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Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: What's the Difference?

Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: What's the Difference?

By Jody Long, MS, RDN, CDCES

This is a great question for the month of March when we celebrate National Nutrition Month, and as we recognized Registered Dietitian Nutritionists on National Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Day on March 8!

Although all dietitians are nutritionists, not all nutritionists are dietitians. Dietitians are specialists in diet and its impact on health. They have the expertise to address medical concerns and create nutrition plans to treat specific medical conditions. Dietitians are required to follow a strict code of ethics, adhere to their area of expertise, and stay current with ongoing education to validate their credentials.

Nutritionists concentrate on overall nutrition, food, health, and behaviors. The qualification requirements for a general nutritionist can be unclear, and regulations may not exist in every state to oversee their title and practice. Forty-five out of fifty states have licensing regulations for dietitians and nutritionists. Notably, Virginia does not have licensing laws for dietitians and nutritionists. However, Virginia law safeguards the titles and the right to practice. Read more about the Virginia law.

Below is a list defining various titles associated with dietitians and nutritionists.

  • Registered Dietitian: requires obtaining a 4-year bachelor’s or master’s degree in dietetics from an accredited dietetics program, completing of at least 1,200 hours of supervised practiced, passing a national board exam, and completing 75 hours of continuing education every 5 years to maintain credentialing. New requirements mandate a master’s degree before RD credentialing. Read more.
  • Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN): legally protected title for those who have met the requirements as indicated above and is deemed a qualified nutrition expert.
  • Licensed Dietitian or Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (LD/LDN): indicates the dietitian is licensed to practice. Licensing is state specific, and forty-five out of fifty states have enacted specific regulations regarding the practice of dietetics. Each state has its own specific licensure and certification requirements.
  • Nutritionist: there is no specific, standardized definition nor is the title nutritionist protected by regulation. Typically, anyone can label themselves a nutritionist. There could be varying levels of education, if any, and this could pose an issue for unqualified healthcare recommendations and potential harm to those receiving care.
  • Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS): The American Nutrition Association offers opportunity to become an advanced personalized nutrition practitioner. Like the credentialing process for dietitians, there is a protocol including an advanced degree from an accredited school with at least 35 semester hours of relevant coursework, supervised practice experience and certification exam. Read more.
  • Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN): The Clinical Nutrition Certification Board is another organization that offers certification for the title of clinical nutritionist. This credentialing process is also rigorous and similar to that for Registered Dietitians. Read more.

Did you know that MWHC Diabetes and Nutrition Management Services has three Registered Dietitians on staff? We’re known as the Nutrition SQUAD. We offer an array of nutrition-related services. Meet the squad.