One of the top questions I’m asked is, "What’s the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian?" In my opinion, the difference lies in the depth, scope, length, and type of formal education and training. The term nutritionist isn’t regulated, so technically, anyone can call himself or herself a nutritionist, even with no formal training, license, or certification. Dietitian, specifically registered dietitian, noted by RD after one’s name, or RDN for registered dietitian nutritionist (note: both RD and RDN are used by dietitians), has a specific meaning. That title requires 1) a minimum of a four year college degree from an accredited university’s program that includes specific course work in human physiology, biochemistry, nutrition science, and other sciences 2) a 1,200 hour supervised hands-on internship 3) passing a comprehensive examination and 4) completing ongoing continuing education. RDs/RDNs are also held to a professional code of ethics. Starting January 1, 2024, the minimum degree requirement for dietitians will change from a bachelor’s degree to a graduate degree. Personally, I love the term ‘nutritionist’ so I identify myself as both a dietitian and nutritionist.
I’ve heard some nutritionists say that you only need a dietitian or RD/RDN if you’re sick, or that dietitians don’t have training in holistic nutrition and wellness. Neither is true. Just like medicine, dietetics is an incredibly broad field. All RDs start out with basic training (the four steps I just described), but most then specialize in a given area. Just as there are internists as well as cardiologists, dermatologists, and pediatricians, there are RDs/RDNs who work in hospitals in clinical dietetics, or specialize in disease states, and those who work in performance and wellness like I do. You don’t go to a cardiologist for your annual pap smear, right? In the same way, you wouldn’t go to a clinical RD/RDN for sports nutrition advice.
If you’re considering information or advice from an RD/RDN, be sure that he or she specializes in your needs. If you’re considering information or advice from a nutritionist who is not an RD/RDN, ask specifics about his or her training. If she has a degree, what is it in, where is it from, what classes did it include, and how long did it take to complete? How in depth and specialized is her training? If she is certified, find out about the certifying agency – exactly what do they require to grant and maintain certification? There are vast differences among the various non-RD/RDN certifications. Also note that while it’s not true for all, most MDs are only required to take one single nutrition course. I work closely with MDs, psychologists, and other health care professionals, and whether I’m considering a personal practitioner or recommending one to a client, I always make sure I’ve scoped out their credentials and feel confident about their educational background and training.
Finally, it’s not true that RDs/RDNs only practice western medicine. Many RDs/RDNs, myself included, utilize a blend of traditional and alternative methods. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND, formerly known as the American Dietetic Association), the organization that grants the RD/RDN credential, includes a Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine practice group, which I belong to. I have also studied mindfulness and meditation through UCLA and I'm a Certified Plant Based Professional Cook. All of my personal health care providers, including my veterinarian (who uses acupuncture), are traditionally credentialed, with additional training in eastern and/or alternative methods.
There are more nutrition enthusiasts than ever before, and lots of nutrition information and advice to choose from. What works for one person may be totally inappropriate, not effective, or even dangerous for another person. That’s why formal training and credentials are so important. Throughout my years as a practitioner, I’ve seen clients and friends harmed by nutrition advice given by people without adequate training. In most cases, the people who gave the advice truly believed they were helping, and didn’t realize why their advice was poor. Again, it’s just like any other specialty – a person who completed one year of medical school probably knows more than a person with no medical training, but it’s the lack of those extra years and residency that can lead to a wrong diagnosis or treatment.
Bottom line: nutrition isn’t common sense – it’s a specialized science. Before you put your trust in any health professional’s hands, including a nutrition professional, be sure you feel confident in his or her qualifications.