What's the Difference Between a Dietitian and Nutritionist?
Making a change in your diet for any reason — whether to lose weight, gain muscle, or improve a health condition — isn’t the easiest thing to do. Not only because you may not be 100 percent certain how to adapt your eating pattern — How do I get enough protein if I eat more plants? How much fat should I have at a meal? Would going gluten-free be best for me? — but because when you’re only accountable to yourself, it’s easy to fall off your plan.
That’s where a registered dietitian or nutritionist comes in. Seeing someone trained in nutrition, and who has experience helping others with your particular concerns (e.g., sports nutrition or diabetes prevention), can help you meet your goals and ensure that your eating plan is in fact healthy.
But confusion over what differentiates a dietitian from a nutritionist can make it hard to know who to consult. And then there are professionals who call themselves holistic nutritionists.
When it comes down to it, “they all do the same thing, which is tell you how to eat,” says Denis Faye, Executive Director of Nutrition for Openfit.
That said, their education and approach to dispensing that guidance varies. To ensure that you get advice that’s healthy and helps you reach your goals, use the guide below to compare a dietitian vs. nutritionist vs. holistic nutritionist.
What Is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist?
The titles registered dietitian (RD) and registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) are interchangeable. And you can trust that anyone bearing either credential has a thorough background in nutrition education. In order to become a dietitian, you must meet specific requirements, including:
- Earn at least a bachelor’s degree with course work approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
- Complete a 1,200-hour (6–12 months) ACEND-accredited supervised internship at a healthcare facility, community agency, and/or food service corporation
- Pass a national examination administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration
- Complete continuing professional educational requirements to maintain registration on an ongoing basis
“Having this certification means you have a baseline of knowledge and abilities, and you can treat certain conditions,” explains Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It’s illegal to use RD or RDN if you haven’t gone through the program.”
What does a registered dietitian nutritionist do?
With their education, a registered dietitian can work with you to create an eating plan tailored toward specific goals.
“RDNs are the ultimate nutrition professionals,” Davis says. “If you see someone with that credential, you can be confident you are getting someone who has the knowledge to help treat your condition. Or, if they are not specialized in that area, they will know who to refer you to.”
For example, while most dietitians can help you lose or manage weight, some specialize in helping patients with diabetes, cancer, sports nutrition, or eating disorders; others are certified in integrative and functional medicine; and there are many other areas in which RDNs can earn certificates.
Potential downside of seeing a registered dietitian nutritionist
While an RD or RDN will have the proper education and knowledge about protein, carbs, and fats, as well as how to manage various health conditions with a proper diet, some of them can get stuck in the dogma of their discipline, Faye says.
“They think that is the way of the world, and that’s the way we have to eat, and we have to follow what they were taught,” he explains. “That kind of concrete knowledge is great, but we need to think outside the box sometimes.”
Davis acknowledges that, as in any profession, there are some older dietitians who may not have evolved along with the latest research. However, “there are rigorous continuing education requirements to keep the credential, and this forces you to do additional research and reading and education and to stay current,” she says. “Plus the specializations are constantly being updated with the latest research.” So not all RDs are stuck in their ways.
How to pick a registered dietitian nutritionist
Just because you see RDN or RD after someone’s name doesn’t guarantee they’re the right fit for you. Check out their website for any additional information on their approach to working with clients, as well as their specializations, if you’re looking for someone who’s knowledgeable about exercise and sports, weight loss, diabetes, or holistic and functional medication, for example. Then give them a call.
“Talk to them,” Davis recommends. “Ask, ‘What is your philosophy? How do you evaluate [nutrition] claims?'” This will help you understand what it’s like to work with them, and whether they immediately jump on diet fads, summarily dismiss new research, or take the time to see what the science says before making a determination.
If you need help finding an RD, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers a national referral service. Its database matches doctors, companies, and restaurants with qualified dietitians and nutritionists.
What Is a Nutritionist?
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “all registered dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians.” So a dietitian and a nutritionist are not necessarily the same thing.
“Anyone can use the title ‘nutritionist,'” Faye explains. “There is no defined answer.”
Although some may have a PhD in nutrition or a specific area of nutrition such as sports nutrition, “you can take a weekend program, and on Monday call yourself a nutritionist and sell your services,” Davis says.
