Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: Degree and Careers Comparison

Dietitians and nutritionists are experts in food and diet and help people maintain good health and prevent or treat health conditions. With various credentials and qualifications, dietitians and nutritionists are often mislabeled. 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 article will explain some important differences between dietitians and nutritionists in their education and qualifications, scope of expertise and careers paths.

Dietitian vs. Nutritionist Education Comparison

The word dietitians typically refers to registered dietitians (RD). Compared with nutritionists, the main difference is that RDs tend to have more education and credentials. Depending on the state of practice, you can call yourself a nutritionist without any formal nutrition education, training, licensing or certification, but it’s illegal to call yourself a dietitian without proper credentialing.

Degrees Needed for Nutritionists

Typically, anyone who completes a degree in nutrition can refer to themselves as a nutritionist. This could be varying levels of education: 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, such as certified nutrition specialist (CNS) or certified/clinical nutritionist (CN). Some states also have varying license requirements for nutritionists. 

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

  • 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
  • Five BCNS personalized nutrition case study reports

Degrees and Trainings Needed for Dietitians

Prospective dietitians must first obtain a minimum of a bachelor’s degree accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) and earn 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 DPD. 

Then, future 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 might 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 take the DI either or after a master’s degree.

What Does a Nutritionist Do?

Nutritionists typically work with individuals or populations to teach them more about general nutrition, food and health. Their focus is on food behavior. This includes working with individuals to devise and implement meal plans that improve the individual or family’s nutrition. 

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, 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. Many states and insurance providers place limitations on specific nutrition counseling. Some states allow nutritionists to perform nutrition counseling, but they cannot seek reimbursement from insurance. There are states that require nutritionists to be licensed before they can provide nutrition counseling, and others require a professional to be an RD to lawfully 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, research and sports.   

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 more specific diet or meal planning. RDs often collaborate with mental health professionals to screen for eating disorders. 

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

  • An RD conducts a nutritional assessment regarding all the food, beverages, medications and supplements that are part of the patient’s diet.
  • They discuss food preferences and aversions, eating patterns, allergies, necessary medical adjustments, socioeconomic barriers, religious beliefs and other factors.
  • The RD carefully considers any recurring medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney or heart disease, diabetes and others.
  • Then, they create 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. 

Dietitians also can work with larger populations regarding nutrition and food issues. Some work in government positions, insurance companies and nonprofits.   

Dietitian vs. Nutritionist Career and Salary Outlook

The salary information for dietitians and nutritionists can be confusing because the two professions are often considered simultaneously. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the 2018 median pay for dietitians and nutritionists was $60,370 per year. 

There is a considerable difference, however, between the median annual pay of the lowest 10% of earners and the highest 10%: $38,460 and $84,610 in 2018, respectively.

These salary differences likely occur because of differences in position, geographic area, level of education and experience. 

The career outlook of both is good. The BLS reports there were 70,900 dietitian and nutritionist jobs in 2018, and the field is expected to grow 11% by 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. 

Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: Which Is Right for You?

The two main differences between a registered dietitian (RD) 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, though there is a more protected title of 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.

Which career is the right path for you depends on your career goals: 

  • 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 concerned with providing medical nutrition therapy, then obtaining a CEPH-accredited Master of Public Health with a concentration in nutrition and dietetics, either on-campus or online MPH programs may be right for you.

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

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