What to Know About Dietitians vs. Nutritionists

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 11, 2022
4 min read

There’s an overwhelming amount of information available about what to eat and how to live your healthiest life. But when it comes to diet, every individual has different nutritional needs. A registered dietitian or nutritionist can help provide you with personalized care and advice on how to improve your diet and lifestyle.

But before you turn to professional advice, it's important to understand the difference between a registered dietician vs. nutritionist. Each profession has different educational credentials and professional roles.

Registered dietitians have been professionally trained to provide food-related guidance and health-related advice. Registered dietitians must obtain at least a graduate degree, complete an internship, take a national exam, and become licensed by the state.

Once licensed, they’re also expected to refresh their knowledge through continuing education programs. To maintain their registration, a dietitian has to complete at least 75 hours of continuing education every 5 years.

What does a dietitian do? Registered dietitians can specialize in certain fields that have specific nutritional needs, like:

  • Sports nutrition
  • Diabetes diet education and management
  • Oncology (cancer) nutrition
  • Children’s nutrition
  • Nutrition for older adults or people with chronic diseases 

Dietitians usually work in schools, hospitals, private clinics, care facilities, and research centers. They can prepare customized nutrition plans and assist in diagnosing and treating illnesses like eating disorders.

Dietitians can participate in preparing large-scale meal plans for cafeterias. They may take on supervisory roles to oversee kitchen staff and food purchasers. They can also work at insurance companies, government facilities, and non-government organizations.

Nutritionists usually provide general information on food and healthy eating habits, but it's not a professional title. Anyone with relevant knowledge and/or experience can call themselves a nutritionist.

Nutritionists don’t require any specific professional certification, but some associate degrees and other courses are available. You can opt for a 2-year associate’s degree and then take an exam to become certified. If you plan on working with a nutritionist, it’s best to confirm their credentials first.

What does a nutritionist do? Nutritionists can work in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, gyms, and long-term care facilities. But because most nutritionists don’t require a license or certification, they can't diagnose or treat an illness. They also can't provide nutritional counseling for any specific conditions.

Certain states and insurance companies have some legal restrictions regarding nutritionists. A nutritionist's professional reach is usually monitored and controlled by these restrictions to protect the interests of the people seeking consultation.

While the job description may sound similar, dietitians and nutritionists aren't the same. Here are some major differences:

Educational credentials. Dietitians in the United States receive their certification from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Training to be a nutritionist is not centralized and varies across states. Nutritionists don’t always require a degree but can receive certification from the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS).

Professional roles. Compared with registered dietitians, nutritionists have limited roles in the field of health and nutrition. They can only share general information but can't provide nutrition counseling or diagnose and treat illnesses.

Insurance coverage. Most health insurance plans (like Medicare) cover the expenses for nutrition counseling from registered dietitians for various conditions, but they’re unlikely to do so for nutritionists.

It's important to keep in mind that all registered dietitians can also be considered nutritionists, but all nutritionists may not necessarily be registered dietitians.

Here's a general guide on how to become a registered dietitian in the United States:

  • Receive at least a bachelor’s degree accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics. This could be a degree in clinical nutrition, public health nutrition, or dietetics.
  • Obtain a verification statement from a Didactic Program in Dietetics. Some degrees (like public health) may include them.
  • Complete an internship with a minimum of 1,200 hours while being supervised by a licensed professional, along with your undergrad or graduate degree.
  • Once the internship is completed, take the Commission on Dietetic Registration exam. If you plan to take this exam after 2024, you’ll require a graduate (master’s) degree in nutrition and dietetics.
  • If you pass the exam, you’ll receive a license and can be considered a registered dietitian.
  • To maintain your certification, you may have to follow additional requirements, such as mandatory participation in continuing education programs, depending on the state you work in.

Technically, if you have any degree in nutrition — like a bachelor’s or master’s in nutrition or a public health degree with a focus on nutrition — you can call yourself a nutritionist. But if you’d like to become a board-certified (clinical) nutritionist or a certified nutrition specialist, you’ll have to obtain a certification from the BCNS.

Here's a list of requirements specified by the BCNS to become a certified nutritionist:

  • Obtain a master’s or doctoral degree in the field of health, nutrition, or something relevant.
  • Complete 35 hours of appropriate coursework related to the field of personalized nutrition.
  • Complete 1,000 hours of work experience supervised by a licensed professional.
  • Submit five case study reports on personalized nutrition requirements as per the BCNS.

If you’d like general information on how to count calories or plan your meals, then a nutritionist will likely fit your needs. However, you should consult with a board-certified registered dietitian if you have a chronic condition like diabetes, an eating disorder, an injury, or serious food allergies or nutrient deficiencies.

Dietitians are usually part of the healthcare team at places like:

  • Hospitals
  • Schools 
  • Public health or community centers
  • Fitness or research centers
  • Nursing homes 
  • Rehabilitation centers 
  • Care facilities 

Be sure to check the dietitian or nutritionist's credentials at your first appointment. Carry all information related to your medical history and recent tests. Be honest and don’t hesitate to ask any questions. Make time for follow-up visits so that they can monitor your progress and reinforce your positive eating habits.