Two career paths that deal exclusively with diet, food, and nutrition – dietitians and nutritionists – are certainly similar, but not quite interchangeable. So what are the differences? Dietitians and nutritionists are both experts in food and diet. They’ve studied how diet, nutrition, and supplements affect your body and your health. Both are considered to be healthcare professions. Dietitians are considered to be nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians.
Generally speaking, the role of dietitian is more regulated than that of a nutritionist. While anyone can go to school to study health and nutrition, in the US, depending on where a person wants to practice, there are certain licensures and certifications a dietitian has to earn to be able to work.
After earning a bachelor’s degree at an accredited university in a field like nutrition science, a dietitian usually has to complete an internship or practice program at a health care facility, food service company, hospital, or other organization where their health advice and research can be monitored and supervised. After completing an internship, students can sit for their national examination; once they pass, they are free to practice as an R.D, or registered dietitian.
Dietitians organize food and nutrition plan and promote healthy eating habits to prevent and treat illness. They find work in food service businesses, or working with patients in hospitals, clinics and other healthcare facilities. 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 to develop 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 regulated as “dietitian,” and tends to have a broader, more general meaning. The title is not generally protected, meaning that it can be used by anyone, unlike “doctor”, for instance, which requires proof of qualifications. Nutritionists typically do not have any professional training, and therefore, should not be involved in the diagnosis and treatment of any diseases.
However, most nutritionists do know what nutrition science is because they have studied it, and may have a graduate degree or even a PhD. There are nutritionist certification boards, which require applicants to have an advanced degree along with practical experience before taking their certification exam. Nutritionists who pass this test may refer to themselves as certified nutrition specialists, or C.N.S, 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.
Some nutritionists are also called food scientists. Typically, food scientists work for food manufacturers, retailed businesses, or public health promotion. Some nutritionists work as dietitian assistants or food journalists.
One of the major differences between the work of a nutritionist (one who is not also working as a doctor) and dietitian, though, is that a dietitian can help to diagnose eating disorders or help plan meals for the managing of symptoms of health problems. While nutritionists can certainly offer support in these areas, most of their work is done with behavioral issues, as well as teach clients about the general nutrition and health properties in food and offer nutrition supervision.” Overall, the difference lies in the depth, scope, length, and type of education and training.
Which role is right for me?
The answer to this question comes down to training and education. If you want to work as a registered dietitian, you’ll want to earn a degree in dietetics. Some schools offer nutrition science programs with the option to take additional courses to become an R.D. If you choose to pursue a degree in nutrition science without becoming a dietitian, you can always go back and earn the credential.
Keep in mind, there are A LOT of nutrition enthusiasts out there who claim to be health experts. If you really want to work in this field and be successful and profitable at it, you’ll need the right credentials. 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 R.D. to do so. If you become an R.D., you’ll be able to legally help people in your state.
Featured Nutrition Science Programs
Accreditation: HLC, NCA
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Depending on where dietitians and nutritionists decide to work – either for an organization, contractually, or independently – in 2015 they made an average of $57,910 a year, based on statistics from The Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, the nutrition and diet related job field is growing faster than average – at a rate of 16 percent from 2014 to 2024. According to the BLS, 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.”
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 cardiovascular and GI issues as well as mental health issues relating to eating disorders and self confidence. These professionals are partners in health and important to the communities they work and serve in.
Dietitians and nutritionists are needed just about everywhere, but if you’re interested in learning more about specific areas in the US with the highest employment level in this occupation, check out the map below from the BLS: