What people eat (or don’t eat) is closely linked to the risk of human diseases. Diet is an important part of the treatment and prevention of many chronic medical conditions.
A variety of people can claim to be nutrition experts. It can be a confusing search to find the right professional to help develop an overall wellness plan based on a healthy diet. When seeking nutrition advice, it’s important to know the difference. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are differences between registered dietitians and nutritionists to keep in mind.
Both dietitians and nutritionists have a responsibility to the health, welfare, and safety of their clients and patients. Many people consider obesity to be epidemic in developed nations and this condition can lead to a multitude of different medical issues. These include chronic diseases that increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, cognitive decline, and inflammation conditions. These professionals are partners in health and important to the communities they work and serve in.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a registered dietitian (RD) — also known as a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) — is a trained specialist who has completed an accredited program of study. A registered dietitian can develop nutrition and overall wellness plans for individuals or groups, work in the sports and fitness area, or manage comprehensive health services.
Dietitians must undergo rigorous academic and professional training. RDN coursework includes nutrition therapy, chemistry, biology, and other sciences, counseling, and food systems-related courses. In addition to earning a college degree, RDNs must complete an accredited, supervised practice program and pass a national qualifying exam from the Commission on Dietetic Registration. In many states, licensure is also required for legal practice. RDNs regularly engage in continuing education courses in order to maintain certification.
One major difference is that a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) has a depth and breadth of training in the field. The individual has a rigorous preparation approved by the Accreditation Council on Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). The RDN credential will ensure that the person is using evidence-based practice to guide their work and promote quality practice. Dietitians can diagnose nutrition conditions or provide medical nutrition therapy for the managing of symptoms of health problems.
Dietitians may organize food and nutrition programs for individuals or populations and promote healthy eating habits to prevent and treat illness. They find work in foodservice businesses or working with patients in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities. Some may work in food development companies or marketing and communication jobs. Dietitians also work at colleges and universities, where they may teach nutrition and health classes, do research or focus on public health issues.
Other dietitians choose to go into private practice allows practitioners more creative options for helping others and developing their knowledge base. Private practice isn't for everyone and is a big career decision, but for those who choose to pursue it, they often find the individualized and focused client therapy to be well worth it.
In the US, the title “nutritionist” is not as scrutinized and tends to have a more general meaning. The title is not always protected by law, meaning that it can be used by anyone, unlike the professional title of “doctor,” for instance, which requires proof of qualifications. Nutritionists may have limited or varied professional training, and depending on the state of practice, may be using the term to describe a variety of services including education, food science, wellness, sports and fitness, and integrative health practice.
However, there are nutritionist certification boards, which require applicants to have an advanced degree along with practical experience before taking their certification exam. For example, nutritionists who demonstrate specific credentials and pass a test may refer to themselves as certified nutrition specialists, or CNS, which is a protected title.
Also, many doctors, including medical doctors, osteopaths, physician assistants, chiropractors, and naturopathic doctors, practice clinical nutrition after completing extra work in the study of food and nutrition science. Advanced credentials can be issued by the professional association or other certifying agencies in clinical nutrition. Thus, standards of practice vary greatly.
While nutritionists can certainly offer support in these areas, most of their work deals with food behavior and population health. They teach clients about the general guidelines in nutritional wellness and offer nutrition supervision. Thus it is important to carefully investigate the level of training and credentials of each individual practitioner.
Only nutritionists who become registered with Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) may legally declare themselves as registered dietitians. The nutritionist profession is much less protected under the law. Please check individual state rules about the requirements for legal practice.
The study of nutrition is a varied and complex field. Keep in mind there are a lot of nutrition enthusiasts out there who claim to be health experts. The right credentials will distinguish your career. If you want to open your own practice, work at a doctor’s office, or at a hospital, there’s a good chance you’ll need to be an RDN to do so. Be sure to check for additional licensing requirements in the state of desired practice. Explore the current practice laws in Florida, for example.
The profession of nutrition and dietetics is advancing entry-level practice to a minimum of a master’s degree by the year 2024. Many health professionals also pursue an advanced degree or graduate certificate degree in nutrition to advance their careers or specialize in their practice.
The job outlook in nutrition and dietetics is growing faster than average – at a rate of 11 percent from 2014 to 2024. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the “interest in the role of food and nutrition in promoting health and wellness has increased, particularly as a part of preventative healthcare in medical settings.” Depending on where individuals work, either for an organization, contractually, or independently, the national salary average in 2019 was $61,270 per year.
Dietitians and nutritionists are needed just about everywhere. To learn more about specific areas in the US with the highest employment level in this occupation, see the map below (source: BLS.gov: Occupational Employment And Wages: Dietitians and Nutritionists, data for May 2019).
Nutrition is a diverse, dynamic, and growing area of study. As such, career options expand beyond the traditional role of dietitians or nutritionists. The field will continue to grow as consumers continue to explore new ways to better their health. Below are a few other career options for people with a degree in nutrition: