Many people use “dietitian” and “nutritionist” interchangeably. However, they’re different professions.
Dietitians and nutritionists work in similar fields but have different backgrounds and certifications.
To help you get the best and most science-backed nutritional advice possible, here are some of the differences between dietitians and nutritionists.
Dietitians Must Be Certified by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
In the United States, all dietitians must be certified by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Otherwise, they cannot practice as a dietitian.
Once certified, a dietitian can recommend specific foods to treat various health conditions.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics certifies dietitians as Registered Dietitian Nutritionists, or RDNs. An RDN is qualified to provide medical nutrition therapy (MNT), which means they recommend specific foods to take to manage certain health conditions.
After receiving RDN certification, dietitians may provide medical nutrition therapy in a private practice (say, by opening their own clinic or working for someone else). Or, they could work in a hospital, school, nursing home, food company, or public health office.
Nutritionists May or May Not Be Certified
Some nutritionists are certified, while others are not.
Unlike dietitians, nutritionists do not have a single, all-encompassing certification board like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Instead, some nutritionists are certified by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS).
Other nutritionists are certified clinical nutritionists (CCNs), which means they have been certified by the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board.
Some states require nutritionists to be certified by the BCNS, CCN, or other organizations.
However, other states require no certification for nutritionists whatsoever. Instead, it’s legal for anyone with any qualification not offer nutritional advice to another person, regardless of whether they have 20 years of experience or took a 20-minmute online course.
Nutritionists May Specialize in Certain Fields
To be clear, the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists is a legitimate and well-respected organization.
Nutritionists can specialize in different areas. They can learn how to use food to treat different disorders.
Some nutritionists specialize in areas like:
- Sports nutrition
- Digestive disorders
- Autoimmune conditions
- Keto dieting
- Weight loss
Other nutritionists are generalists: they provide general information about using food for health and wellness, weight loss, and other areas, for example.
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) Qualifications & Training
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics verifies dietitians have met certain qualifications before they can practice as Registered Dietitian Nutritionists.
To become an RDN and be certified by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, you must meet the following qualifications:
- Hold a bachelor’s degree or higher qualification from a regionally accredited university or college in the United States
- Receive approval for coursework from the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) or the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- Complete 1,200 hours of supervised practice via an ACEND-accredited program
- Complete an exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration
- Complete additional professional education requirements periodically to maintain registration
Nutritionist Qualifications & Training
Some nutritionists complete additional training, while others do not. Many nutritionists receive certification from the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (to become a CCN) or the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (to become a BCNS).
To begin training to become a CCN, the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board requires an individual to meet the following requirements:
- Hold a Bachelor of Science (BS), Masters (MS), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), or Doctor of Science (ScD) degree
- Hold an advanced professional degree in another licensed healthcare field
- If you meet these qualifications, then you must complete additional requirements to become a CCN. Specific requirements vary based on personal background and experience:
- If you have a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree, then you must take a minimum of 3 course hours on topics like biochemistry, microbiology, and human physiology to become certified
- If you have a more advanced degree, like a nursing degree or an ScD, then you can complete fewer training hours
- Once training is complete, all CCNs must pass an exam
- CCNs must complete ongoing training every 2 years to maintain their CCN designation
Once qualified, a CCN can provide personalized recommendations to clients for weight loss, exercise, supplements, and stress relief.
To become a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS), meanwhile, nutritionists need to meet the following qualifications:
- Hold an MS or doctoral degree in nutrition or a related field
- Complete coursework from a regionally accredited institution
- Complete 1,000 hours of documented, supervised practice
- Complete a BCNS accredited exam
- Maintain certification with continuing education credits every 5 years
Once these qualifications are complete, the BCNS recognizes the individual as a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS).
Overall: Dietitians Versus Nutritionists
Dietitians and nutritionists both provide recommendations on using food to treat various diseases and illnesses.
However, the two professions have different qualifications.
Check your nutritionist or dietitian’s qualifications to ensure you’re receiving the best advice possible from a registered, certified, and experienced professional.