This is a question I found myself asking a few years ago when I first decided to major in Nutrition. The terms are often used interchangeably and although some may think they are the same they are different. The difference lies in regulation, education, and experience.
Currently, the term “nutritionist” is not regulated by law, however, some states require all nutritionists within their state to be licensed by a Board of Nutrition. There are still some states that do not require nutritionists to have education, training, or work experience. According to the Center of Nutrition Advocacy, only 15 states require strict regulation. In California, it is legal for anyone to perform individualized nutrition counseling though there may be limitations on insurance reimbursement eligibility.
In the interest of protecting consumers, it is important they know that not all “nutritionists” are licensed. So this is where the issue lies. Anyone can call himself or herself a nutritionist and give nutrition advice. In fact, there are online certifications that require a mere two weeks of study. Therefore, it is important for persons seeking nutritional advice from a nutritionist to ask about their education background, experience and license status.
Many medical professionals such as medical doctors, naturopathic doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and chiropractors have completed nutritional education after obtaining their professional degrees. Some nutritionists have advanced degrees such as a master’s or doctorate in nutrition. These nutritionists have completed their education from an accredited college and completed their practical experience before taking their board certification exams. There are a few boards of certification, such as the Board of Certification of Nutrition Specialists and the American Nutrition Association.
RDs (Registered Dietitian or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist)
Registered dietitians are required to have a bachelor’s degree in nutrition science and dietetics. Programs must be accredited by the Dietetics’ Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). Depending on the university, the major requirements can take two to three years after completion of the general education requirements. After earning a Bachelor’s Degree, the graduate is not recognized as a dietitian. A dietetic internship (supervised practice) is required to provide graduates hands-on experience. which usually takes 6-12 months. Internships are very competitive and include research, practice, and study. Some graduates choose to complete a Master’s Degree with an internship which lengths the process to about 24 months. After completion of the internship the graduate then meets the requirements to sit for the national registration exam. Once the graduate has passed the registration exam they will then be recognized as a registered dietitian (RD).
Registered Dietitians not only study nutrition (the effects of food inside the body), but also:
- Anatomy and physiology
- Heavily trained in chemistry and biochemistry
- Food industry // Industry structure, marketing strategies, agriculture, business systems, farm to table, lab to table, etc.
- Food science // Temperatures, textures, taste paneling, food compositions, cooking styles, lab testing, etc.
- Food service industry // Production types, regulations, procedures, equipment, menu psychology, marketing strategies
- Management // Business, clinical, community, and food service settings
- Food safety // Safe temperatures, food-borne illnesses, sanitation/cleaning practices
- Medical nutrition therapy // Patient therapy in a clinical setting, hospital structure, case studies
- Community nutrition
- Research methods
- Any other elective nutrition courses (Ie: sports nutrition, international nutrition, food-borne illness, epidemiology…)
- Continuous education (after becoming an RD) // To stay up-to-date on the latest research and findings
*Please note that these descriptions are not limited to what is described. It’s just to give a general idea of what was studied.
Registered Dietitians are qualified to work in:
- Clinical Nutrition (along side doctors, nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists…)
- Community Nutrition
- Sports Nutrition
- Food service and restaurant management
- Private practice
- Nutrition Meal Planning
This is by no means an attempt to disrespect or discredit any nutritionists out there. There are many nutritionists who are great at what they do. I have followed many nutritionists over the years and have considered myself a novice nutritionist while in the dietetic program because I was constantly being asked to give nutrition advice to friends and family.
However, when comparing the two one must know that RDs have done extensive study in the area as well as supervised practice of 1500-2000 hours in different hospital and community settings before taking their licensing exam. RDs that choose to specialize in a certain area, such as renal, oncology, or diabetes education must continue supervised practice of 1500-2000 hours within a five-year period. RDs would be considered the nutrition and food science experts.
For more information on RD accreditation check out eatright.org
Sources: nutritionadvocacy.org, eatright.org