One of the top questions I’m asked frequently is, “What’s the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?” In my opinion, the difference lies in the depth, scope, length, and type of formal education, training, and knowledge base. The term nutritionist is not regulated by any governing body, so unfortunately, anyone can read a nutrition book or website and then call him/herself a nutritionist, even with no formal training, license, or certification. Sounds a little dangerous to me.

A Registered Dietitian, noted by RD after one’s name, or RDN for Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (both RD and RDN are used by dietitians and means the same thing), has a definite, clear-cut meaning.  I especially love the term ‘nutritionist’ so I describe myself as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN).  Holding that title behind my name requires the following criteria:

  1.  A minimum of a four year college degree from an accredited university’s program that includes specific course work in nutrition science, human physiology, chemistry, biochemistry and other sciences
  2. A 1,200 hour supervised hands-on internship from an official internship provider
  3. Passing a comprehensive, board examination
  4. Completing ongoing continuing education to stay up to date.
  5. RDs/RDNs are also held to a professional code of ethics.

All Registered Dietitians are nutritionists,

but not all nutritionists are Registered Dietitians.

-Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

I’ve heard some nutritionists say that you only need a dietitian or RD/RDN when you are very sick.  I’ve also heard “holistic nutritionists” say that dietitians don’t have training in holistic nutrition and wellness. Both are untrue statements. Just like the medical field, dietetics/nutrition is an astonishingly expansive field.  All dietitians start out with basic training (the four steps I just described), but most become specialized in a specific scope of practice. Just as there are cardiologists, nephrologists, dermatologists, and specific types of surgeons, there are also RDs/RDNs who work in the clinical setting of the hospital, or specialize in disease states such as diabetes or autoimmune diseases, and those who work in wellness and weight loss like I do.  You don’t go to a dermatologist for you have a cold, right? In the same way, you wouldn’t go to a clinical RD/RDN for wellness or preventative nutrition advice.

On my path, while in undergrad I took course work from a Naturopathic Doctor in Washington D.C. so I could become more acquainted with holistic nutrition.  I have also taken course work from the Integrative and Functional Nutrition Academy, and I became a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.  Therefore, my area of expertise is in holistic, integrative, functional nutrition especially in the field of weight loss and disease prevention. If you are considering information or advice from an RD/RDN, be sure that he/she specializes in your needs and health goals.

Lastly, it is not true that RDs/RDNs only provide Western nutrition practices.  Many RDs/RDNs, including myself, promote a blend of traditional and alternative methods. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the organization that grants the RD/RDN credential, includes a Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine practice group, which I have been a member of for more than 7 years. I have also studied mindfulness and meditation throughout my career.  All of my personal health care providers, including my Primary Care Physician (certified acupuncturist), are traditionally credentialed, with complimentary training in Eastern/alternative methods.

The market is overly saturated in nutrition advice.  It is everywhere and it is here to stay.  There are more nutrition buffs than ever before. 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. It is never a one size fits all with nutrition.

The Bottom Line

Nutrition is not common sense – it is a specialized science. Before you put your health in any medical professional’s hands, including a nutrition professional, be sure you are feeling confident in their qualifications.

Katie Abbott, MS, RDN, INHC

Author Katie Abbott, MS, RDN, INHC

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