Difference between a Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist

When seeking advice about nutrition and eating habits, it can be confusing about where to look. Who is credible? The media? The magazine I’m reading? The celebrity I'm following? You hear names like “Nutritionist” and “Registered Dietitian (RD)*” thrown around, but it’s not obvious what the difference is or where you should be going to get the help you need. Well, the Nutrition Team at the Rec Center is here to help.  We will give you a quick rundown about the major differences between a Registered Dietitian (RD) and a Nutritionist. Also, we will provide you with some insight into how to become an RD and what it means to be a dietetic Intern. By end of this blog post, you will have a better idea of where to go for all your nutrition needs and concerns.

An RD is a medically trained health professional who can work in a variety of settings. You may see an RD in a hospital educating a patient on how to manage their caloric intake, or you could see an RD in a community setting teaching classes on how to eat healthy. To become an RD one must get a bachelor's degree and complete 1200 hours of supervised practice from an accredited program in dietetics before becoming eligible to sit for the RD exam. Only after passing the exam, would you officially become an RD. Additionally, RDs must maintain their certifications through continuous education and through the documentation of classes and seminars they attend. Continuing education allows for RDs to stay up-to-date on the latest research and techniques in the field of nutrition, which is important because RDs are required to utilize evidence-based practice. Unlike nutritionist, the terms dietitian and RD are protected by law and cannot be used by someone who has not obtained the proper certifications.

A nutritionist is someone who seeks to help individuals achieve better health by providing nutrition education. Nutritionists can work in privately owned counseling settings like Herbalife, but unlike RDs, they cannot work in hospitals or clinics to provide nutrition treatment for specific health-related diagnoses. The major difference between nutritionist and RD is their level of education and credentialing. Some nutritionists have gone through formal education such as: an undergraduate degree in dietetics, a certificate from a technical school, or online course. Many also receive certifications to become Certified Nutrition Specialists (CNS) a nationally recognized credential. However, it should be noted that some nutritionists are self-proclaimed nutritionists- meaning they have not endured any means of formal education in nutrition. Additionally, there are no laws against people calling themselves nutritionists, so it can be difficult to determine the level of expertise some nutritionists may have unless they explicitly state it.

To become an RD, one must complete a dietetic internship accredited by The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A dietetic intern is a student completing their dietetic internship. The dietetic internship allows nutrition students to obtain their 1200 supervised practice hours in clinical and community rotation sites to deepen their knowledge in different areas of nutrition. Some internships, also known as Coordinated Programs (CP), are paired with graduate programs so that students can obtain their masters upon completion of the internship. Dietetic internships programs can range from 6 to 24 months depending on if it is paired with a graduate program.

Georgia State University has a rigorous 16 to 24-month dietetic internship (CP) where students will obtain a master’s in health science and complete 1200 supervised practice hours under the supervision of dietitians across the metro Atlanta in a variety of settings including: clinical, community and food service management. This program allows students to provide medical nutrition therapy education to patients, lead nutrition classes, host nutrition demos, and develop materials for community education while under supervision of a licensed RD.

So, which one should you see if you have a nutrition question or concern? An RD will be the most qualified practitioner to help you with any nutritional concerns you may have. RDs have met competencies to offer nutrition education relating to diabetes, chronic kidney disease, hypertension, weight loss, sports nutrition and much more!

* In the field, you may see a RD or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) both credentials can be used interchangeable for food and nutrition experts.

By: Sallay Jabbie, Cassady Black, and Michael Stenzel