Whether you're losing weight through, need a meal plan that caters to a health issue, or you need to tweak your diet to live a healthier lifestyle, knowing which medical professional to seek help from is only half the battle. Dietitians and nutritionists may sound like the same thing, but each profession requires different skills and they focus on varying areas of health. Even when you find someone that you like, it's important to do your homework and ensure that they have the proper credentials so that you can get the best help possible.

So, what exactly is the difference between a dietitian versus a nutritionist? What sort of education should they have? We're here to answer all your burning questions and point you in the right direction.

  • First we're going to cover exactly what each of these titles really means.
  • Second we're going to break down the differences between the two.
  • Lastly we're going to help you figure out which professional is right for you.

What Is A Dietitian?

a dietitian sitting next to fruit and a measuring tape

Registered dietitians are healthcare professionals trained to help people with dieting, healthier choices, and education about nutrition. Through counseling and consideration of a patient's individual needs, they offer the best solutions for food choices and offer advice for a healthier lifestyle. Together you two will generate a healthy food plan while dietitians educate you on what you should be eating versus what some websites or magazines recommend.

Given that there is a lot of confusing information out there, part of a dietitian's job is to break down the difficult scientific data presented in studies and through colleagues so patients can better understand which of their habits should be altered and why. They're also trained to cater to patients with health conditions like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

Dietitians help with a slew of questions and concerns. They can educate patients on meal plans, digestive problems, surgeries for weight loss, nutritional requirements, eating disorders, and advice about breastfeeding. They also help with calories and standard food portions.

The biggest difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist is that dietitians are regulated healthcare professionals. Their titles are protected by law, whereas the title of "nutritionist" is not.

What Is A Nutritionist?

a female nutritionist making a meal plan with a female patient

Nutritionists are healthcare professionals designed to help those with special needs stemming from eating disorders, diabetes, or high blood pressure find a meal plan that will aid in living a healthier lifestyle. They are also available to help individuals merely looking to lose weight or live a healthier life. It's important to remember that they don't just work with individuals; nutritionists can also inform family members of new dietary restrictions that need to be in place and go into detail about the sort of meal management that needs to take place at home.

You can visit a nutritionist if you ever need help with your personal dietary restrictions and preferences, generating a meal plan specifically catering to your lifestyle, assessment of nutrition in food, and tweaks to your current meal plan if anything is amiss. Nutritionists also keep up-to-date with the latest research so they can remain informed and ensure patients are receiving the best care based on recent findings.

The title of "nutritionist" is not typically recognized by law, but rules may vary from state to state. For example, some states in America require nutritionists to obtain an occupational license. However, there are some states that will allow practicing nutritionists to continue offering advice and working with patients even if they've never had any prior training or work experience.

What Sort Of Credentials Does A Dietitian Need?

a doctor holding an apple

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Registered Dietitian

If you're planning on seeing a registered dietitian (RD) then there are quite a few things you should look for beforehand.

First off, this title is regulated by various states through a state agency. Here's what sort of skills and credentials you'd typically expect from someone in this profession based on their regulations and best practices:

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that individuals in this profession need to complete a 4-year bachelor's degree in dietetics and complete anywhere from 900 - 1200 hours in a dietetic internship. The internship hours take anywhere from 8-24 months to complete.

A verification statement from an ACEND-accredited program. ACEND (Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics) includes many resources for dietitians to use regarding information in various areas of study. The academy offers information on chronic disease and wellness, food service, malnutrition, and sustainable food systems.

To graduate from an ACEND-accredited program, an RD will have to study coursework including some of the following:

  • Chemistry
  • Foodservice management
  • Sociology
  • Biochemistry
  • Physiology
  • Food and nutrition sciences

An RD will usually be well-versed in additional fields of study like microbiology and computer science.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also states that registered dietitians will need to pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration's dietetic exam before earning their license.

A registered dietitian, like any healthcare professional, also remains on top of the latest research so they can remain informed and keep their patients up-to-date.

What Sort Of Credentials Does A Nutritionist Need?

a nutritionist showing a peach to a patient

Unlike a registered dietitian, nutritionists don't need to complete the same level of training or measures to obtain a license. Their titles aren't protected by law, which allows for practicing nutritionists to take on patients and offer advice without any previous experience or formal training. This does not mean that every nutritionist you encounter will not have the experience, education, or dedication to treat you properly and offer you accurate information.

