What’s the Difference and What Do They Do?

Dietician and nutritionist are often used interchangeably to refer to someone who works in the healthcare industry, specifically with regards to diet, food and eating habits. Though both are considered nutritional experts, these two professions have distinct qualifications that set them apart including education, certification and clinical experience. A registered dietician (RD) is federally regulated and requires specific and ongoing proof of credentials. A nutritionist, on the other hand, is much less standardized, meaning accreditation can vary from state to state and even region to region.

To help us learn more, we reached out to Brian St. Pierre MS, RD, CSCS and director of nutrition at Precision Nutrition, a digital coaching and certification platform.

What Is a Dietician?

Simply put, a dietician is an expert on diet and its effects on our health and wellbeing. Dieticians are licensed to assess, diagnose and treat nutritional problems, including chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure as well as eating disorders, pregnancy and weight gain. If you have an existing health concern or are looking to make a change, a dietician will help you discover the right eating plan for you, including guidance on meal planning and grocery shopping. “A registered dietitian has gone through a dietetic practice as well as an accredited internship, such as a rotation where you have to meet an hourly requirement in clinical, community and other study specific areas,” St. Pierre explains. To become an RD, you must:

  • Receive a Bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution with an accredited nutrition curriculum.

  • Complete a supervised clinical program at an accredited healthcare facility, community agency or foodservice organization.

  • Successfully pass a national registration exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration.

  • Complete continuing education requirements to maintain certification.

Dieticians are “required to maintain 75 certification education units or continuing education units every five years,” St. Pierre explains. These units can vary depending on your specialized field, such as sports, pediatrics or oncology. Some RDs even go on to earn a graduate or doctorate degree.

All of these qualifications will provide you with a number of different job opportunities. RDs typically work in healthcare facilities like hospitals, clinics or private practices. Some choose to use their knowledge in the food industry, working as developers and technologists at companies like Whole Foods. Others choose to advise for government programs like the Department of Health or community-based organizations like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as SNAP or food stamps). Some even go on to become teachers, program directors or health journalists. Basically, the wellness world is your oyster as a registered dietician.

Ever heard of a nutrition and dietetics technician? This title, denoted as NDTR, typically refers to someone who works under a registered dietician assisting in client care on the technical level by conducting patient screenings and gathering data. An Associate’s degree as well as completion of a nutrition and dietetics technician registered program is required to become an NDTR.

What Is a Nutritionist?

“A nutritionist is generally defined as someone who advises you on food, nutrition, eating and their impacts on health,” St. Pierre tells us. The term is much less regulated than a dietician, meaning that anyone can call themselves a nutritionist without specific professional certifications. With that said, there are education programs and licensing boards associated with nutritionists depending on specialty. Many nutritionists even go on to receive advanced degrees to become certified nutrition specialists (CNS). To become a CNS, you must:

Nutritionists and certified nutrition specialists can work in a number of different facilities depending on their interests. Public health nutritionists may work in community or government organizations while a clinical nutritionist could be employed by a medical or long-term healthcare facility. Sports nutritionists could even work on professional sports teams (Yankees, you hiring?) or with individual clients at a gym or fitness center.

But Wait, What’s a Nutrition Coach?

A nutrition coach is another term to describe someone who can offer general nutritional advice. Like a nutritionist, it isn’t federally accredited but it has stricter regulations including specific education and ongoing certifications. Precision Nutrition is an online multi-level certification program that offers anyone the opportunity to become a nutrition coach without having to go back to school. The benefit of a program like this, aside from flexibility, is how it pairs the science behind nutrition with the art of coaching. “This is something that a lot of other nutrition certifications and dietetic programs are lacking,” St. Pierre explains.

Whether you’re a dietician with an MS after your name or a personal trainer studying to become a nutrition coach, it’s important to remember that these professions are intrinsically intertwined. “A nutritionist or nutrition coach could act as the first line of defense, helping clients make small, sustainable changes,” St. Pierre says. “If something is outside of their scope of practice, they can then refer them to a more specialized nutritionist or a registered dietician.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for dieticians and nutritionists in 2019 was $61,270—not too shabby. If you’re looking to work with a nutritionist, nutrition coach or registered dietician (rather than become one), give your doctor a call. They’ll be able to make recommendations based on your current health goals, whether you’re looking to lose weight or fuel up for your next marathon.

RELATED: We Asked 3 Nutritionists for Their Best Healthy Gut Tip…and They All Said the Same Thing

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