The Difference Between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist

I read an article recently about this very topic, but it was written by a conventionally minded dietitian. It was frustrating to see her ignorance. She put down nutritionists and put dietitians on a pedestal. But to be real, there is no clear black and white way to categorize one as being better than the other, unless you know which credentials to look for.

I want to start by saying that I contemplated becoming a dietitian myself for many years. I took one university nutrition class, and I enjoyed it, but it just didn't feel right. The mainstream university perspective of nutrition felt watered-down and biased, to say the least. So I became a psychotherapist instead, later to realize that nutrition is my real passion. I just had to find the right training that felt more wholesome and with the rich perspective I desired.

So here's a rundown on the differences:

Registered Dietitians (RDs) are healthcare workers who have undergone training to provide nutrition services to individuals who are looking for preventative nutrition counseling or medical nutrition therapy. If they are licensed, they have at least a bachelor's degree and do regular continuing education. Note that not all states regulate dietitians because it's not generally considered a necessary license.

"Nutritionist" is not a regulated term in most states. Nutritionist trainings may or may not come from universities and are not typically regulated for curriculum. However, that may be a good thing because it means unaccredited schools can choose their own curriculum according what they feel is best based on newer, unbiased research and traditional wisdom rather than corporate biases. Unaccredited schools may actually be more progressive, but less political.

Some will try to convince you that the licensure requirements for RDs are more rigorous than certificate programs and enforce stricter standards. I don't disagree with that entirely. Compared to the cheapest and easiest nutrition trainings out there, I think this is certainly true. There are many bad ones! But that could be said for university degrees as well. Universities are usually confined to old ideas based on decades-old corporate or political biases.

People seem to have a hard time seeing certifications as being legitimate compared to a degree. But let me point out that not all certification programs are created equal. Just because something isn't from an accredited university doesn't automatically mean it's lower-quality. This is becoming increasingly apparent as more alternative methods of learning emerge and people with university degrees aren't getting jobs as easily anymore, or aren't getting paid more than those without degrees. People are graduating with college degrees and don't seem to retain any information because the training was too much, too long, and impractical.

So if nutritionists aren’t as regulated, and dietitians may not be, then how do you know which ones are highly educated and aren’t just coming from a free webinar? This is where you look for those letters after a name. While I’m personally not a huge fan of them, they are telling. 

My credential is Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (or NTP). This is a trademark and can’t be used by just anybody. Nutritional therapy practitioners undergo a year-long training program with live classes, lectures, textbook readings, discussions, forums, assignments, and practical experience. In my personal experience with the training, it felt like getting another master's degree in terms of rigor. The curriculum dove deeply into biochemical science, anthropology of nutrition (which is surprisingly very important), anatomy & physiology, supplements, sleep, and stress. The science was very deep, even more than I would have liked sometimes. The last half of the program was devoted to a practicum. That meant supervised, clinical experience with real people. This was certainly not the same as some of the other certification programs out there, and I'm glad I chose this one over others. Many of my colleagues who have done expensive courses elsewhere have said the NTP program is top-notch in comparison.

And that’s not all! While there is no legal requirement for it, most NTPs take it upon themselves to pursue continuing education. This is out of a personal passion for the work rather than an obligation imposed by the government. That says something, in my opinion! As a licensed therapist who has to do obligatory continuing education myself, I know what it’s like just to do the training because I have to. I don’t get much from the forced trainings. Like therapists, RDs are obligated to do trainings they aren’t really that interested in.

So what’s the difference between RDs and nutritionists? It really depends on the person. Some RDs are actually holistic and have a pretty sound approach to their work. They may have jumped through more hoops to get where they are (but even then, it depends on their state and whether being a dietitian is actually regulated). But nutritionists may have also jumped through a bunch of hoops. It’s hard to tell! If you are not sure who to trust and you know you want a holistic (quality over quantity) approach based on more unbiased research, look for an NTP. Although RDs may also have a credential, that says nothing about their philosophy, making it pretty ambiguous.