What’s the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?

Social media is full of dietitians and nutritionists — here are the major differences between them

If you’re on social media, you’ve likely seen a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s page or video — promoting a program, educating their followers or demonstrating recipes. You might think the terms are interchangeable, but there are key distinctions to be made. What’s the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist? Here are the things that set these professionals apart.

“Both dietitians and nutritionists deal with what people eat,” said Marisa Faibish, M.S., R.D., CSSD, LDN, lead performance dietitian at Norton Sports Health Performance & Wellness Center. “But that’s about where the similarities end. The requirements for certification for a dietitian are different from a nutritionist, and we have a very different scope of practice.”

In many states, only a registered dietitian can counsel individuals regarding specific diet plans. Only a registered dietitian — someone with the R.D. credential — can be involved with diagnosing and treating medical conditions, which is known as medical nutrition therapy. This type of medical care by a registered dietitian is sometimes covered by insurance, including Medicare Part B for certain conditions. 

Education and credentialing

“It takes about two years to be a certified dietitian. It’s much easier to call yourself ‘a nutritionist,’ because there are not very strict rules governing nutritionists,” Marisa said. “You could call yourself a nutritionist after a quick quiz online.”

For those who wish to explore a nutrition certification, there are nationally approved certification programs such as the certified nutrition specialist (CNS). It is a certification regulated by the Board for Certification for Nutrition Specialists (BCNS). Eligibility to be a certified nutrition specialist includes:

  • Master of Science or doctoral degree in nutrition or a related field
  • 35 hours of relevant coursework related to the practice of personalized nutrition
  • 1,000 hours of supervised practice experience
  • Five BCNS personalized nutrition case study reports

Eligibility to become a dietitian includes:

  • A minimum of a bachelor’s degree accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) 
  • A verification statement from a didactic program in dietetics
  • At least 1,200 hours in an internship under the supervision of a licensed professional, combined with undergraduate or graduate studies
  • Passing the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam

“By 2024, a graduate degree will be the minimum requirement to sit for the CDR exam,” Marisa said. “Besides regular master’s degrees in nutrition and dietetics programs, ACEND-accredited MPH/RD [Master of Public Health/registered dietitian] programs can qualify someone to sit for the CDR exam.”

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Some states also have additional licensing requirements. Registered dietitians must complete continuing education throughout their careers to maintain certification.

What do nutritionists and dietitians do?

“Both nutritionists and dietitians teach people and groups about food and nutrition and the relationship between diet and health,” Marisa said. “Since dietitians have a more rigorous clinical background, we can do a lot more than a nutritionist. We also have a strong clinical background that a nutritionist doesn’t have.”

Scope of support

Dietitians’ scope includes treating and supporting a wide variety of conditions, including diagnosing and treating medical conditions such as eating disorders, addiction, or other conditions where nutrition can make a difference.

Many states limit what nutritionists can do and hold dietitians to specific standards that allow them to do their jobs. Many states and insurance providers place limitations on specific nutrition counseling.

Should I see a dietitian or a nutritionist?

“I think almost anyone can benefit from working with a dietitian,” Marisa said. “If you are an athlete who wants to improve performance or just someone who wants better energy through their day, a dietitian can help with that.”

She cautions against believing everything you see on social media, especially when people call themselves nutritionists.

“Dietitians have such a rigorous background when it comes to food and nutrition science, exercise, and so much more,” Marisa said. “You want someone who really knows what they’re talking about.”

Marisa offers free consultations and can talk people through what it might look like to work with her. Email marisa.faibish@nortonhealthcare.org or call the Norton Sports Health Performance &Wellness Center at (502) 409-8888.

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