What does a nutritionist do?
That said, there are a number of credible nutrition certification programs. Depending on their education and training, a nutritionist may be able to offer the same recommendations as a dietitian. Or, depending on their specialization, they may be even more qualified to dispense guidance in a given area, such as pediatric, gerontological, or sports nutrition.
Potential downside of seeing a nutritionist
Because of the lack of regulation over the designation, “a nutritionist may have little or no science of nutrition,” Davis says.
If you’re seeking general health and wellness advice, that probably isn’t a big deal. However, if you have a medical condition or chronic issue, this can be dangerous, as you may not get accurate information, she cautions.
“It’s a crap shoot,” Davis says. “You could get someone knowledgeable, but you may get someone who gives incorrect advice or guidance that’s not based on science because they don’t know how to evaluate [research and evidence] critically.”
How to pick the right nutritionist
If you’re considering a nutritionist, look for their education on their website or ask during a consultation call. Dig into their education and what programs they’ve taken. “What did they study? How long did they study it? It can be confusing, because the certificate may sound fancy, but is it a 2-month online program? Is the program accredited?” Davis says.
What Is a Holistic Nutritionist?
With the increasing interest in alternative medicine, some people now use the label “holistic nutritionist.”
As with the “nutritionist” title, this term isn’t regulated, so someone can use the term without any formal education. “Some of it is baloney, but some of it has a through line of truth,” Faye says.
As for education, there are different certification programs. “There are courses you can do on a weekend or in a couple of weeks and say you’re a holistic nutritionist,” Faye explains. “Some [holistic nutritionists] are great, because they have foundational knowledge from a lifetime of personal experience dealing with people.”
What does a holistic nutritionist do?
Although for the most part there is no standardized description of a holistic nutritionist, this type of expert looks at the “whole person” when prescribing any type of diet or eating plan. The focus, also practiced by some RDs and nutritionists, is on overall good health rather than a specific outcome, such as weight loss or managing irritable bowel syndrome.
Potential downside of seeing a holistic nutritionist
In the world of holistic nutrition, be wary of anyone who recommends a lot of supplements, Faye says. “There are some holistic practitioners who make money selling you powders and pills,” he says. “If they say you need a whole bunch of supplements to be healthy, be cautious. It’s more important to have a sound diet.”
How to pick the right holistic nutritionist
As with any health professional, check into the education and philosophy of a holistic nutritionist before you begin seeing them.
How Much Does It Cost to See a Nutritionist or Dietitian?
Some health insurance plans cover nutrition counseling, but this varies from plan to plan. For example, some may only cover counseling for specific conditions, some may cover a limited number of visits, and some may only cover registered dietitians in network. So call your health insurance provider to learn what, if anything, is covered.
If you need to pay any amount out of pocket, the cost of nutritional counseling varies widely. Determining factors include the professional’s education, years of experience, location, specialization, and private practice vs. group practice vs. clinical setting. Many experts will offer a sliding scale or a discounted rate if you buy a package of sessions, so ask.
Registered Dietitian vs. Nutritionist vs. Holistic Nutritionist: Which Should You See?
Deciding whether you want to see a registered dietitian, a nutritionist, or a holistic nutritionist is a personal choice.
“It depends on your mindset,” Faye says. “Personally, if I had a medical problem, I’d lean toward a registered dietitian because they will have that super foundational knowledge on how to deal with that thing. However, if I were an athlete, I’d look to a sports nutritionist who’s dealt with sports teams or athletes. Or if you’re holistic minded and believe in that, then if you can find a holistic practitioner, you should.”
Or if you prefer to see an RDN because of their education credentials but you have a specific concern, look at their individual specializations. Areas of expertise include sports nutrition, weight loss, diabetes, or integrative and functional medicine for those seeking a holistic approach.
Once you’ve identified potential experts, check out their websites and reviews. Then talk to them to verify their education, certifications, and philosophy. Ask how they evaluate claims about nutrition and diets to see if they’re able to review and understand research. Try to get a feel for whether they stay up to date on all nutrition topics.
“Are they willing to explain themselves and answer your questions without getting defensive? If you push them for information and want to know the why, and they get frustrated, it’s not a good match,” Faye says.
It all comes down to “do you trust them?” he adds. “Go with your personal beliefs, and find someone who suits what you think is right.”