What’s the Difference Between a Nutritionist and Dietitian?
From general nutrition to helping treat medical conditions with food, learn what makes these roles unique and find your best fit.
December 13, 2019
By Jager Weatherby, Natural Healers Staff Writer
If you’ve been considering a career in nutrition, it’s likely that you’ve come across two similar but different titles—nutritionist and registered dietitian (RD). It’s also likely that you’ve heard the terms used interchangeably, and while perhaps the distinctions are less clear than they once were, it’s important to understand the differences between the two. Depending on your professional goals and personal interests, the role you choose to pursue will have an impact on the training and credentials you need to get started, and what you can do once you begin your career. From job duties to workplaces to salaries, the American Nutrition Association helps explains the six main differences between nutritionists and dietitians.
Which Is Right for You? Nutritionist vs. Dietitian at a Glance
Both nutritionists and registered dietitians (RD) are professionals who use science- and data-based approaches to design meal plans, make recommendations for supplements, and coach clients on the ways that their diet affects overall health. However, according to the American Nutrition Association’s Director of Nutrition Science and Education Corinne Bush MS, CNS, nutritionists “tend to operate in the field of personalized nutrition, while RDs tend to operate in the field of dietetics.”
More simply put: Nutritionists tailor their services to the lifestyle, health history, and unique biology of each client in order to optimize wellness, prevent disease, and meet goals such as sports performance, weight loss, or proper natal nutrition. Professionals such as doctors, chiropractors, or physicians’ assistants might also become certified nutritionists as a way to incorporate additional healthcare tools into their primary practice.
RDs, on the other hand, work more closely in what’s called medical nutrition therapy. This involves conducting tests, diagnosing eating disorders, and designing nutritional plans to treat medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. “The vast majority of RDs are dietitians by profession,” says Bush, “not also MDs, DOs, CDs, PAs, etc.”
Nutritionists tailor their services to the lifestyle, health history, and unique biology of each client, while RDs work more closely in medical nutrition therapy
How Do Their Philosophies Differ?
While both roles have increasingly taken a holistic approach to health, nutritionists often view their practice in a more individualized way, taking into consideration the environments, biochemical factors, and toxicities that are unique to each client.
On the other hand, the field of dietetics often has “a more population-based approach,” explains Bush. Instead of focusing primarily on individual factors, RDs may be encouraged to follow well-researched and documented protocols designed for broader groups or particular conditions. For example, they might adhere more closely to the recommendations laid out by the USDA based on factors such as age, gender, or weight, or follow the specific treatment guidelines published by the American Heart or American Diabetes associations.
Where Do They Work?
“Personalized nutrition practitioners are more likely to practice in clinical settings, while dietetics practitioners are more likely to work in large institutional settings like hospitals and long-term care facilities,” explains Bush. Nutritionists might also be frequently found in commercial settings such as wellness centers, restaurants, and health food stores, while the more medical nature of dietetics might guide RDs toward careers in research.
Regardless of which role you choose to pursue, there’s a large overlap with where you might work, and this largely depends on the requirements of the individual employer. Work environments for both roles could include:
Licensing and Certification
Depending on the rules and regulations of the state where you work, you might need to become licensed or certified to legally practice with the title of nutritionist or dietitian. As of 2019, only nine states and Washington, D.C. require separate licensing or certification for nutritionists, while—due to the medical and diagnostic nature of the role—41 states and Washington, D.C. require credentials specifically for dietitians. Fourteen of these are offered with the title of dual dietitian/nutritionist, meaning that both titles are protected and you’re legally free to use either or both as you wish.
It’s important to remember that in states without legal requirements, “anyone without formal education or experience could practice nutrition in some form,” explains Bush. If you live in a state that doesn’t regulate the role that you seek, it’s recommended to pursue certification through a nationally recognized board or association to give clients and employers the confidence that you’re knowledgeable and dedicated to the field. Certification can not only increase your competitiveness but boost your money-making potential as well.
There are many types of certifications, but common nutritionist certifications include:
Those looking to get into dietetics will want to be certified by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). Formerly just the Registered Dietitian (RD) credential, the CDR recently enacted the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) credential for professionals who wish to communicate a broader understanding of nutritional wellness as well as medical nutrition therapy. Using this title is optional but has the same requirements as those for the RD.
Several certifying bodies also offer optional specialty certifications for those who want to demonstrate greater knowledge in a particular area of the field. Through the ANA, you can earn a credential as a Certified Ketogenic Nutrition Specialist, while the CDR administers dietetics certifications in gerontology, oncology, pediatrics, pediatric critical care, renal nutrition, sports dietetics, and obesity and weight management.
Nutritionist and Dietitian Education
The education you need depends on your career goals and any level of licensing or certification that you seek. In general, those looking to become a registered dietitian need at least a bachelor’s degree in dietetics or a closely related field. Your education will be “comprised of around 35% of the management of food programs, services, and systems,” says Bush.” You’ll also need 1,200 hours of supervised experience and a passing score on the Commission of Dietetic Registration Examination.
With so many more options for certification and fewer regulations by state, the education needed for nutritionists is less definitive than it is for RDs. In states without licensing requirements, you could get by with as little as a high school diploma. However, if you want to earn the highest nutritional credential—the CNS—you’ll need at least a master’s degree, with coursework focused “on evidence-based nutrition therapeutics and chronic and complex disease prevention,” says Bush. You’ll also need 1,000 hours of supervised experience and a passing score on the Certification Examination for Nutrition Specialists.
In most cases, both RDs and nutritionists will need to complete continuing education courses in order to keep licensing or certification current.
RDs are required to have a bachelor’s degree, while the highest level of certified nutritionists need a master’s.
How Much Money Do Nutritionists and Dietitians Make?
According to a recent study conducted by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which only tracks salaries for dietitians, registered dietitians earned a median annual salary of $68,600 in 2019—an 8% increase over a period of two years compared to the national inflation rate of just under 5%. Of course, as with any industry, factors such as your seniority level, specialty knowledge, and where you work will influence what you might earn. Per the study, “clinical, community, and long-term care positions tend to pay less, whereas consultation/business, food and nutrition management, education, and research positions tend to pay more.”
Unfortunately, given the broader range of requirements regarding titles, certification, and licensing, it can be a bit more difficult to pinpoint what you might expect to earn as a nutritionist. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) cites the average annual salary of both nutritionists and dietitians to be more than $61,000.
Yet according to more than 700 user submissions on PayScale, average annual salaries vary widely depending on experience, from around $40,000 for entry-level nutritionists to nearly $70,000 for those with 20 or more years in the field.
Again, as with dietitians, many factors are at play when it comes to what you might earn as a nutritionist—with your level of education and certification being among the most important. “[Certified Nutrition Specialist] practitioners have advanced degrees (master’s or doctoral) and are therefore apt to be at the higher end of the compensation spectrum,” says Bush.
Whether you’re interested in becoming a nutritionist or a dietitian, there’s a lot to consider before embarking on a career.