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Nutritionist Versus Dietitian

It is easy to confuse the two terms. Even the U.S. Department of Labor’s comprehensive Bureau of Labor Statistics lumps the two together as a single category. These are different, though related fields, and most states (as well as the professionals themselves) recognize the difference. Both a dietitian and a nutritionist may have similar educational backgrounds and perform similar functions, but a dietitian must be licensed in almost every state. Therefore, the licensing state has a specific list of credentials required, which may include a degree, an internship and passing an exam. The state also reviews the professional activities of licensees and punishes those who call themselves dietitian without state credentialing, attempt to practice outside the prescribed boundaries of the job (e.g., by prescribing medication, suggesting exercise therapy routines or encroaching on the job descriptions of other health professionals) or receive complaints from patients or other professionals.

Another different between nutritionist versus dietitian is that the term nutritionist is generally not a licensed or registered profession, whereas dietitians are credentialed and registered by their state. Not all nutritionists are registered dietitians, but registered dietitians could call themselves nutritionists, if they so chose. Of course, almost anybody can call themselves a nutritionist, since the title is rarely protected by state law. In fact, if a person completes an online class in nutrition, they may call themselves a nutritionist. Although certifications are available through online and other schools, there is no legally governing body for this, and it is up to the client to determine if the nutritionist’s credentials are sufficient to work with them.

Registered Dietitians (RD) must have earned at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university and have participated in a six- to twelve-month internship in a community agency, healthcare facility or corporation focused on foodservice. This internship is typically done while going to school. RDs must pass an exam from the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), which is the accrediting organization of the American Dietetic Association. RDs must also regularly take continuing education courses to maintain their certification, and thus their licensing with the state (if applicable). Individual state licensing boards may have further qualifications and restrictions on what an RD can do or what they may call themselves.

Some registered dietitians are also certified clinical nutritionists (CCN) or clinical nutritionists. There is such a wide variety of job titles that it’s hard to put a finger on whether dietitians are paid more than nutritionists. So much depends on the title, years of experience, locale and setting.

If a dietitian does not earn a certificate, registration or license, it is hard to distinguish from a nutritionist. In many states, this professional cannot call his or herself a dietitian.

Dietitians tend to work in clinical or hospital locations, sometimes in school kitchens. Nutritionists often work in preventative nutrition roles at holistic wellness centers, or in private gyms or in people’s homes. In many cases, a yoga instructor or acupuncturist may also call him or herself a nutritionist. It is unlikely a registered dietitian would also teach yoga full time.

Nutritionist Schools