Many people need help to eat better or to lose weight, and some of them work with nutrition professionals to pursue their goals. Those who provide nutritional counsel do a lot more than just that, however. They also work with people who need to manage chronic health conditions like diabetes or autoimmune disorders, low-income people struggling with food insecurity, and families with children who have eating challenges.
All of these clients might say that they are seeing a nutritionist. However, chances are that those in the second group are working with registered dietitians (also called RDs and registered dietitian nutritionists). There are lots of different kinds of practitioners offering nutrition support, and most people don’t know what sets them apart.
It’s not surprising, considering that there’s so much overlap in terminology. A Certified Nutrition Specialist will probably have more in common—when it comes to education and credentials—with a registered dietitian than with a nutrition therapist or nutritionist. Dietitians can practice clinically as part of medical teams or work behind the scenes in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and other inpatient healthcare facilities. A nutritionist might be hired by a school to work in the food and nutrition services department—or hang out a shingle as a health coach.
Confused about how to tell these professionals apart? In this article about the difference between dietitians and nutritional therapists, we’ll answer the following questions:
The most significant differences between registered dietitians and nutritional therapists are the education requirements and the licensing requirements:
Someone may work with both a dietitian and a nutritionist, but these professionals typically handle different types of cases.
Doctors refer people to dietitians for conditions like diabetes, obesity, eating disorders, poor growth, and even cancer and other diseases that can impact how the body absorbs nutrients. Dietitians can work as members of medical teams in hospitals and other healthcare facilities and are qualified to diagnose eating disorders and design prescriptive diets to treat specific medical conditions. Some dietitians don’t work with patients but instead conduct research into public health issues related to diet, nutrition, and food access or work as food scientists in the public and private sectors.
Nutrition therapists, on the other hand, help people meet personal nutritional goals and deal with behaviors related to food and eating. They can’t legally create prescriptive diets or claim the expertise to treat specific conditions, but they can help their clients make food choices driven by how they feel, health concerns, budgetary constraints, and weight loss goals. They can suggest a diet that helps address their clients’ concerns or physical and mental health goals. Those suggestions are recommendations, not medical advice.
A nutrition therapist may be just as well-informed as a dietitian and may be just as helpful to their patients. The scopes of their authority and work, however, differ.
Anyone who offers nutrition advice can legally call themselves a nutritionist, holistic nutritionist, nutrition therapist, or health coach because the role isn’t as highly regulated as is the dietitian role. Nutritionists may need to register with the state or meet specific requirements, but typically no professional training is mandated. This is because nutrition therapists aren’t supposed to provide the kind of clinical advice dietitians are qualified to give. Nutrition therapists can’t diagnose diseases, prescribe medications or cures, claim to be able to prevent or cure any illness or issue, or even use any of those terms when working with clients.
Currently, registered dietitians need only a bachelor’s degree from a university accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to practice legally. The organization sanctions three acceptable educational pathways:
Many different degree types can fulfill the ACEND requirements, which means that aspiring dietitians take many kinds of courses, from anatomy to food-service management, during their undergrad and graduate degree years.
There are strong bachelor’s degree programs for nutrition at:
Only dietitians who want to become a Certified Nutrition Specialist need to earn a master’s degree in nutrition. That will change in 2024, however, when the Commission on Dietetic Registration will raise the minimum required education level for registered dietitians, and all aspiring RDs will be required to earn a master’s degree (e.g., a Master of Science in Nutrition or a Master’s in Nutrition and Exercise Science). One reason for the change is that many people—even in clinical settings—don’t understand the difference between dietitians and nutritional therapists; consequently, RDs are typically paid a lot less than other non-physician clinicians. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics keeps a searchable list of advanced degree programs in dietetics, food science, nutrition, and related areas. That list will likely grow once dietitians are required to hold master’s degrees.
Once an aspiring dietitian passes the national registration exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, they become a full-fledged RD and can begin working (assuming they meet their state’s licensing and certification requirements). Many registered dietitians also go on to pursue voluntary certifications related to the specialty practice area or areas in which they plan to work. Some examples of certifications for dietitians are:
There’s no one educational path you must follow to become a nutritionist. Dietitians need to complete at least a bachelor’s degree and a set number of supervised clinical hours to earn their legally mandated license. However, these standards don’t apply to nutritionists because state agencies typically don’t regulate nutritionists.
This can make choosing an undergraduate program (and possibly a master’s degree program) more difficult. Aspiring nutritionists can choose any of the degree pathways open to dietitians or attend a non-degree nutrition therapy program. Students in these programs take courses like:
The best non-degree programs for nutritionists help students qualify to pursue board certification and begin working in entry-level nutrition therapy jobs. Enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program is probably the better option; many employers prefer to hire nutritionists with bachelor’s degrees (or, at the very least, a two-year Associate of Science in Applied Nutrition).
About half of all states (including the three biggest: California, Texas, and New York) enforce no regulations on nutritionists. Among those that do, many limit regulations specifically to practitioners who wish to call themselves dietitian/nutritionists. Fewer require separate credentials specifically for nutritionists. To find out what certifications, if any, you’ll need to work in your state, check with the relevant state board (which will likely be called something like the Board of Registration of Dietitians and Nutritionists or the Dietetics and Nutrition Practice Council).
Of course, it’s worth pursuing certifications regardless of whether your state requires them. Having one or more of the following certifications can make you a more attractive candidate when you’re looking for work and give your clients confidence when you’re practicing independently.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lumps dietitians and nutritionists into one category when compiling job statistics. According to the agency, both make about $66,450 per year. Other sites that report salary numbers for dietitians and nutritionists separately disagree on who makes more; even having a master’s degree and becoming a CNS is no guarantee that you’ll make more money than a self-educated nutritional therapist who hangs out a shingle. Don’t let that uncertainty stop you from pursuing either role, however. The BLS also reports that the job outlook for both dietitians and nutritionists is good, and sometimes that’s more important than how much you may or may not earn in your entry-level years.
No one can answer this question for you. Both careers require an investment of time, money, and energy. Both involve working with people, food science, and healing. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to become a registered dietitian, a nutritional therapist, or one of the many careers that fall somewhere in between. Asking yourself the following questions may help steer you in one direction:
Don’t stress too much; you can’t really go wrong no matter which career path you choose. Dietitian and nutritionist are grouped together in the twenty-fourth slot in US News & World Report‘s Best Healthcare Jobs, which are ranked by job outlook, salary, and work-life balance. Also, just because you start out by becoming a dietitian or a nutritionist doesn’t mean you can’t make the switch later on in your career.
If you’re still unsure about which role is right for you after reading everything above, reach out to some dietitians and nutritionists. Their insights can help you decide whether you’ll ultimately be happier in a clinical or an advisory role.
(Updated on January 24, 2024)
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