Is there a difference between a dietitian vs a nutritionist? Yes; there is a difference! This article explains what makes them distinct so you can receive nutrition advice and care from the most appropriate professional.
This article covers:
- What does the term dietitian or registered dietitian (RD) mean?
- What does being a regulated profession mean? What does a regulatory body do?
- Why do we need standards to practice nutrition?
- Why do we need a governing body to protect the public? What could be the harm in nutrition advice?
- What does the term nutritionist mean?
- What about a registered nutritionist, holistic nutritionist, registered holistic nutritionist, certified nutritionist, certified holistic nutritionist etc.?
- My personal opinion about dietitian vs nutritionist
- What about other regulated healthcare professions? Can I trust nutrition advice from doctors, nurses, physiotherapists etc.?
- Conclusions: a dietitian vs a nutritionist
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What Does the Term Dietitian or Registered Dietitian (RD) Mean?
The term dietitian or Registered Dietitian is a protected title in Canada (and many other countries as well). A protected title means that only those who qualify can call themselves a dietitian, or Registered Dietitian, aka RD.
To become a dietitian in Canada there are 4 steps:
- Complete an accredited 4-year undergraduate university program in nutrition and dietetics.
- Complete a 1-2 year post-graduate program (post-degree diploma or masters-practicum). This includes about 10 months worth of placements at various organizations.
- Pass a national registration exam.
- Register with a provincial regulatory body.
To summarize, it takes a minimum of 5 years of education and training to call yourself a dietitian. Dietitians also complete continuing education each year. Educational requirements are the main difference between someone who can call themselves a dietitian vs a nutritionist.
It’s extremely competitive to become a dietitian. Undergraduate programs have limited spots but the hardest part is gaining acceptance into the post-graduate programs. Only about 50% of people who complete the accredited undergrad program go on to become a dietitian.
What Does Being a Regulated Profession Mean? What Does a Regulatory Body Do?
Being registered means dietitians are held up to a high level of practice standards. According to the College of Dietitians of Ontario, their role is:
“ dedicated to public protection… regulate and support Registered Dietitians for the enhancement of safe, ethical and competent nutrition services…”
The College essentially oversees the dietitians who are registered with them. They ensure dietitians meet the quality standards set forth by the College. If you are not meeting their standards, you can receive disciplinary action, and if the offence is great enough, you can lose the title of dietitian.
This is the second major difference between a dietitian vs a nutritionist. Dietitians are a regulated profession.
Why Do We Need Standards to Practice Nutrition?
Nutrition is a science, not an opinion. We need standards in place that dictate what is acceptable for nutrition professionals to do.
Dietitians can’t just tell you whatever they want, or what works for them. They must use science and evidence to inform their work. Since nutrition science gets messy, it’s essential to have the skills to read through this mess, understand it correctly and translate it into useful and safe information for the public or our clients/ patients. Dietetic education covers topics including research methods and statistics for this reason.
Standards go beyond just the nutrition advice dietitians provide. We have professional and ethical standards in place, for example, disclosing conflicts of interest (ex. sponsor ships/ affiliate relationships). I’ve seen many “influencers” not disclose relationships with companies; as a dietitian, this could lead to disciplinary action. This is just one example of the standards dietitians must comply with.
The RHPA dictates what is known as Scope of Practice which outlines what each regulated health professional can do, and what they cannot do.
Why Do We Need a Governing Body to Protect the Public? What Could be the Harm in Nutrition Advice?
Everybody seems to be a nutrition expert these days, and nutrition advice is everywhere on the internet. Some of this information is properly sourced and evidence-informed, but much of it is anecdotal or completely incorrect.
This is dangerous. While nutrition might seem harmless, it’s not. Nutrition misinformation can be harmful to health, be used to fuel fads, or even fraudulent behaviours. Sometimes people opt-out of life-saving medical treatment because someone promised to cure their disease through diet or herbal supplements that do not have enough evidence to support them as alternative treatments 1, 2, 3, 4.
There’s also serious concern for dietary and herbal supplements that are largely unregulated 5, 6, 7, 8. Supplements can be contaminated or incorrectly dosed, and many of them do not have scientific evidence to prove their effectiveness. Just because it’s “natural” does not mean it’s safe.
Fear-mongering is also rampant in the nutrition and wellness industry. Scaring people away from eating certain foods is not helpful, and for some people, could lead to disordered eating, vitamin or mineral deficiencies, malnutrition, or an eating disorder.