Certified Nutrition Specialist

The Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (CBNS) can give nutritionists the title of a certified nutrition specialist. In order for a person to become a CNS, they must go through extensive education in the form of a master's or doctoral degree, complete 1,000 hours of supervised practice, and successfully complete the CBNS exam. Additionally, just like their RD counterparts, nutritionists need to continue to educate themselves and stay on top of the latest research and studies in order to maintain their certification.

Certified Clinical Nutritionist

Nutritionists can also become certified through the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB). These particular healthcare professionals would need to complete a bachelor or master's degree from an accredited university, complete 900 hours of supervised practice, pass the CNCB test, and complete hours of work outside their program. They will need to finish 40 continuing education hours every two years to maintain their certification as well as successfully passing a recertification test every five years.

Dietitian Vs Nutritionist: Is There A Difference?

a nutritionist filling out medical records next to fruits

Depending on who you speak to, some people might not think that there is a great difference between the two professions. On the contrary, each field goes through different schooling, different hours of training or interning, and possesses varying certificates. Don't forget that an RD's title is also protected under the law whereas a nutritionist doesn't have that privilege.

The Main Differences

  • Dietitians earned a bachelor's degree with courses approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics. Nutritionists study nutrition in a post-secondary institution and have a graduate degree from an accredited college.
  • A dietitian's title is protected under the law.
  • Generally speaking, dietitians are considered to be nutritionists, whereas nutritionists aren't considered to be dietitians.

What Credentials To Look For

Unless you're planning on asking every dietitian or nutritionist what their credentials are, you can simply look at their names listed on websites, their business cards, or their office doors.

  • A registered dietitian will have R.D. after their name.
  • A registered dietitian nutritionist will have R.D.N after their name.
  • A certified nutrition specialist will have C.N.S. after their name.
  • A certified clinical nutritionist will have C.C.N. after their name.

Which Professional Is Right For Me?

a nutritionist writing next to fruits and vegetables

Now that you know the main differences between a dietitian and a nutritionist, the question still remains: which healthcare professional is right for me? Well, a lot of that decision is based on your personal preference and current monetary situation.

Under typical health insurance plans, seeing a registered dietitian is covered so long as you have a referral from your doctor. Nutritionists, on the other hand, sometimes practice privately or don't work for the hospital so you'll need to pay out of pocket for a one-on-one with them.

A big decision you'll need to make also relies on the kind of care you prefer. Remember, we talked about how some nutritionists aren't licensed or possess as much education as a dietitian would. You can most certainly find a certified nutritionist, but your doctor will more than likely send you to a dietitian since they're more likely to be working together. Dietitians need to be certified and licensed, which means they'll be working in hospitals and a bit more familiar with your medical history and proper practices involved with healthcare locations. Holistic nutritionists or uncertified ones aren't clinically trained to deal with more severe cases, such as patients who have previously had surgeries.

If you want to see your local nutritionist, feel free to make an appointment. However, if after a session or two you notice that they're recommending you cut out significant foods from your diets or suggesting tips that don't fit your lifestyle then you may want to consider visiting a dietitian instead. Uncertified or holistic nutritionists can sometimes suggest extreme forms of dieting, which isn't exactly evidence-based.

Realistically, one of the best things you can do is do your homework on the healthcare professional you're planning to see. Check out their credentials, feel out their advice, and see if they are a good fit for you and your personal tastes.

a smiling dietitian writing next to fruits, veggies, and a measuring tape

Before you decide which healthcare professional you would like to see, remember that registered dietitians and certified nutritionists will have their fair share of good advice to give you. Each professional listed above has gone through extensive training, education, and time to ensure that they're giving you the best information possible to help you reach your weight-loss goals and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Registered dietitians, at the end of the day, are the ones your doctor will send you to. They're licensed, experienced with working in hospitals and are better equipped to deal with more serious patient cases, like those who have previously had surgeries or are dealing with certain conditions. Nutritionists may have some good advice to give you as well, and some are just as qualified as dietitians, but oftentimes a nutritionist will work privately or holistically and might not be able to give you the same level of care.

Dietitians and nutritionists are titles that are often interchanged, but they shouldn't be. There are some pretty noticeable differences between the two and educating yourself on these distinctions is crucial in ensuring that you make the best decision for you or your loved ones. Do your research, understand the credentials, and find the healthcare professional who will do the most for you.

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