A quick internet search won’t give you a clear answer; in fact, it can leave you even more confused. Are they the same thing? Is one a better resource than the other?
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The first thing to know is that despite the fact that the words “nutritionist” and “dietitian” (or more likely, “RD,” which stands for “registered dietitian”) are often used interchangeably, they are not the same.
According to the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “RDs are food and nutrition experts who have met the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s (CDR) criteria to earn the RD credential.” This means that they’ve completed eligibility requirements—including at least 1,200 of supervised practice hours—and taken the registration examination for dietitians. You must be properly credentialed to call yourself a dietitian in all states; and once you’re an official RD, you can work in health care, education, research, or start a private practice.
Meanwhile, the definition for “nutritionist” is a lot less cut and dried. In fact, in some states it’s legal to call yourself a nutritionist without any formal education, testing, licensing, or certification at all. The National Cancer Institute defines a nutritionist as “a person who helps people form healthy eating habits to improve health and prevent disease. They may provide nutritional counseling, meal planning, and nutrition education programs.” Notice how there’s no mention of specific training programs, or reference to a nutritionist being an actual healthcare professional?
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In contrast, the National Cancer Institute defines a registered dietitian as “a health professional with special training in the use of diet and nutrition to keep the body healthy. A registered dietitian may help the medical team to improve the nutritional health of a patient.”
In general, “dietitian” is a much more regulated term that “nutritionist.” And according to Berkeley Wellness at the University of California, a good way to remember which is which is with the saying: All registered dietitians are nutritionists but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians.
Ready for things to get complicated? There’s also a term called “registered dietitian nutritionist,” which was created in 2013. The term was “established to further enhance the RD brand and more accurately reflect to consumers who registered dietitians are and what they do,” according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The good news is that RD and RDN are identical in meaning and can be used interchangeably.
If you’re looking for help optimizing your diet, especially if you have any complicating factors like diabetes or heart disease, it might be wise to opt for a nutrition expert with the proper credentials, like an RD or RDN. That said, there are many great nutritionists who know a ton about diet and health. And as long as you know the difference, at the end of the day it’s all about choosing the professional who can help you accomplish your goals.