Dietitian vs Nutritionist: What Is The Difference?


The difference between a dietitian and nutritionist can be as confusing as the difference between eating to lose weight and eating to stay fit!

“I need help changing my diet to lose weight; should I go to a dietitian or to a nutritionist? What’s the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?”

In a world filled with foodies, social media influencers, and self-proclaimed celebrity specialists, it can be pretty confusing to figure out who is actually qualified to help you lose weight. There are a lot of certifications out there and each of these nutrition professionals brings a unique skill set to the table. Dietitians and nutritionists can help you figure out how to best fill your plate. The trick is in aligning your goals to your needs.

While all registered dietitians (RDs) are nutritionists, not all nutritionists are registered dietitians. Although the two professions are undoubtedly related, they maintain distinctive qualities including formal nutrition education; training; licensing; certifications and salaries.

How is a dietitian different from a nutritionist?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics groups dietitians and nutritionists together (1) for statistical purposes. This may have contributed to the ambiguity between a dietitian and a nutritionist.

Currently, 47 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico mandate statutory provisions that regulate titles such as “dietitian” and “nutritionist,” just like a physician, nurse, and pharmacist. This means that unless you have completed the requirements outlined by The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (2), you cannot, by law, call yourself a dietitian.

The RD credential has been in use since the 70s. The option for RDs to call themselves registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) was added in 2013 due to an important scientific finding. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (3) – the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals – the credential “communicates a broader concept of wellness (including prevention of health conditions beyond medical nutrition therapy) as well as treatment of conditions”. Awarded by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) (4), which is the Academy’s credentialing agency, the RD and RDN credentials can be used interchangeably. It’s up to you as an individual practitioner to decide which credential best fits your personal practice.

woman practitioner holding a red apple in her office

While all registered dietitians (RDs) are nutritionists, not all nutritionists are registered dietitians.

How do you become a dietitian?

According to the Academy, in order to become an RD/RDN a person must:

  1. Have a bachelor’s degree with a focus on dietetics
  2. Complete at least 1200 hours of supervised practice (basically an unpaid internship)
  3. Pass a comprehensive national exam
  4. Obtain at least 75 continuing professional education (CPE) credits every 5 years

Although all RDs start out with the same basic training, most then specialize in a given area. Just like doctors who specialize in cardiology, dermatology or pediatrics. The CDR offers special board certifications (5) to RD/RDNs in areas such as pediatrics (CSP), obesity, weight management (CSOWM) and sports dietetics (CSSD).

So if you’re looking to lose weight, a CSOWM (dietitian specializing in weight loss) will work with you to manage your weight and the risks associated with being overweight through nutritional, physical, psychological, behavioral, medical and/or surgical interventions.

As of May 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor states that the mean annual salary for dietitians was $56,170.

What’s a nutritionist then?

The term ‘nutritionist’ is a largely unregulated term in some states. There is basically no regulation relative to who can and who can’t call themselves a ‘nutritionist’, ‘nutrition expert,’ or ‘nutrition coach’. Since there is no governing body regulating the term, there aren’t specific standards or practical qualifications required to use this term. This means that in some states, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, whether or not they have proper education and professional experience.

Most nutritionists do however earn some sort of certification or license, as many (not all) states require this provision in order for them to legally practice as nutritionists.

To be a certified nutritionist (CN), the role requires successful completion of a two-year college degree or six-class distance learning program plus an exam. A certified nutrition consultant (6) (CNC) only has to pass an open book exam. Although these credentials sound similar to some previously mentioned, they are far from equivalent.

Much of the knowledge that nutritionists gain is through experience. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2017, the average annual salary for nutritionists was $26,500.

tape measure ribbon with rice crackers, kiwi, granola, supplements, nuts and a green apple on the table

You can eat healthy to shed those extra pounds but to do so while maintaining your fitness levels, you need a guide — be it a dietitian or a nutritionist.

Make the right choice: RDN or CDN

Some states have licensure laws for nutritionists, such as Certified Dietitian/Nutritionist (CDN) or Licensed Nutritionist (LDN). These credentials indicate that a person has met the state’s (7) particular education or experience requirements for this license.

In the state of New York, for example, to become a CDN you have to complete an accredited program (8) in dietetics and nutrition, as well as accrue 800 hours of work-related experience.

The final step of this certification is passing either the Registered Dietitian Exam offered by the CDR or the Certified Nutrition Specialist (9) (CNS) Exam offered by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists. You need CPE credits to maintain these certifications.

And just in case the topic wasn’t confusing enough already, the CNS credential can also be obtained by a person who:

  • holds a master’s or doctoral degree in nutrition or related field (ex: Doctor of Nursing, Doctor of Pharmacy, Naturopathic Doctor)
  • has earned at least 1,000 hours in a supervised internship
  • has passed the exam administered by the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists
  • finishes 75 CPE credits every 5 years to maintain the certification.

Who should I see for weight loss?

In a world inundated with nutrition information and a myriad of titles/designations to describe someone who offers nutritional help (some regulated, others not), it can be difficult to know who to listen to.

If you’re seeking nutrition advice, see a trained nutrition professional—not an unlicensed ‘nutritionist’. If you’re looking to lose weight, look for someone who has expertise in that particular area and who has one or more of the credentials listed below:

  • Registered dietitian (RD) or Registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN)
  • Certified dietitian/nutritionist (CD/CDN)
  • Licensed dietitian/nutritionist (LD/LDN)
  • Certified nutrition specialist (CNS)

You can eat healthy to shed those extra pounds but to do so while maintaining your fitness levels, you need a guide — be it a dietitian or a nutritionist. Another important consideration is to find someone with whom you feel comfortable sharing personal information. At the end of the day, your health is a priority, and it’s important to find someone that you trust to help guide you on your journey.