Dietitian vs Nutritionist

To pursue a career in nutrition science is to make a positive impact on the health and wellness of others. Both dietitians and nutritionists are healthcare professionals committed to helping people learn how to eat healthfully through evidence-based research and advocating for wellness policies that support the nutritional needs of individuals and families.

While both dietitians and nutritionists share the same mission of improving health and wellness, there are fundamental differences in the two professions with regards to credentialing, education, and experience.

A common saying used by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) to distinguish the two professions is “All registered dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians” (AND 2019). In the United States, earning the title of registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) requires graduating from a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) in dietetics or nutrition science and earning 1,200 hours of dietetic experience through an internship or coordinated program. Once these criteria are fulfilled, candidates become eligible to sit for the RDN exam (ACEND 2019).

Upon completing the educational and internship requirements and taking the required exams, a professional can earn the credential of registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) or licensed dietitian nutritionist (LDN). The Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), the credentialing agency for the AND, requires RDN or LDN credentials for licensure to practice as a dietitian nutritionist in 47 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia (CDR 2019). Advanced certification through the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS) as a certified nutritional specialist (CNS) is available for professionals with advanced degrees and 1,000 hours of supervised clinical experience.

Nutritionists can practice without an RDN or LDN license in three states and there are plenty of educational and professional organizations to support this career pathway. Certificate programs in health coaching are available through organizations such as the Institute of Integrated Nutrition (IIN), which emphasizes holistic nutrition and can take six months to one year to complete. Certificates and degree programs are also available through the American College of Healthcare Sciences (ASHS) and the National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP). These programs can take anywhere from six months to four years to complete depending on the type of certificate or degree sought.

Now more than ever, the United States is in urgent need of qualified dietitians and nutritionists. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the number of obese adults and children in the United States is at an unprecedented all-time high; in 2016, 39.8 percent of adults and 18.5 percent of youth were obese and at risk of developing diseases related to obesity such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease (CDC 2017).

Not surprisingly, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts an 11 percent growth in job openings for dietitians and nutritionists between 2018 and 2028, which is more than double the national average. The BLS estimates that 8,000 new dietitian and nutritionist positions will be created within that decade.

Read on to discover the similarities and differences between dietitians and nutritionists.

Side-by-Side Comparison: Dietitian vs Nutritionist

Below is a side-by-side comparison of dietitians and nutritionists outlining educational and licensure requirements, timelines for degree completion, and professional resources.

