key differences between dietitians and nutritionists

Key Differences Between Dietitians and Nutritionists

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Dietitians can be called nutritionists, but a nutritionist cannot be called a dietitian. It’s a confusing statement, but there are clear differences between dietitians and nutritionists.

While both have a love for nutrition, only one has met official and standardized criteria. The accreditation required by a registered dietitian nutritionist is the main reason why they are a trusted source of nutrition information. RDNs are the nutrition experts. This accreditation also allows dietitians to hold the credentials RD or RDN, as well as LD or LDN.

In addition, dietitians can obtain advanced specialty certifications to provide care to niche populations. This post provides insight into major distinctions between RDNs and nutritionists. It explains the wide range of a dietitian’s knowledge.

The education and certification of RDNs allow them to not only work in a variety of clinical settings, but it also allows them the flexibility to work in other niches.

Knowing the difference between RDNs and nutritionists is important to help you make a better-informed decision based on your goals.

I’m a dietitian, can I call myself a nutritionist? What makes a dietitian different than a nutritionist?

Above are just a few questions that come up in a quick Google search. It’s easy to substitute “dietitian” with “nutritionist.” Why? A dietitian and nutritionist both share a love for nutrition. While the public might find it hard to distinguish the two, there is a clear distinction. They don’t share the same expertise.

Only one is accredited to diagnose and treat people’s health needs. Below is a complete breakdown of how to distinguish the two. It includes their importance and how they could help you reach your nutrition goals.

Source: www.ameproietti.com

What is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist?

Person holding a salad above a table covered with vegetables and nutrition graphs

The Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) is the credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. According to CDR, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), also known as a Registered Dietitian (RD), is a nutrition expert who has successfully completed the following criteria:

  • A bachelor’s degree
  • An accredited supervised practice, typically a dietetic internship
  • A national examination conducted by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR)

RDNs have diverse interests. This allows them to specialize and niche down by working with specific populations and groups. CDR even offers seven advanced board certifications for dietitians. This is a major difference between dietitians and nutritionists.

What is a Nutritionist?

The law does not protect the title “nutritionist.” Anyone who gives nutrition advice can use this title. Remember, an RDN can be a nutritionist but a nutritionist cannot be an RDN.

There are some organizations that provide a certification-type program for nutritionists. One example is the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS) which has a certification to become a certified nutrition specialist (CNS).

3 Major Differences between Dietitians and Nutritionists

Dietitian works with a patient by providing charts, supplements, and vegetables

1. Education

There is a standard education pathway for a dietitian. They have completed:

Some general classes taken at the undergraduate level for those becoming an RDN are as follows;

  • Human Anatomy & Physiology
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Psychology 
  • Healthcare Management
  • Social Work
  • Biology

Relevant to mention, as of January 1st, 2024, the CDR requires those in pursuit of the RDN credential to obtain a master’s degree. Important to note is that the MS degree doesn’t have to be in nutrition and dietetics, other MS degrees are applicable as well.

On the other hand, there is no standardized education pathway for a nutritionist. A nutritionist does not have approval from a board like the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). They could have a bachelor’s degree. It could be in a nutrition-related focus. There is no clear criteria or standard for a nutritionist.

However, some nutritionists choose to certify themselves and declare themselves as certified nutrition specialists (CNS) or certified clinical nutritionists (CN). However, RDNs are still the only nutrition professionals legally and ethically allowed to provide medical nutrition therapy. Medical nutrition therapy includes the diagnosis and treatment of nutrition-related conditions, which is the distinct difference between RDN and nutritionists.

2. Credentials and Licensure

the difference between dietitians and nutritionists - Registered Dietitian Badge from the Commission of Dietetic Registration

3. Specialty Certifications

  • Pediatric
  • Renal
  • Gerontological
  • Pediatric Critical Care
  • Oncology Nutrition
  • Sports Dietetics
  • Obesity and Weight Management

Unlike dietitians, there are no specific credentials for a nutritionist without an accrediting board. However, a nutritionist can receive a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential or a Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN) credential. Both of these require similar pathways: coursework, supervised practice, an exam, and recertification.

Where do Registered Dietitians Nutritionists Work?

the difference between dietitians and nutritionists - Dietitian writing out information

In addition to clinical work, there are so many other opportunities for dietitians to have a positive impact and educate the public. Here is a list of some common work settings for RDNs:

  • Hospitals
  • Food and Nutrition Companies
  • Community Settings
  • Private Practice
  • Academia
  • Research

5 Ways You Can Work with a Dietitian

the difference between dietitians and nutritionists

#1 – Your community has high levels of heart disease.

As mentioned, registered dietitian nutritionists are knowledgeable and can teach, motivate, and spur change in communities by public health efforts with leaders in the community. They create relevant and impactful wellness programs to promote healthy lifestyle changes.

#2 – You’re a college student and want to eat healthier but don’t know how to cook.

Did you know that registered dietitian nutritionists can help you improve your cooking skills? They also can help you while accounting for your personal budget, nutritional needs, and health goals.

#3 – You work in food research & development and have been tasked to create a healthy product that consumers love.

A registered dietitian nutritionist’s knowledge is not limited to solely helping individuals. They translate the science into consumer-friendly messages. Their insights are essential for developing a product that is tailored to the consumers’ health and taste preferences.

#4 You recently got your blood sugar checked and learned that you have prediabetes. Your primary care provider told you that a diet change could help prevent diabetes.

Without a course of action, a diagnosis like this can feel overwhelming. A registered dietitian nutritionist can help alleviate your fears by creating an action plan with smart goals.

#5 – You’re an athlete who is looking for that edge to reach maximum performance.

Sports dietitians can help you set healthy goals and create a plan to reach your optimal performance on and off the field.

Dietitians can also share the latest trends on food and nutrition topics so you can apply them in your day-to-day jobs or everyday lives.

Infographic created by Ame Proietti (student) – www.ameproietti.com

How do I find a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist?


When choosing a nutrition expert, choose a registered dietitian nutritionist. The above scenarios are just a glimpse into a dietitian’s scope of capabilities. A nutritionist could have a nutrition background, but it’s not guaranteed. A registered dietitian nutritionist has met accredited criteria through the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). Dietitians are the key to success in helping you achieve your goals. Connect with an RDN today!


Note: This article was originally written by dietetics student and guest blog author, Reagan Street. Reagan was a student in The Dietitian Editor Volunteer Program and Mentorship program. Liz Jalkiewicz updated and republished in Spring 2023. Updated again by Alexandria Chavez, student in The Dietitian Editor Volunteer Program and Mentorship in Fall 2023.


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