Many people are unaware there’s a difference between the term dietitian (dietician) and nutritionist. They’re often used interchangeably along with many other titles like holistic nutritionist or nutrition coach.
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Dietitian and Nutritionist Education Requirements
The main difference between a dietitian and nutritionist is the mandatory education requirements that dietitians must earn.
How to Become a Dietitian
Requirements to become a dietitian or Registered Dietitian vary depending on the country/ region you live in. However, basic requirements usually require someone to:
- Complete a 4-year undergraduate university program
- Complete a 1 or 2-year post-graduate program
- Pass a national registration exam
- Maintain registration with a regulatory body (includes continuing education)
In Canada, undergraduate degrees must be an accredited nutrition and dietetic degree and these programs are competitive to gain acceptance to.
Furthermore, post-graduate programs are highly competitive, with less than 50% of students, who have completed their undergraduate degree, being accepted.
The post-degree program was previously called an internship as it involves completing placements at a variety of organizations, typically over 10-12 months with full-time hours. Post-graduates rotate through work environments under the supervision of experienced dietitians.
It takes a minimum of 5-years of full-time education and training to become a dietitian. Continuing education is required, typically on a yearly basis.
How to Become a Nutritionist
Depending on where you live, there may be no requirements to become a nutritionist. This is because the term nutritionist is only regulated in a few locations (in Canada, the provinces Alberta, Nova Scotia and Quebec are regulated).
In most of Canada (and other places) anyone can use the title nutritionist, even without earning an education. That said, most people using the term nutritionist have completed at least some education.
There are a wide range of nutrition programs available, online or at post-secondary schools. These range in length from 1 or 2 days to a couple of weeks (or months).
Some nutritionists may have completed more extensive education (such as an undergraduate degree or even master’s degree). Even with education, the term dietitian can only be used by those who follow the strict list of steps above.
In most places there are no educational requirements to be a nutritionist. Nutritionists may have any level of education from none to bachelors or even master’s degrees.
Licensing and Registration Requirements
The second important distinction between dietitians and nutritionists is how these titles are regulated.
Dietitians must be licensed with a provincial or state body and are held to many standards of practice. The provincial or state body oversees dietitians who are registered with them to ensure the dietitians meet quality standards, practice ethically, and continue their education.
This system lets the public complain if they believe a dietitian is not practicing competently or ethically. Investigated complaints may lead to disciplinary action, or if the offence is great enough, loss of registration (no longer able to use the title dietitian).
Registered Dietitians vs. Registered Nutritionists
You may often see dietitians refer to themselves as Registered Dietitians or use the letters RD with their name. The term dietitian, Registered Dietitian or RD can be used interchangeably as these titles are regulated and can only be used by dietitians.
There are also people using terms like registered nutritionist and registered holistic nutritionist. Like any nutritionist title, these titles are also not regulated.
This means there are no rules, guidelines or standards overseeing the people using these titles or the organizations offering these titles to people. There is also no formal system for the public to file complaints against practitioners who use these titles.
This isn’t to say nutritionists aren’t practicing in a competent or ethical manner, just that there isn’t a system in place to ensure they are.
Dietitian and Nutritionist Career Opportunities
The career opportunities available for dietitians or nutritionists vary. Dietitians can typically work in any nutrition-related setting, whereas nutritionists may be limited depending on their individual education level.
What Does a Dietitian Do?
Dietitians work in many diverse settings including:
- Clinical nutrition/ patient care: Dietitians work in hospitals, doctors’ offices, private practices and other settings offering individualized nutrition care for people with medical conditions or who are seeking a healthier lifestyle. Dietitians often specialize in certain practice areas (diabetes, thyroid health, cancer, eating disorders, heart health, acute care, tube feeding, sports nutrition)
- Community nutrition: Many organizations within a community (schools, long-term care homes, community centers, grocery stores) have dietitians working with them. In these roles, dietitians may offer one-on-one sessions or group nutrition education sessions, sometimes including cooking and food skills education.
- Food service: Dietitians have long worked in food service for large organizations like hospitals, long-term care homes or the military. In these roles, dietitians oversee the operations that feed large groups of people.
- Government and public health organizations: There are dietitians who work in public health offices and with government to help guide policy decisions and educate the public on nutrition.
- Food industry: Some dietitians work with large companies to create and market foods.
- Research: Dietetic education relies heavily on research and some dietitians go on to work as researchers, helping to inform dietetic practice.
- Media: A newer career option for some dietitians is in media or online settings (blogging, content creation, social media, traditional media).
There are no limits to the work a dietitian can do within these fields. There are countless less conventional job opportunities as well!
What Does a Nutritionist Do?
Technically, a nutritionist can work in any job that they are qualified for. However, many organizations require someone to be a Registered Dietitian to be hired.
If you’re interested in traditional career opportunities (working in a hospital), becoming a dietitian may be the only way forward.
Many nutritionists are self-employed, running private practices or working in media.
They may also work in the food industry (particularly if they have a degree if food science) or research (if they have an advanced degree). There are also opportunities in community nutrition settings or public education.
Nutritionists are more likely to work at alternative healthcare centers as opposed to hospitals or doctors’ offices. It’s also common to find nutritionists working in health food stores or supplement stores.
Summary: Dietitians vs. Nutritionists
In many places, there is a difference between dietitians and nutritionists. Dietitians have strict education and registration requirements. Nutritionists have varying levels of education and experience.
Whichever career you choose, or whichever professional you decide to work with, knowing the differences between these titles is important.
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About Nicole Stevens
Nicole is a vegan Registered Dietitian (RD) and founder of Lettuce Veg Out.
She helps people thrive on a vegan diet with balanced recipes and easy-to-understand nutrition science.