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Dietitian vs nutritionist: What’s the difference?
From general nutrition to food-based assistance with medical conditions, learn what makes these roles unique and find your best fit.
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 a dietitian and a nutritionist.
Meet the Expert: Corrine Bush, MS, CNS is the director of nutrition science and education at the American Nutrition Association (ANA). She has over 20 years of personalized nutrition practice focused on complex chronic diseases and now devotes her career to bringing this vision to the world through the ANA.
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.
Six key distinctions between nutritionists and dietitians
Differences in philosophy
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, individual lifestyles, 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 Corinne Bush MS, CNS, the American Nutrition Association’s Director of Nutrition Science and Education. 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 Association.
Differences in job duties
Both 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,” explains Bush, “nutritionists tend to operate in the field of personalized nutrition, while RDs tend to operate in the field of dietetics.”
In plain English, 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 for those with diseases or other conditions, as well as provide more general nutrition education. 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.”
Differences & similarities in workplaces
“Personalized nutrition practitioners are more likely to practice in clinical settings, while dietetics practitioners are more likely to work in large institutional settings like universities, 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:
Differences in licensing & 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 dietitian or nutritionist.
As of 2023, 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—48 states and Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico 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.
There are many types of certifications, but common nutritionist certifications include:
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.
Those looking to get into dietetics will want to be certified by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR).
Certification is required in 41 states and D.C. for licensing or certification as a dietitian (14 of these states offer a dual dietitian/nutritionist license).
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, pediatric nutrition, pediatric critical care, renal nutrition, sports nutrition and dietetics, and obesity and weight management.
Differences in education & training
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 registered dietitians need at least a bachelor’s degree in dietetics or a closely related field. Starting in 2024, the minimum requirement for an RDN will increase to a master’s degree.
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.
Alternatively, the education needed for nutritionists is less definitive than it is for RDs, with so many more options for certification and fewer regulations by state. 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 professions will require you to complete continuing education courses in order to keep your licensing or certification current.
Differences in salary & job outlook
As with any industry, factors such as your seniority level, specialty knowledge, and where you work will influence what you might earn. According to Bush, “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. Nonetheless, you can research the median annual salaries for dietitians and nutritionists using the BLS-sourced data below:
Median Salary: $66,450
Projected job growth: 6.8%
10th Percentile: $44,140
25th Percentile: $56,490
75th Percentile: $80,430
90th Percentile: $95,130
Projected job growth: 6.8%
|State||Median Salary||Bottom 10%||Top 10%|
|District of Columbia||$85,380||$63,980||$103,010|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.
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.
- Look into the financial aid options available to nutrition students.
- Place-bound and stretched for time? Explore online nutrition degrees.
If you feel confident as to which path you’d like to pursue, use the widget on this page to browse nutrition programs and schools.