Dietitian (RDN/LDN) Nutritionist
Education In 47 states, RDNs are required to earn an ACEND-accredited bachelor’s degree in dietetics, nutrition science, or a related field.
Some RDNs hold advanced degrees in nutrition science.
Nutritionists can earn educational credentials through a diploma or certificate, an associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree in nutrition science.
Timeline to Practice It can take five to seven years to become an RDN:
  • Bachelor’s degree in dietetics or nutrition science (four years)
  • 1,200 supervised internship hours (six to 12 months)
  • Master’s or doctoral degrees in dietetics or nutrition science (optional, two to three years)
It can take six months to six years to become a nutritionist:
  • Diploma or certificate in nutrition (six months to one year)
  • Associate degree in nutrition (optional, two years)
  • Bachelor’s degree in nutrition science (optional, four years)
  • Master’s degree in nutrition science (optional, two years)
Typical Duties
  • Perform diagnostic health assessments to determine patients’ nutritional needs
  • Advise patients how to eat healthfully in general
  • Make specific plans for patients’ experiencing illness-related dietary challenges (e.g., type 2 diabetes)
  • Keep records of patient progress
  • Assess and adjust individual diet plans as needed
  • Educate patients, families, and community members how to eat healthfully
  • Stay informed on the latest research related to dietetics or nutrition science
  • Advocate for policies that increase nutritional education, access, and healthy lifestyles
  • Advise clients on weight loss and management
  • Help clients modify their diets to develop healthier eating habits
  • Provide individualized step-by-step nutritional plan guidance through regular appointments
  • Educate clients and communities through personal wellness consulting
  • Create customized meal plans or services for clients
Eligible to practice medical nutritional therapy (MNT)? Yes, RDNs can practice medical nutritional therapy (MNT).
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) defines medical nutrition therapy as nutritional diagnostic, therapy, and counseling services that are furnished by an RDN (AND 2019).
RDNs are qualified to provide this in-depth level of individualized nutrition to manage diseases.
No, dietetic professionals without an RDN credential are not legally qualified to practice medical nutritional therapy (MNT).
Non-RDN dietetics professionals are qualified to provide nutrition education and help clients create and maintain individualized nutrition plans.
Work environments The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the majority of dietitians and nutritionists work in state, local, and private hospitals (BLS 2019). Government agencies are the largest employers in the United States. Examples of government agencies include:
  • Public health clinics
  • Correctional facilities
  • Food service operations
  • Public schools
Many RDNs work in nursing and residential care facilities. Examples include:
  • Assisted living
  • Memory care facilities
RDNs also work in outpatient care facilities including:
  • kidney dialysis centers
Some dietitians are self-employed through private practices and may choose to see clients in:
  • Corporate wellness programs
  • Private office settings
RDNs involved with policy-making, marketing, and leadership may work for non-profit agencies in office settings and make presentations to large groups to advocate for:
  • Nutritional policy changes
  • Food safety
  • Authoring legislation for health and wellness programs
RDNs with advanced degrees in dietetics may work in universities or medical centers in the following roles:
  • Teaching nutrition courses at colleges or universities
  • Working in a scientific research group
Nutritionists employed in the three states that do not have professional licensure requirements are eligible to work in any of the work environments where an RDN can work.
The BLS reported the following work environments and the percentage of dietitians and nutritionists employed in each sector (BLS 2019):
  • Hospitals; state, local, and private (30 percent)
  • Government (14 percent)
  • Nursing and residential care facilities (10 percent)
  • Outpatient care centers (9 percent)
  • Self-employed workers (6 percent)
Licensing and Certification Three states currently have no professional licensure or certification requirements for dietitians and nutritionists:
  • Arizona
  • New Jersey
  • Michigan
It is worth noting that dietitian and nutritionist professionals working in one of these three states are still eligible to earn an RDN/LDN credential if they meet the educational and internship requirements for licensure.
For additional information about specific state licensure requirements, please see AND’s licensure statutes and information by state on their resource page (AND 2019).
In 47 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, dietitians and nutritionists are required to hold RDN or LDN certification.
Aspiring dietetic professionals candidates must complete the following requirements to earn an RDN/LDN credential:
  • Completion of a bachelor’s degree from an ACEND-accredited dietetics program or a related field with coursework accredited and approved by ACEND
  • Completion of 1,200 supervised practice hours from an ACEND-accredited, supervised practice program or an ACEND-accredited, coordinated program combined with undergraduate or graduate studies
  • Pass a national examination given by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR)
  • Fulfill any other state-specific requirements for RDN/LDN licensure
Dietetics and nutritionist professionals with advanced degrees and 1,000 hours of supervised experience can apply to take the Certified Nutritionist Specialist (CNS) exam to earn the highest level of certification. This exam is given by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS).
[Same]
Continuing Education Requirements RDNs must complete continuing education credits every 5 years. RDNs need a minimum of 75 credits including one credit in ethics.
A yearly registration maintenance fee of $70 per year or $350 for five years can be paid at the beginning of a five-year cycle.
Credential registration is managed by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). Membership fees associated with the AND professional organization are separate and distinctive from the CDR credential.
None, but state-specific requirements may apply.
Specializations The CDR offers the following board certification specializations for RDNs:
  • Gerontological nutrition
  • Oncology nutrition
  • Obesity and weight management
  • Pediatric nutrition
  • Pediatric critical care nutrition
  • Renal nutrition
  • Sports dietetics
The AND offers its members the option to be a part of a specialty practice group called Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine (DIFM). Membership in this specialization group gives RDNs tools to integrate whole foods, supplements, and mind-body modalities into their clinical nutrition practices.
Specialization certificates are available from organizations such as:
  • Coursera: child nutrition and cooking and introduction to food and health, both offered as free courses by Stanford University
  • Institute of Integrated Nutrition (IIN): health coach certification
  • International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA): sports nutrition
  • National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM): certified nutrition coach
Salary The BLS (2019) reports the average annual salary for dietitians and nutritionists is $60,370 (BLS 2019).
Work environments with the highest salaries are outpatient care centers; the median annual wages for this sector are $66,420 (BLS 2019).
The wage percentiles in annual salaries for dietitians and nutritionists are as follows:
  • 10th percentile: $38,460
  • 25th percentile: $48,880
  • 50th percentile: $60,370
  • 75th percentile: $73,740
  • 90th percentile: $84,610
[Same]
Career Outlook Data from the BLS estimates the current number of dietitians and nutritionists is 70,900 (BLS 2019).
The BLS (2019) predicts that 8,000 new jobs in this field will be created (2018-2028)—an 11 percent growth rate nationally, which is more than double the average for all occupations (BLS 2019).
State-specific career-outlook data from the BLS shows states with the highest employment levels for nutritionists (BLS 2019). Five states with the highest level of nutritionist and dietitian employment are:
  • California
  • Texas
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania
  • Florida
[Same]
Professional associations
  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)
  • Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
  • Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS)
  • Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR)
  • American College of Healthcare Sciences (ACHS)
  • Institute of Integrated Nutrition (IIN)
  • National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP)
[Same]
Rachel Drummond

Rachel Drummond

Writer

Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @oregon_yogini).

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