Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: Degree and Careers Comparison

With their expertise in food and diet, dietitians and nutritionists help individuals in maintaining healthy habits and mitigating or managing health conditions, yet due to various credentials and qualifications, they are often mislabeled. It is evident that the two professions share some similarities in responsibilities. However, the titles should not be used interchangeably, as the role of dietitian is more regulated than that of a nutritionist.

This resource will explain some important differences between dietitians and nutritionists in their education and qualifications, scope of expertise and career paths.

Dietitian vs. Nutritionist Education Comparison

The term “dietitians” typically refers to registered dietitians (RDs). The main difference between RDs and nutritionists lies in the fact that RDs generally have more education and credentials. Depending on the state of practice, using the title “nutritionist” may not necessitate formal nutrition education, training, licensing or certification, but referring to oneself as a “dietitian” without appropriate credentialing is prohibited by the law.

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Degrees Needed for Dietitians

Prospective dietitians must first earn a minimum of a bachelor’s degree accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) and receive a verification statement from a Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD). Many people complete a degree in clinical nutrition, dietetics or public health nutrition that includes a DPD.

Then, aspiring dietitians should complete at least 1,200 hours in an internship under the supervision of a licensed professional, combined with undergraduate or graduate studies. With all of the above completed, students may be eligible to sit for the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam. If you plan to take the exam later, it is important to know that by 2024, a graduate degree will be the minimum requirement to sit for the CDR exam. Besides regular master’s in nutrition and dietetics programs, ACEND-accredited MPH/RD programs can qualify students to sit for the CDR exam.

Some states also have additional licensing requirements. RDs must complete continuing education throughout their careers to maintain the certifications.

What Are the Differences Between RD vs. RDN?

The registered dietitian (RD) and registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) credentials have identical meanings. However, there is a subtle difference. “Nutritionist” was added to RD for the purpose of encompassing a broader concept of wellness, plus the prevention and treatment of conditions. This distinction highlights that all registered dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians.

Can I Complete the Dietetic Internship (DI) After My Master’s Degree?

Yes, the Dietetic Internship (DI) can be combined with a bachelor’s or master’s degree if you want to become a registered dietitian. Since a graduate degree will be a minimum requirement from 2024 on, students can complete the DI either during or after a master’s degree.

Degrees Needed for Nutritionists

Typically, anyone who completes a degree in nutrition can refer to themselves as a nutritionist. This encompasses varying levels of education. You may earn a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, a master’s in nutrition or a Master of Public Health with a concentration in nutrition. The number of years of education and training needed will depend on what credential you choose to obtain. Options include certified nutrition specialist (CNS) or certified/clinical nutritionist (CN).

For example, certified nutrition specialist is a certification regulated by the Board of Certification for Nutrition Specialists (BCNS). Eligibility to be a certified nutrition specialist includes:

  • A Master of Science or doctoral degree in nutrition or a related field
  • 35 hours of relevant coursework related to the practice of personalized nutrition
  • 1,000 hours of supervised practice experience
  • BCNS personalized nutrition case study reports

What Does a Nutritionist Do?

Nutritionists typically work with individuals or populations to teach them about general nutrition, food and health. One of their focus areas is food behavior, which involves collaborating with individuals to create and implement meal plans that help improve the nutritional well-being of both that individual and their family.

Nutritionists may work in:

  • Clinical settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, long-term care facilities and clinics.
  • Government positions, including local health departments.
  • School districts, to advance public policy regarding school nutrition standards and labeling.
  • Private facilities, where they would work independently and with other medical professionals.
  • Research settings or with sport organizations.

Limitations: Nutritionists are limited in what they can do in many states. For example, because nutritionists do not necessarily have a certification, license or clinical experience, they might not be allowed to perform specific nutrition counseling or diagnose and treat medical conditions. Additionally, many states and insurance providers place limitations on nutritionists’ ability to provide specific nutrition counseling. Some states allow nutritionists to perform nutrition counseling, but they cannot seek reimbursement from insurance. There are also states that mandate that nutritionists obtain a license before they can provide nutrition counseling, and others that require a professional to be an RD in order to legally provide nutrition counseling.

What Does a Dietitian Do?

Dietitians teach people and populations about nutrition, food and health. They work in all the same types of settings as nutritionists, including schools, hospitals, long-term care facilities, government health facilities, insurance companies, nonprofits, research firms and sports institutions.

A significant difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian is that the dietitian can help diagnose and treat illnesses. Clinical dietitians in hospitals, long-term care facilities, in- and outpatient clinics and private practice often work with individuals experiencing eating disorders, substance abuse or medical conditions with symptoms that can be improved or managed with a specific diet or meal planning. RDs often collaborate with mental health professionals to screen for eating disorders. 

Simply put, dietitians create unique nutrition plans for their clients and help them maintain healthy eating habits based on their medical needs. This usually looks like:

  • Conducting a nutritional assessment regarding all the food, beverages, medications and supplements that are part of the patient’s diet.
  • Discussing food preferences and aversions, eating patterns, allergies, necessary medical adjustments, socioeconomic barriers, religious beliefs and other factors.
  • Considering any recurring medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney or heart disease, diabetes and others.
  • Creating a nutrition care plan, which includes dietary recommendations, any necessary supplement recommendations and resources for the patient and their support system or caregivers.

In a larger setting, RDs may create and implement meal plans in hospital cafeterias, schools and food corporations. They might supervise other dietitians, food purchasers, kitchen staff and other employees responsible for implementing a meal plan. 

Dietitian vs. Nutritionist Salary and Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) compiles salary data for dietitians and nutritionists jointly. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for dietitians and nutritionists was $66,450 in 2022. There is a considerable difference, however, between the median annual pay of the lowest 10% of earners and the highest 10%: less than $44,140 and more than $95,130, respectively. These salary differences likely occur because of differences in position, geographic area, level of education and experience.

The career outlook of both dietitians and nutritionists is faster than the average growth rate for all occupations (3%). Employment of dietitians and nutritionists is expected to grow 7% from 2022 to 2032.

Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: Which Is Right for You?

The two main differences between a registered dietitian and a nutritionist are:

  • In many states, only an RD can counsel individuals regarding specific diet plans.
  • Only RDs can be involved with diagnosing and treating medical conditions, which is known as medical nutrition therapy. This type of medical care by an RD is sometimes covered by insurance, including Medicare Part B for certain conditions.

That being said, the tasks each professional is allowed to perform depend on state law. In the United States, many people can call themselves nutritionists however, there exists a more regulated designation known as a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). The CNS title usually refers to someone who has met all requirements to pass the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists exam, which is why the title is protected. Unlike registered dietitians who prescribe nutrition therapy, CNSs organize public health programs that teach about healthy diets.

The right career path for you depends on your professional goals. Here are some points to consider:

  • If you want to work closely with individuals to treat and prevent medical conditions, then you should consider becoming an RD and look into ACEND-approved degree programs. 
  • If you want to promote individual and population-level health but are not keen on with providing medical nutrition therapy, then earning a CEPH-accredited Master of Public Health with a concentration in nutrition and dietetics through an on-campus or online MPH program may be right for you.

It also is important to consider the laws of the state where you would like to practice. Each state regulates the nutritionist and dietitian professions differently. This can influence the education and training you pursue to reach your career goals.

Last updated September 2023.