Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist: Same Thing, Right?
No, not exactly. It has to be the most surprising fact to people when I explain to them that there is a distinctive difference between a Registered Dietitian (RD) and a nutritionist. Essentially, the main difference lies in the formal education and title protection. Or as Women’s Health Magazine states, “One is WAY more legit.” In fact, I was recently interviewed by WH for their recent What’s The Difference Between A Dietitian And Nutritionist? article and provided insight on these differences. (Go check it out! They for sure took what has to be a pretty ‘tongue-in-cheek’ analogy of mine to help clarify the difference.)
The Distinctive Difference Between a Registered Dietitian and a Nutritionist
While these two terms are certainly related, the two are often mistakenly used interchangeably, although there are principal factors distinguishing the two. My usual short-answer typically explains how the term Registered Dietitian (RD) denotes a legally regulated credential, whereas the term ‘nutritionist’ is NOT regulated. As stated by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “all registered dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians”. In fact, RDs can choose to obtain the credential as RD or RDN (for Registered Dietitian Nutritionist) behind their name depending on preference.
While nutritionists can undoubtedly be highly educated professionals holding graduate degrees in nutritional science, provided that there is no formal regulation on the term, even my dog trainer can decide to call himself a nutritionist on the side (without a ‘lick’ [no pun intended] of formal education or experience)! With that said, there are nutritionist certification boards that require applicants to hold an advanced degree in correlation with practical experience prior to taking their certification exam. For example, a nutritionist who meets the requirements to pass the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) exam can refer to themselves as a CNS, which is a respectable/protected title.
What Does it Mean to be a Registered Dietitian (RD)?
Considered as an expert of the intricate relations between food and nutrition, a Registered Dietitian (RD) is a legally protected title. The RD (or RDN) title is granted from completion of specific and extensive education to practice in the vast field of nutrition and dietetics. It is the mission of an RD to provide the up-most evidence-based practice. This means they are obligated by law to provide recommendations based on hard scientific FACTS that have been consistently proven. They play an essential role in enhancing nutritional status through influencing dietary choices, delivering therapies (geared to prevent, slow, or reverse disease), and improving healing status. They are uniquely positioned as the primary information resource regarding the associations between nutrition, disease prevention, and overall health. They are qualified to communicate these correlations to other health care providers, policy makers, education systems, and the public.
Go on, I’m listening…
What Does It Take to Become a RD?
To obtain RD (or RDN) credentials, the following strict criteria must be met:
- Completion of a bachelor’s degree* from an ACEND-accredited program is required for entry-level registration eligibility. *This minimum has been increased to a graduate degree effective January 1st, 2024. Part of the change is in hopes to expand RD specialization and improve compensation – as RDs will obtain similar minimum requirements as a physical therapist (PT), for example.
- Completion of 1,200 hours minimum in supervised practice approved by ACEND
- Pass a rigorous national exam provided by the Commission on Dietetics Registration (CDR) to become registered
- Maintain current standing of continuing education: 75 credits every 5 years
These requirements are the baseline for entry-level RD. From there, RDs can choose to specialize in a very broad field of career choices, whether that be clinical, wellness, community, business, private practice, government, media, education and more. Many people tend to think of RDs to only work clinically (i.e. an acute hospital setting), but there is really no limitation on what a RD can specialize in. See below for examples of specialization certifications.
CDR Board-Certified Specialists: for RDs only
- Board-Certified Specialist in Gerontological Nutrition (CSG)
- Board-Certified Specialist in Pediatric Nutrition (CSP)
- Board-Certified Specialist in Renal Nutrition (CSR)
- Board-Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition (CSO)
- Board-Certified Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management (CSOWM)
- Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD)
- Certification of Training in Adult Weight Management
- Certification of Training in Childhood and Adolescent Weight Management
- Certified Nutrition Support Dietitian (CNSD)
Other Accrediting Agency Advanced Certifications:
- Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE)
- Certified Nutrition Support Clinician (CNSC)
- Certified Lifestyle and Eating Protocol (LEAP) Therapist (CLT)
- Integrative and Functional Nutrition Certified Practitioner (IFNCP)
Side note: there are many RDs who focus their practice around a ‘functional’ (seeking to tackle the ‘root cause’ of disease) approach, versus the typical conventional (Western medicine) approach. To assume that RDs are only trained in conventional medicine is false, but that’s another blog!
What does that mean for the services provided?
Nutritionists are not credentialed to practice medical nutrition therapy (MNT), which is a comprehensive evidence-based approach to both acute and chronic nutrition related care. Actually many insurance policies set limitations regarding reimbursement eligibility, requiring that treatment be specifically from a RD. This is why many medical settings, nationwide, choose to only hire RDs who have current standing credentials with the CDR. Furthermore, in addition to RD credentials, many states require specific certification or licensure by individuals to legally perform individualized nutrition assessment and nutrition counseling.
Does this mean nutritionists are less qualified in general?
Absolutely not, but it can be much harder to sift through the plethora of ‘nutritionists’ to find those qualifications and experience you can trust. Again, there are many non-RD health and wellness professionals who hold higher education degrees, credentials, and have bountiful experience. Some may even choose to practice evidence-based guidelines, but it is just important to remember that it is only the RD who is mandated to these guidelines. Without these regulations, you risk receiving misguided, invalidated, and potentially harmful anecdotes.
O.k., so I understand that RDs are the qualified nutrition experts, but how about if I just want help with weight loss?
The need for weight loss is a health concern which should never be taken lightly. There are many ways to lose weight, but doing so in a healthy manner is necessary. This will put not only your sanity in check, but also stop any cycles of poor weight maintenance from repeating.
I used to work for a well-known weight loss corporation and helped hundreds (+) people lose weight and more importantly, keep it off. Although we were trained well, we had Registered Dietitians to thank for developing the program and guide us with those tricky weight-loss cases. In fact, many potential clients were deemed ineligible for the program if they had certain morbidities (aka diseases, like heart disease) which required professional clinical oversight. Moral of the story: Given how many people who desire weight loss, also have other health concerns such as hypertension or diabetes, the most appropriate source for safe and effective weight loss is going to be a credentialed professional who is experienced in weight loss and weight management. Typically, this would be a RD who specializes in the wellness realm and most likely not a clinical RD who may only focus on ICU treatment. But, let me clarify that not all RDs are the same. Some have a very broad knowledge base of specialties, while others may not.
In the end, going with someone who is credentialed as an RD is a guaranteed way to ensure sound guidance from someone who will take an evidence-based approach and consider the complete picture of someone’s individualized health and nutrition-related needs.
Now that we cleared that up, you can worry less about who to seek out as a reliable source & make more time for a happy dance – in a ruffled watermelon dress, to boot!