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What Is the Difference between a Nutritionist and a Registered Dietitian?

By Katriena Knights
Updated Feb 16, 2024
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When searching for help in eating right and staying healthy, many people turn to a nutritionist or a registered dietitian (RD) for help. However, most do not know the difference between the two, or which might be a better choice for their individual needs. What, then, is the difference between a nutritionist and a registered dietitian?

A registered dietitian has pursued study of nutrition, diets and healthy eating. Registered dietitians have educational credentials to back up their title, which is granted by the American Dietetic Association. These credentials include a bachelor's degree in dietetics, an internship of at least 900 hours, a passing grade on the RD exam and participation in continued education. A registered dietitian must complete 50 hours of continuing education every five years in order to maintain his or her license.

The course of study for a dietetics degree can vary, but it typically includes chemistry, anatomy, food and nutrition sciences, culinary arts and other subjects related to health, food and business. This diverse course of study gives dietitians a wide range of knowledge that enables them to help individuals with healthy eating and dieting as well as lifestyle changes to improve health. Nutrition and dietary counseling from a dietitian is based on nutrition science and is shaped to fit an individual's needs.

By contrast, the term "nutritionist" has no specific definition in terms of licensing or education. In truth, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, whether or not they have studied food science or have any comprehensive knowledge of nutrition and health. However, many nutritionists do have a wide background in food and nutrition science and might even have education credentials that are similar to those of registered dietitians.

Registered dietician nutritionists focus on food behaviors that influence how their patients choose different foods to consume. The best way nutritionists help their clients to combat negative food behaviors is by showing them meal-planning techniques.

When people fail to make a meal plan, they will resort to ordering out more often for a quick bite to eat to lessen the cooking time it takes to prepare a meal at home. Nutritionists teach clients how to make balanced shopping lists and how to prepare food in advance.

Working with a nutritionist who has not been certified does not necessarily mean his or her suggestions and help will not be effective. When choosing a nutritionist or dietitian to work with to achieve health and nutrition goals, it is important to ask about their educational background. A registered dietitian is guaranteed to have a certain level of education and experience. A nutritionist, on the other hand, might have just as much education and experience but simply has not been certified.

As is the case when dealing with any health professional, a little research can go a long way. Asking questions, looking into the background of the nutritionist and using referrals from friends, family or a physician will help make the decision easier. In the long run, this extra time taken to make an informed decision will help improve long-term results.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon72619 — On Mar 23, 2010

Registered Dietitians must complete 75 hours of continuing education every five years, not 50.

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