Registered Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: What is the difference?


Recently, Today’s Dietitian published an article discussing licensing legislation for members of the nutrition field, which questioned the qualifications individuals must meet in order to provide nutrition advice. While this article addressed the legal predicament facing the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, I began wondering if most people understood the difference between registered dietitians (RDs) and nutritionists. Below I address my own views on this topic.

I began my career in nutrition as a health coach, a term interchangeable with nutritionist. I studied health promotion and a few years later began working towards becoming a registered dietitian (RD). Not until this point did I start noticing how offended, even angry, some of my colleagues were that health coaches were able to provide nutrition advice; their opinions rightly based on the fact that practically anyone can call themselves a nutritionist with little to no formal training or education whereas the title of RD comes with years of intensive study and clinical practice.

Currently, there is little standardization and monitoring in the nutrition field. Nutrition counseling can be imparted by a number of people including registered dietitians (RD), certified dietitian/nutritionist (CDN), certified clinical nutritionists (CCN), certified nutrition specialist (CNS), holistic health coaches (HHC), and even doctors, nurses, personal trainers, and individuals with masters or PhDs in nutrition. 

As I’m sure you already realized, this can make deciding who to work with very confusing. Who should you listen to? Whose advice can you trust?

First of all, it always depends on what information you are looking for.

  • Registered dietitians (RDs) have extensive clinical backgrounds. If you have a health/ clinical condition, such as an endocrine disorder like diabetes (specifically Type I), PCOS or hypothyroidism, cancer (especially if you are on treatment), renal issues, hypertension, hyperlipedemia, lifelong GI conditions such as Crohns/ulcerative colitis or have undergone bariatric surgery, I recommend you work exclusively with a RD. All RDs have been educated on lab values, medications, food and drug interactions and know what to look for from a clinical perspective.
  • If you want to work on weight management, choosing the right person to work with becomes tricky. Losing a few pounds is relatively easy; keeping off the weight for the long term is the hard part. Any diet that takes you to the extreme is a bad choice. Therefore, anyone who recommends you completely cut out a food group (such as, and most commonly, carbohydrates) is not thinking about your health in the long run. Weight loss can be incredibly frustrating. It is a constant uphill battle with your own body. Work with someone who listens to your needs and provides creative and tailored strategy that meets your specific needs. They should come up with successful options and solutions for weight loss that do not involve starving you.
  • A good weight management program should produce noticeable results in a few weeks, whether it is reflected in the way your jeans fit you or the way you feel –less bloated, more energized, even happier. Do not be afraid or embarrassed to ask your nutrition expert lots of questions. Ask them about calories and how to schedule mealtimes. Weight management works when you tackle it from all angles. The person you work with should be a wealth of knowledge on all types of approaches.
  • Be wary of “nutrition sellers”. There is NO magic pill, trust me. If anyone tells you differently,

1) ask to see the research
2) analyze the research
3) ask to see results from other clients, organizations, or trials.

  • Never be shy about asking questions – after all, it is your body. That said, many people (including myself) enjoy discovering and sharing new foods and research and integrating that into our practice.
  • Reading one book does not make you an expert, but it’s a good start towards educating yourself about your health. Work with someone who can pull from a vast pool of expertise. No one diet works for everyone. The bottom line is that you should always use your best judgment. Nutrition counseling is never based on only recommendation. Successful health counseling should take into account multiple aspects, such as cooking, exercise, food quality and the individuals relationship to food.

If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Edited by @tcabrarr

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