Dietitain vs Nutritionist: What is the Difference

By Jessica Jones, MS, RD, CDE

With the plethora of nutrition information out there, it's easy to be confused. Should you follow the advice of your aunt, who does not work in the medical industry? What about the advice from your neighbor, personal trainer or yoga instructor? And what about taking nutrition advice from a dietitian or nutritionist? Because surely a nutritionist and a dietitian are the same, right? 

 

Wrong.

 

Let’s take a deep dive into the true differences between a dietitian vs. nutritionist.

Image by Lukas Blazek

First off, what exactly is a Registered Dietitian (RD)? 

 

A Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) is a food and nutrition expert that has met specific educational and professional criteria. 

 

Both the terms RD and RDN are interchangeable. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) made it optional to use either credential to make it clear to the public what an RD is. This change aimed to clear up what Registered Dietitians are and what they can do for you. And to distinguish them from nutritionists and other individuals who have no credentials.

 

Qualifications of a Registered Dietitian

 

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), all RDs or RDNs must meet these minimum requirements:

  1. Have a 4-year degree (soon to be a Master's Degree in 2024) from a program with an accredited nutrition curriculum.

  2. Complete a lengthy supervised practice in a healthcare environment, including a medical facility, foodservice organization, or community agency. 

  3. Successfully pass the RD exam.

  4. Maintain a minimum of 75 units of continuing education every five years throughout your career.

What’s the difference between a Registered Dietitian and a nutritionist?

 

The main difference between a Registered Dietitian and a nutritionist is: education, a 1500 hour internship, and licensing requirements (in some states) before you are legally a registered dietitian. 

Nutritionists can label themselves as such without any education, schooling, or credentials to back up any advice they give. 

What does a Dietitian do?

A Registered Dietitian is a healthcare professional that advises individuals on dietary and lifestyle changes to achieve a specific health-related goal. For example, if you have Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes, some RDs are specifically trained on this disease process called Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialists (CDCES). RDs specializing in diabetes care will be able to:

 

  • Help you manage your blood sugar levels.

  • Introduce you to new coping mechanisms.

  • Work with you to help reduce your risk of diabetes-related complications.

  • Teach you carbohydrate counting.

  • Explain which foods may be more beneficial for you than others and why. 

  • Teach you how to use your insulin pump and so much more. 

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What can Dietitians treat?

 

Registered Dietitians are a vital part of any healthcare team. In collaboration with physicians, nurses, social workers, and other healthcare providers, they can help treat:

 

  • Cancer

  • Heart Disease

  • High Cholesterol

  • Hypertension

  • Diabetes (Type 1 and Type 2)

  • Eating Disorders

  • Kidney disease (Renal failure, Kidney Disease, Kidney Transplant)

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

  • Crohn’s Disease

  • Ulcerative Colitis

  • Gout

 

There are many more conditions that RDs can help treat and mitigate the symptoms of in collaboration with other healthcare professionals. It is especially important to work with a dietitian if your diet is a major component of treating a condition like diabetes, hypertension, and kidney disease.

Where Do Registered Dietitians Work?

 

The settings that a Registered Dietitian can work in are endless! But here are some examples to give you an idea:

 

  • Hospitals 

  • Nursing Homes

  • Dialysis Center

  • Research 

  • Private Practice

  • School nutrition (Higher education and K-12)

  • U.S. Military

  • Government agencies (County, City, State)

  • Consulting

  • Communications

  • Non-profit Organizations

  • Nutrition Informatics

  • Bariatrics

  • Sports Nutrition

  • Academics

 

As you can see from the above list of practice areas, Registered Dietitians don't solely work in hospitals or nursing homes. They can be their own boss in private practice and see their clients. They can work with athletes to help them fuel their bodies and recover well after intense training sessions. Registered Dietitians can even work in research to help advise on dietary requirements or find solutions to health and nutrition-related issues.

 

When you become a Registered Dietitian, there is no limit to where you can work besides your mindset. If you do not like clinic work, try working in community nutrition. If community nutrition isn’t your jam, you can become your own boss and get paid for making educational handouts, online courses, merchandise; the options are limitless!

Can Registered Dietitians accept insurance?

 

Yes! Nutrition counseling is covered by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which means Registered Dietitians can be reimbursed by a patient’s private insurance plan as well as for Medicare and Medicaid.

