Distinguishing Between Dietitian and Nutritionist

Dietitians and nutritionists are both food and nutrition experts. They’ve studied how diet and dietary supplements affect your health. Both are considered to be healthcare professionals, but the two titles can’t be used interchangeably.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the United States, a registered dietitian has accomplished the following:

  • Earned a bachelor’s degree with coursework approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics at a US regionally accredited university or college.
  • Completed an ACEND-accredited supervised practice program at a health-care facility, community agency, or a foodservice corporation or combined with undergraduate or graduate studies. Typically, a practice program will run six to 12 months in length.
  • Passed a national examination administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration.
    The letters R.D. (registered dietitian) or R.D.N. (registered dietitian nutritionist) after their names.
  • Complete annual continuing professional educational requirements to maintain their registration.

Registered dietitians may plan food and nutrition programs and promote healthy eating habits to prevent and treat illness. They often work in food service or as part of medical teams in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities. Dietitians also work in university settings, where they may teach, do research or focus on public health issues.

Many people mistakenly use the terms “dietitian” and “nutritionist” interchangeably. Although these two professions are undoubtedly related, they maintain distinctive qualities. The biggest difference between dietitians and nutritionists lies in the legal restrictions that each title carries. Only nutritionists that become registered with Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) may legally declare themselves as dietitians or more precisely, registered dietitians (RDs).

What does a Registered Dietitian do?

A nutrition and behavioral assessment provides the basis for the Registered Dietitian’s intervention. This assessment includes evaluation of the patient’s diet and lifestyle habits including:

  • Meal frequency and hydration status
  • Nutrient excesses and deficiencies
  • Food allergies and intolerances
  • Anthropometrics
  • Nutritional biochemical assessment
  • Digestive issues
  • Supplement use
  • Weight and medical history
  • Activity level
  • History of emotional eating in response to pain, fatigue and stress
  • Food shopping, cooking and restaurant habits
  • Family and social support/influences
  • Readiness for change

The Registered Dietitian assesses each patient to determine if their diet contributes to symptoms, abnormalities, or chronic diseases or conditions in a patient. These may include: overweight or obese status, heart disease, diabetes or osteoporosis.

Some Registered Dietitians specialize in food sensitivities and may prescribe elimination or exclusion diets to determine if there are any specific foods that may exacerbate symptoms and digestive issues. The Registered Dietitian also addresses emotional eating issues, which may arise in response to chronic pain and fatigue. Weekly or bi-monthly support is often recommended to help the patient achieve nutrition goals.

The Registered Dietitian can become an integral part of the health care team, and can provide information about dietary issues that can guide health care professionals in their treatment, management, and interaction with the patient.