Nutritionist and Dietitian: What’s the Difference?

When looking for nutritional advice beyond the antiquated food pyramid, we may wonder whether to go to a nutritionist or a dietitian. Both deal with food and nutrition counseling, but a nutritionist and dietitian are not the same—the key difference is the level of education.

In this article, we explore the differences between these two terms so you know whether to consult a nutritionist or a dietitian for specific health advice. We discuss their roles, types, and the credentials required to be a nutritionist or a dietitian.

Role of a Nutritionist

A nutritionist is a broad term defining nutrition science professionals. These nutrition experts offer advice about the kind of diet and nutrition needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Depending on their educational background and certifications, they counsel people either from a hospital, clinic, holistic health setup, alternative medicine facility, or health and fitness center.

Nutritionists can be holistic, healing patients using foods and natural products, or they can be clinical nutritionists who chalk out a meal plan to meet specific health-related goals. In some cases, clinical nutritionists collaborate with other healthcare professionals, such as doctors, to understand your medical problem and draw out a diet chart for you. For example, if you are a diabetic who wants to lose weight, then a nutritionist can create a diet chart for you after consulting with your doctor.

Type of Nutritionists

Since most of the states in the US don’t require nutritionists to be certified by a national or state board, here we classify them as non-licensed or licensed nutritionists. Even if non-licensed nutritionists are as qualified as licensed nutritionists, the lack of a certificate prohibits them from working in some states such as Alaska, Florida, and Illinois. To broaden their scope of practice, most nutritionists who are eligible for a certification prefer to get certified through accredited agencies.

Licensed Nutritionists

To earn a license, you have to be a Certified Nutritionist Specialist (CNS). A CNS holds at least a master’s degree in nutrition or a related field from an accredited graduate school. Their curriculum includes coursework in biochemistry, physiology, anatomy, and clinical or life science. They have to carry out at least 1,000 hours of practical experience supervised by health professionals before they clear the CNS exam.

Once certified as a CNS, they are eligible to get a license from state authorities. CNSs are authorized to practice medical nutrition therapy in hospitals and clinics of most states. They often work with people diagnosed with heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or obesity. CNSs assess each client’s needs and recommend dietary changes based on the latest nutritional research.

CNSs can open a private practice or a consulting firm for nutritional counseling. They are also present in many schools, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes, and outpatient care centers to offer guidance in the field of food.

Non-licensed Nutritionist

Non-licensed nutritionists usually work as health coaches or wellness experts in non-clinical settings. They offer customized information on healthy eating and overall health to their clients in fitness and beauty centers, alternative medicine, or holistic health facilities. They can also write for health and lifestyle magazines, blogs, and websites.

Since non-licensed nutritionists don’t need any board certification, there are no professional education requirements. Some employers want them to have a minimum of an associate’s degree, while others ask for at least a bachelor’s degree in a nutritional program or a related field.

Some of the courses that non-licensed nutritionists take up include chemistry, biology, microbiology, nutrition education, or organic herbs and potions. They can study these courses either in traditional colleges and universities or in specialized trade schools and alternative medicine centers. Some alternative medicine centers, such as homeopathy, naturopathy, and ayurveda facilities, offer an internship program. The program helps non-licensed nutritionists get formal training on relevant content, making them better equipped for their role.

Credentials and Licenses Required

In the United States, anyone with an interest in diet and nutrition can call themselves a nutritionist because you don’t need a formal certification for it. However, to get a job you need relevant experience in the field, and in some cases a certificate and license as well.

Different states have various guidelines for nutritionists. In some states, such as Arizona and Colorado, non-licensed nutritionists can offer nutrition counseling, but insurance may or may not reimburse these claims. Check the credentials of your nutritionists and verify with your insurance company before consulting a non-licensed nutritionist. In other states such as Alaska, only a licensed nutritionist can work. To earn a license, nutritionists must be certified by agencies such as the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS) or the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB).

In 13 states, including Alabama, Rhode Island, and Nebraska, even certified nutritionists are not eligible for licensure. Only Registered Dietitians (RD) can apply for a license and work in these states.

Role of a Dietitian

Dietitians have advanced degrees in the field of dietetics. Dietetics deals with the science of food and nutrition and their impact on human health. Dietitians provide in-depth nutrition counseling for chronic and acute medical problems. For example, they can customize a diet chart for patients with kidney problems or work with a cancer research organization to learn how certain foods can help in cancer treatment.

Dietitians can also diagnose eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. They offer appropriate nutrition counseling and can refer patients to psychiatrists if needed.