 

 

There are also super bills for scenarios where insurance cannot be billed:

 

  • The provider is out of network

  • Health insurance does not cover services needed

  • The patient does not have insurance coverage


When superbills are utilized, you will initially have to pay out of pocket. But, a superbill can be provided so that you can receive direct reimbursement from your insurance provider or use it for your Health Savings Account (HSA), Flexible Spending Account (FSA), or for taxes. Essentially, a superbill is a very detailed receipt of the services provided to you.

 

 

6 Benefits Of Working With A Registered Dietitian 

 

Seeing a Registered Dietitian vs. a nutritionist can offer up many benefits. Let’s take a look at them. 

 

  1. Healthy eating. Whether your goal is to incorporate more vegetables into your day or develop a healthier relationship with food, RDs are the nutrition experts who can help you reach your goals through nutrition counseling.

  2. Chronic Disease Management. For many chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, your diet plays a large role in managing your condition and preventing consequences from occurring. Seeing an RD will provide you with someone that can help you eat beneficial foods for your current condition. Learn more about how we work with chronic disease here

  3. Personalized Approach. As nutrition and food experts, RDs realize that each person needs to be treated individually, no matter their condition. Instead of handing you a list of allowed foods and foods to avoid, they can work with you to fit your cultural and favorite foods into daily life. 

  4. Problem Solving. In addition to helping you reach your goals, RDs are also great problem solvers. For example, if you need ideas on foods to eat, they can help you meal prep nutritious and fulfilling meals. Additionally, RDs can also perform Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT), an evidence-based approach to treating chronic conditions through a highly individualized meal plan.

  5. Fuel Physical Activity. One of the areas Registered Dietitians can specialize in is sports nutrition. With their specific knowledge, they can help you reach your best potential by fueling your body with adequate nutrients. If you are curious about what to eat before a workout, specific foods for recovery, speak with an RD working in sports nutrition.

  6. Disordered Eating and Eating Disorder Treatment. If you are currently suffering from an eating disorder like bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating, working with a Registered Dietitian can be the first step to put you on the path to recovery. And suppose you have disordered eating patterns, such as frequent dieting, chronic weight fluctuations, and feelings of lost control around food. In that case, a Registered Dietitian can work with you and help prevent your disordered eating from progressing into an eating disorder. 

What would working with a dietitian look like in practice?

Depending on the setting, working with a dietitian can go many different ways. For example, working with a private practice RD can involve a longer initial meeting to establish why you’re seeing them and set goals. During this initial meeting, you may bring a food diary and recent blood work with you.

 

 

The appointments after that can be shorter because they are mainly for follow-up. You can share your progress, blood tests, and any other news you have about your health. Remember, working with a Registered Dietitian is always a collaborative event. They will not set your goals for you and simply tell you what to eat. They will instead work with you so you can reach your goals. 

 

 

And, if your current situation exceeds their knowledge or expertise, they can refer you to a fellow dietitian in specialized areas or to another healthcare professional who can better assist you. 

The Bottom Line

 

The differences between a nutritionist vs. a Registered Dietitian are plentiful. Not only are RDs credentialed, but they can help you make meaning, long-lasting and healthy lifestyle changes backed by scientific evidence. 

Anyone can call themself a nutritionist but the process to become a Registered Dietitian involves earning at least a bachelor’s degree, completing a supervised internship, passing a credentialing exam, and getting licensed in the states that have their separate licensing regulation. Additionally, to remain a dietitian, you must keep up with current nutrition knowledge by earning 75 continuing education units every five years.

If you want a tailored experience and take charge of your current health conditions via food, please see a Registered Dietitian. 

Want to work with a registered dietitian?

Jessica Jones Nutrition is accepting new clients. Services include help with a variety of conditions, including:

  • Intuitive Eating/Food Peace

  • Eating Disorders/Disordered Eating (including anorexia, binge eating disorder, bulimia, and orthorexia)

  • Intuitive Eating for Chronic Disease (including diabetes and prediabetes)

  • IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)

  • Body Acceptance/Health at Every Size (HAES) Informed Care

  • Inclusive & Culturally Relevant Wellness

  • Non-Restrictive Vegetarian and Vegan Nutrition

 

If you are interested in working with Jessica Jones Nutrition, please schedule a FREE discovery call by clicking here.

 

Resources:

 

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)