Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: What's the Difference?
by Braelynne Jurius, RDN, LD
I am technically a registered dietitian, but most people call me a nutritionist, and I get it. I help people with nutrition, which is exactly why the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) added a new credential: Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), alongside the original Registered Dietitian (RD) emphasizing dietitians’ role in, well, nutrition. Currently, dietitians are able to choose which title they prefer. The thing is, dietitians and nutritionists, while having similar goals for helping people make healthier food choices, are actually quite different. Particularly in the education and schooling required to claim each credential.
Requirements to be a nutritionist vary by state. The following are the requirements for New Hampshire.
Recommended completion of a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition or Health Science: Nutrition
None required for NH, but some programs do require practice hours
None required, but cannot use the title “dietitian”
Certifications can, however, be earned through many online and in-person programs including NASM, ACE, ISSA, Precision Nutrition, NESTA, AFPA, Integrative Nutrition, NANP with varying degrees of education and practice requirements
Requirements to be a dietitian are similar nation-wide, but licensure varies by state. The following are the requirements for New Hampshire.
Bachelor of Science in Nutrition Science or related field
Beginning January 1, 2024 an additional Master’s or Doctoral degree will be required
Some Dietetic Internships include a Didactic Program, which often involves graduate-level course work
Dietetic Internship with at least 1200 practice hours
Registration: Must pass the RD exam curated by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) and fulfill continuing education requirements every 5 years to maintain registration
Each state is different, but for New Hampshire, registered dietitians must be licensed by the state in order to practice nutrition services and fulfill continuing education requirements every 2 years to maintain licensure.
I have been fascinated by nutrition since I was ten, researching and learning everything I could and making efforts to share this information with my peers because I wanted people to feel healthy. At sixteen when I learned I could do this for a career, I knew I wanted to be a dietitian. But, that road is long, and the internship match was my biggest obstacle. Getting a dietetic internship is not like getting accepted to college, you don’t apply to many, get accepted to many, and pick one. Instead, you apply to many and rank your choices, meanwhile internships rank their intern choices. If you rank an internship high and vice versa, it’s a match. If not, however, you do not get an internship and must wait until the next matching round, which happens only twice a year in the Spring and Fall. Additionally, this process is challenging. Many factors are at play here, including, but not limited to recommendation letters, GPA (minimum of 3.0), work and/or volunteer experience, specific skills, cover letter, and many more. Did I mention that there is an average match rate of only 50% nationwide?
Here’s a secret. I didn’t get matched the first time around. It was devastating. Not necessarily because I didn’t get an internship, but I felt like I had to wait even longer to start helping people with nutrition- something I wanted to do so badly. So much so that I considered not becoming a dietitian and looked into other options, like what I could do as a nutritionist. Ultimately, however, I knew I’d be able to reach more people as a dietitian. I knew I’d be able to work in more areas. I knew I would gain more practice experience from the internship that I could use for the rest of my career. So a year later I applied again and got matched. The internship was the most stressful experience I have ever had, but it was all worth while as it has landed me where I am today. Because of my experience during the internship and my RDN credentials, I am able to work as an inpatient and outpatient dietitian in a hospital and as a dietitian for the Meredith Whole Living Center, all of which I absolutely love.
Both nutritionists and dietitians can typically help people with general nutrition and weight loss, but dietitians are also able to make nutrition diagnoses and prescribe specific diets. This is why dietitians can work in hospitals. Nutritionists likely have a good knowledge foundation, but it is not guaranteed they have a Bachelor’s degree or practice hours, whereas all dietitians have at least a Bachelor’s degree in nutrition, 1200 practice hours, and have passed the registration exam. So, when you are looking to work with a health professional, nutritionist or dietitian, just check their credentials and education background to make sure they are the right fit for you.