility, a dietician might be consulted to develop a healthy menu for the residents of the facility as a whole. Another example might be a nutritionist helping an overweight client to establish clear dietary goals whereas a dietician might conduct scientific research into the types and amounts of foods that people need to eat in order to maintain a healthy weight.

At first glance, it might seem like these two occupations are highly similar. However, when you consider the educational and licensure requirements for each, as well as some of their unique job duties, the distinctions become much clearer.

Sean Jackson

December 2019

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