For example, one study found that Dietitians promote credible information and references on the subject of detoxes, whereas nutritionists provide unproven, misleading and potentially harmful information. Additionally, only nutritionist blogs contained conflicts of interest 9.
This is the third main difference between a dietitian vs a nutritionist: you can trust the information from a dietitian is safe, ethical and evidence-based.
To summarize: We need to protect the public from misinformation, which primarily comes from people without appropriate training/ education, as serious harm can result.
What Does the Term Nutritionist Mean?
Essentially, the term nutritionist means nothing. Depending on where you live, anyone can use this title. There are certain provinces that regulate the title, but with the use of the internet, it’s a lot harder to know where the person using a title resides.
Since the title is not regulated, a person calling themselves a nutritionist may have no nutrition education. Even if they do have some nutrition education, it often doesn’t even come close the the rigorous education a Registered Dietitian receives. Remember, it takes 5 years (or more) to become a Dietitian. Many online certifications and programs take a mere few days, weeks or months: no where near enough time to truly learn what is necessary to provide safe nutrition care, in my opinion.
A nutritionist can essentially tell you anything they want whether it’s based on science or their personal beliefs. Since the title isn’t regulated, there’s no governing body to watch over and ensure safe or competent practice. And generally speaking, there’s no fear of repercussions for their actions (although, if they live in an area where titles or practices are regulated, they may be fined – but many places aren’t regulated).
Nutritionists Aren’t Actually Trying to Cause Harm, Right?
I would like to give people the benefit of the doubt and say they are not trying to cause harm. That doesn’t mean harm isn’t the result. Without a proper education and no regulation, people may inadvertently spread inaccurate information or sell potentially harmful products/ ideas.
There is a lot of nutrition misinformation, stated as fact, out there to confuse people.
I personally had several misconceptions about nutrition before I became a Dietitian. These largely stemmed from personal beliefs (aka not science) and this is extremely common. Without my education, I could very well have landed on a path of promoting these inaccuracies without realizing the harm I could cause.
With the internet, some nutrition myths are stated so many times one can easily believe them to be true. It doesn’t matter how many times something is said, it doesn’t make it true.
What about a Registered Nutritionist, Holistic Nutritionist, Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Certified Nutritionist, Certified Holistic Nutritionist, etc.?
Unless someone is using the title RD, Registered Dietitian or dietitian, you will have to research to see what exactly a person’s title means. There are many different titles people use to indicate they are a nutrition expert. In my opinion, dietitians are the experts in nutrition due to our extensive training and education.
Even if a person’s title says “registered”, you need to look into what governing body they are registered with and what that regulation entails (in terms of education, continuing education, ethical and competent practice regulations, etc.). Since there are no standards, the title registered nutritionist doesn’t necessarily indicate anything specific as multiple organizations could offer this title and require various education or training. Often the groups these practitioners are registered with are self-governing as opposed to being regulated by the government (for example, the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care in Ontario). Again, an important distinction between a dietitian vs a nutritionist is that dietitian is a protected title and a regulated profession.
What Sort of Education Might a Nutritionist Have?
There are countless courses about nutrition out there. Some truly terrify me. For example, I once found a course that took a few weeks to complete and the course claimed that by the end, the student would be able to open a nutrition practice and start working with clients. After a few weeks. What’s truly scary is that one of the weeks covered the topic of pregnancy. I truly hope no mother or baby becomes harmed by anyone who goes through a one week module and thinks at the end they are qualified to treat the nutrition concerns related to pregnancy.
One of the most popular nutritionist programs in Canada claims to take 1100 hours of study. For comparison, my education took about 5600 hours, and that doesn’t include the additional 1280 hours for my Masters (as that isn’t a specific requirement for dietitians, yet).
Looking further into the most popular nutritionist program in Canada I found one of the courses was on the subject of detoxes, how to detox and why to detox. No wonder the study referenced above found nutritionist promote detoxes (detoxes are not supported by scientific evidence).
My Personal Opinion about the Term Nutritionist
I believe only people who are properly educated and regulated should be able to use any term that implies expertise in a subject. Therefore, I believe only dietitians (or other appropriately educated individuals, for example, people with nutrition degrees, MPHs or PhDs) should be able to use a title such as nutritionist.
