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What's the difference between a dietitian vs nutritionist? Education, training and more

These are the big differences between a dietitian and a nutritionist
Dietitian discussing with patient at working desk about nutrition food and supplement pill with fruits around.
What's the difference between a Registered Dietitian and a nutritionist?Prathan Chorruangsak / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

I'm a registered dietitian, but one of the most common questions I’m asked isn’t actually about food or nutrition. It’s: What’s the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?

The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, which causes confusion among people looking for nutrition advice. But there is a clear distinction between a registered dietitian and nutritionist.

This breakdown provides the definition of both terms, the required degrees and training for each and when it’s best to see a dietitian versus a nutritionist. 

What is a dietitian?

A registered dietitian (RD) is a nutrition expert with a minimum of a graduate degree from an accredited dietetics program at a college or university. In addition to schooling, a registered dietitian must complete an internship where they're supervised by an RD, pass a national exam, and fulfill continuing education requirements to maintain their credentials.

The terms registered dietitian and registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) are protected and regulated terms that are interchangeable. 

Degrees and training required

Students interested in becoming a dietitian study a variety of subjects, such as food and nutrition sciences, foodservice management, business, communication, statistics, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, anatomy and chemistry. As of 2024, a graduate degree from an accredited dietetics program is required to sit for the RD exam.

Many students study nutrition in undergrad and go onto earn a master’s degree in nutrition, while others have an undergraduate degree in an unrelated field and return to graduate school to study nutrition. Either course of study is appropriate, but those who do not have a nutrition background are required to take prerequisite science coursework before entering a graduate program. 

After a student completes the necessary coursework, they take part in a supervised practice program, otherwise known as a dietetic internship. This program consists of a minimum of 1,000 hours of supervised practice and typically takes six to 12 months to complete. Interns rotate through clinical, community and food service sites and gain practical knowledge to use in their career.

After the dietetic internship, students are eligible to sit for the registered dietitian exam, administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. The exam tests the knowledge of the student in different areas of study and supervised practice. 

The title “registered dietitian” is awarded after passing the exam. Each state has specific licensure laws that RDs must uphold to practice. Dietitians must also complete continuing education credits to stay up-to-date in the field.

When to see a dietitian

Registered dietitians work in a variety of settings, including health care, food service, public health, sports nutrition, media, public relations, research, schools and universities, private practice and more. Most people seek out advice from an RD at a health care facility or private practice. Many insurance plans cover several visits with a dietitian for medical nutrition therapy. 

Dietitians are trained to help individuals navigate their nutrition needs for a variety of situations. Here are some examples when you may consider seeing a dietitian:

  • Managing a health condition, such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, gastrointestinal issues, eating disorders or obesity
  • Seeking advice as an athlete on optimal nutrition for a specific sport, even if you're not a professional
  • Seeking weight loss advice
  • Looking for nutrition education
  • Working on your kids' eating habits (for which you'll see a pediatric dietitian)
  • Seeking advice on how to improve your diet when trying to conceive (for people of any gender)

What is a nutritionist?

"Nutritionist" is an unregulated term without a standardized definition. A person who studied nutrition in undergraduate or graduate school and did not pursue the RD credential may call themselves a nutritionist. Others who take an online course in nutrition may also use the title. Lastly, people who are passionate about nutrition may also refer to themselves as a nutritionist. 

Degrees and training required

There is no degree required to become a nutritionist. Some people may study nutrition in undergrad or graduate school, but other nutritionists may only hold a certificate from an unaccredited program. Many online programs promise a nutrition certification, but these are not regulated or accredited by any governing body. 

When to see a nutritionist

As a registered dietitian, I do not believe there is an appropriate time to see a nutritionist. Instead, I recommend seeing a dietitian because they are the most qualified experts if you are looking for one-on-one nutrition advice.

What's more, seeing a nutritionist is unlikely to be covered by insurance because they are not recognized medical professionals, the Cleveland Clinic notes.

If you do choose to see a nutritionist instead of a dietitian, ask about their education and qualifications before taking their advice.