Generally, dietitians are more knowledgeable than nutritionists because all dietitians need to go through a certification process to gain their title (unlike nutritionists, who do not always have to be licensed to practice). Most insurance companies also cover dietitian consultations in their plans.

Types of Dietitians

There are four types of dietitians, depending on their domain of work. Clinical, food service management, research, and community dietitians perform different roles, but their goal is to design a healthy diet plan for disease prevention and control.

Clinical Dietitians

Clinical dietitians are the most common type of dietitians. They specialize in different areas, such as sports and pediatrics. They can work in an inpatient or outpatient setting.

In hospitals, clinical dietitians work with doctors to address the specific health needs of patients and design meal plans to help them overcome their problems. Both inpatient and outpatient dietitians take your medical history and assess your lab work before providing nutritional advice. Outpatient dietitians suggest a diet that boosts your overall health or offer nutrition education to those with conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity, or heart problems.

Food Service Management Dietitians

Food service management dietitians supervise the production of nutritious food in a large organization such as a school district or a rehabilitation center. They ensure the food is packed with enough nutrients needed for the holistic development of the target group.

Research Dietitians

Research dietitians determine the role of specific nutrients in controlling or preventing certain diseases. They usually work in a team led by a primary investigator at a research hospital, university, or organization.

Community Outreach Dietitians

Community outreach dietitians work with the government to address public health issues. For example, if there is an increase of heart disease in a certain community, then these dietitians work with government agencies to offer nutrition counseling at a community level. They speak at local community gatherings on ways to develop healthy eating habits to prevent heart ailments.

Credentials and Licenses Required

Dietitians can sport the title Registered Dietitian (RD) or the more recent Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). They can be used interchangeably. To earn these credentials you must have a bachelor’s degree in science, but beginning in 2024, you’ll need a master’s degree. Your coursework should include subjects such as biology, chemistry, nutrition, anatomy, and physiology.

Along with this formal education, you need to complete an internship program approved by the ACEND (Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics). This is the accrediting agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. The internship program includes 900 to 1,200 hours of practical experience in all four domains.

After completing the internship, aspiring dietitians have to clear an exit exam. If they pass the exit exam, they are eligible to take the board exam. Once they clear the board exam they can apply for a license. In certain states, such as Maryland, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, RDs and CNSs are given the same state license called the LDN (Licensed Dietitian and Nutritionist).

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a nutritionist better than a dietitian?

Generally, dietitians are better equipped to offer nutritional consulting than nutritionists. Compared to nutritionists, dietitians are more qualified as they are all licensed professionals. To get their license, dietitians need to complete a bachelor’s degree and a certificate program. This basic qualification is not needed to be a non-licensed nutritionist.

Do I need a nutritionist to lose weight?

A Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) or a Registered Dietitian (RD) can help you to lose weight. They can tell you how many calories to eat per day, based on your current weight and height. They plan a balanced diet for you, ensuring a safe and steady weight loss process.

When should you see a dietitian?

Consult a dietitian for nutritional advice on any health condition, such as high blood sugar, pressure, or cholesterol. They can suggest the right diet to keep these parameters in control. If you have digestive issues or have undergone surgery, consult a dietitian for appropriate medical nutrition therapy. They can tell you what food to eat for faster recovery or foods to avoid.

Are nutritionists covered under insurance?

All nutritionists may not be covered under insurance, but licensed nutritionists may be covered depending on your reason for consulting them. If it’s part of a doctor-prescribed treatment for medical conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, then your consultation is likely to be covered.

Do dietitians give meal plans?

Yes, in most cases dietitians write down a meal plan for their patients. This helps patients get the most from their diet without having to eat too much. Dietitians often alter meal plans to increase efficacy.

Conclusion

The biggest difference between nutritionists and dietitians lies in the fact that nutritionists don’t need a license in some states, but all dietitians are licensed professionals. These non-licensed nutritionists are not as qualified as licensed nutritionists or dietitians, and their dietary recommendations may not be as effective as a licensed professional’s advice. To avoid this confusion between licensed and unlicensed professionals, check the credentials of your nutritionist or dietitian. If they are an RD or a CNS then you have no reason to worry, as you are in safe hands.

While it’s always wise to seek a professional opinion, there are a few steps you can take for better nutrition, such as carefully reading the nutrition facts label.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

Michelle Zhang, Wellness Writer Michelle Zhang

Michelle Zhang is a regular contributor to our Zoma blog and is our go-to sleep researcher. In her time with Zoma, Michelle has researched and published many articles on widespread sleeping habits and troubles. In her time outside of Zoma, Michelle is an occupational therapist and long-distance runner. She believes leading a healthy lifestyle is the key to getting better sleep at night.

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