My reasons are:
- The public assumes nutritionists are qualified and often don’t understand the differences between dietitian vs nutritionist (myself included for many years).
- Education is critical to ensure competent care.
- Regulation is needed for public safety.
- A defined scope of practice (what you are qualified to do vs what you cannot do) is needed to ensure safe patient care.
- It’s critical for all care providers to understand the limitations of their personal expertise/ experience and make appropriate referrals whenever needed. I’m not sure if this essential topic is covered in programs for people who are not regulated health care professionals.
There are nutritionists helping people effectively and safely, spreading evidence-based messages; however, there are also many people spreading incorrect or harmful information. While this is often not malicious, the problem still stands.
What About other Regulated Healthcare Professions? Can I Trust Nutrition Advice from Doctors, Nurses, Physiotherapists, etc.?
Other regulated health professions in Ontario include: physicians, psychologists, chiropractors, dentists, pharmacists, kinesiologists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, nurses, etc.
Each one of these regulated professionals has undergone the education needed to become experts in their field and that’s great! We need a variety of healthcare providers so the public can access the specific care they need. However, if you look at the curriculum for these other professions, little if any nutrition education is provided. That is the reason the dietetic profession exists: dietitians fill the nutrition gap in the healthcare team and can provide safe and ethical nutrition assessments and interventions.
You wouldn’t expect a dietitian to adjust your back, give you an injection, or perform surgery. You would expect the appropriately trained professional to do these specialized tasks. So why should you expect that anyone who isn’t trained extensively in nutrition to give you the accurate and individualized help and support you need for nutrition concerns?
Many people that provide nutrition advice are well-meaning; I know most people who talk about nutrition are not trying to cause harm. But nutrition is a complex science, and the more you know, the more you realize how little you know, and how critical proper education is. Just because we all eat food doesn’t mean we are all knowledgeable about nutrition and able to provide safe and ethical nutrition recommendations to others. There is a reason dietitians undergo such extensive training and education: it’s needed for a full understanding of human nutrition.
Certain healthcare providers other than dietitians have gone on to extensively study nutrition. But again, this is a matter of you (the public) needing to go and verify this education to be sure you are getting sound advice. If you want to skip that step, seek out a dietitian.
Why Don’t Doctors Learn More about Nutrition?
I often see people point out the lack of nutrition education in the medical and healthcare field. While I think it’s important for all healthcare providers to have some understanding of nutrition, the education for each healthcare profession is focused on what they need to know to perform their scope of practice.
The education doctors receive is so extensive, there isn’t enough time to fit in the needed nutrition education (remember, it takes 5 years to become a dietitian). Doctors receive a medical education, and dietitians receive a nutrition education. While it certainly couldn’t hurt to add an extra nutrition course requirement to the medical education, unless doctors want to be in school for almost double their current requirement, I would say it’s best to refer to dietitians.
Doctors have limited time to spend with each patient. Nutrition interventions take time and specialized support. Dietitians can take this time with each patient. They are also trained in techniques to support clients through their unique situations. This is yet another reason it is great for other healthcare professionals to refer to a dietitian.
Conclusions: A Dietitian vs a Nutritionist
There is a difference between a dietitian vs a nutritionist. Dietitians are experts in nutrition and the only regulated health profession qualified to provide nutrition counselling and medical nutrition therapy. Any education program that is less than the rigorous 5 years dietitians undergo is, in my opinion, not enough to provide safe and competent care to individuals.
Hopefully this article left you with something to think about in terms of where you get nutrition information. Learning how to navigate the world of nutrition for best sources of information is an important skill!
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Learn more about the Vegan Nutrition Cheat Sheet!
Please note that this is a curated list of references for the topics above and is not intended to be comprehensive.
- The ‘Doctor’ Behind the Alkaline Diet Popularized by Celebs Is Facing Jail Time
- Complaint dismissed against naturopath connected to Alberta boy’s meningitis death
- How ‘Natural’ Doctors Can Hurt You
- Naturopathy vs. patients: Patients lose
- Dietary supplements send more than 23,000 people to the ER each year
- Green Tea Supplements Could Be Hurting Your Liver, Researchers Say
- Ask the Expert: IV Nutrition Therapy
- Celeb Trend of ‘IV Vitamins’ Not a Good Idea
- “Detoxify or Die”: Qualitative Assessments of Ontario Nutritionists’ and Dietitians’ Blog Posts Related to Detoxification Diets
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