Dietitian vs Nutritionist: What’s the Deal?



This article was originally published in 2015. It has been a very well-received and popular article in support of promoting the importance of Registered Dietitian Nutritionists as THE nutrition experts. If you want to know the difference between a dietitian and nutritionist, please read on.

Happy National Nutrition Month®!  Registered Dietitian Nutritionists continue to promote health and fitness all March long in celebration of the theme “Savor the Flavor of National Nutrition Month eventsEating Right”.  As we near the end of the month, it’s time to set the record straight.  The #1 question I get in my profession has nothing to do with sugar, reading labels, or my thoughts on the latest Dr. Oz plug. It’s a simple question that many people don’t know the answer: What’s the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?

Before I answer, here’s some things to think about.  Would you go to a surgeon who only got their education by watching a lot of You Tube videos?  A dentist who only practiced by playing Crocodile Dentist?  Get diabetes education from your mechanic?  Then why would you trust your nutrition advice to come from someone who just took a few online quizzes on the Shape website?


In the simplest of definitions, Registered Dietitian Nutritionists are THE nutrition experts. To become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, one must meet the following requirements:

  • Obtain a minimum of a bachelors degree in Dietetics from a credentialed university program approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition & Dietetics (ACEND). The curriculum includes courses in life sciences (anatomy & physiology, chemistry, biochemistry), food science, and nutritional sciences.

  • After obtaining a degree, an RDN-hopeful then must apply to a Dietetic Internship program through a matching process.  Think it sounds like a piece of fat-free cake?  Only 50% of applicants get matched to an internship.

  • Those who are lucky to be matched will spend 1200 hours doing clinical work in various areas of nutrition including medical nutrition therapy, community nutrition, and food service.

  • After all that, a test is waiting for you at the end.  If you pass it, then, and only then, can you call yourself a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.

  • Going forward, RDNs must maintain continuing education to keep their credential.

“Nutritionist” is a nebulous term. ANYONE can call themselves a nutritionist.  There are no guidelines for education or experience, which means someone could have taken an online course or read a bunch of Livestrong articles and both can call themselves a nutritionist.  I had even read an article one time where a university professor told her nutrition students how her dog became a nutritionist- she went online, registered for an online nutrition certificate in her dog’s name, and viola- you can now ask her dog for nutrition advice.


These days everyone feels they are a nutrition expert because they made some change in their diet that worked for them.  But the truth is, every BODY is different and what works for one doesn’t work for another.  Which is why seeing a credentialed nutrition professional is crucial for those who are serious about making a change with their intake or seek medical nutrition assistance.

To ensure the safety of our clients, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionists will never do the following:

  • Sell you supplements, diets, or expensive pre-made meal plans (these are for personal benefit of the seller, who is usually making a commission from the supplement companies; RDNs  promote a “food first” school of thought)

  • Give you advice based solely on what worked for them (we use evidence-based practice)

  • Force you to do an extreme diet that can put you at harm (we follow an ethical practice to ensure safety to our clients)

RDNs work together with doctors and other healthcare professionals to ensure your health is always the top priority.  In fact, most doctors at best may have taken 1 nutrition class in their entire 7-years of medical schooling!  We’re so overly careful with all the other professionals we have in our lives, from our doctors to our hair dressers.  So don’t let the nutrition professional in your life just be the nice high schooler who works part-time at the local health food store.  Do yourself and your loved one a favor- see a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for any nutrition-related health matters going forward.

For more information on Registered Dietitian Nutritionists, evidence-based nutrition info, or to find an RDN in your area, visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Have you worked with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist?  

If not, what has your experience been?

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