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What's the Difference Between a Dietitian and Nutritionist?

The Shocking Reason You'll Want to See a Dietitian, Not a Nutritionist

Whether you have goals to lose weight, grow your booty, or PR your next half-marathon, dialing in your diet is a must. Seeking the advice of a professional who specializes in nutrition is helpful, since this is what they do for a living. But keep reading to learn why you might want to make an appointment with a dietitian, not a nutritionist.

All dietitians are nutritionists (and some even refer to themselves as that), but not all nutritionists are dietitians. Both know about nutrition, but the difference lies in the education and training they've received. Some nutritionists have a master's degree in nutrition or a related field like nursing, but all dietitians hold bachelor's degrees and have earned the title of "dietitian" by meeting certain requirements. You'll know they've met these credentials if you see RD (registered dietitian) or RDN (registered dietitian nutritionist) after their name.

Registered dietitians Leslie Langevin, MS, RD, CD, of Whole Health Nutrition, and Lisa Bunn, RD, CSCS, director of nutrition at the Genavix Wellness Network, say that dietitians are evidence-based and comply with a code of ethics to guide their practice. Certification requires these four things:

  1. A minimum of a four-year college degree, where they studied nutrition, human physiology, and other sciences
  2. A 1,200-hour, supervised, hands-on internship
  3. Passing a national credentialing three-hour exam, which covers nutrition information from food service to clinical to community nutrition work
  4. Maintaining at least 15 continuing education credits per year

On the other hand, in 11 states in the U.S. including New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, nutritionists need no formal training, no license, and no certification to practice. That means basically anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, because there aren't the same regulation requirements regarding this title. Shocking, right?

In 16 other U.S. states including California, Texas, and South Carolina, anyone can give nutrition advice, but only RDs are recognized by the U.S. government as being eligible to bill insurance. That means that many insurance companies will pay for nutrition counseling as preventative care, but only with a registered dietitian.

That's not to say that nutritionists aren't knowledgeable or helpful, or that they aren't certified! If you are planning to see a nutritionist, ask about their credentials just to make sure. In states that do require nutritionists to be licensed, they too undergo extensive training — just look for the initials CNS after their name (certified nutrition specialist) to ensure they have legal licensure.

Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Paul Kabata
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