Health

The Difference Between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist Is Really Important

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Whether you’re trying to lose weight, gain muscle, or just improve your general well-being as it relates to what and how you eat—seeing a dietary expert is a great idea. You do, after all, likely see specialists for all sorts of things related to your health, so why wouldn’t you see one for your diet?

One reason: There are so many books, experts, and plans out there that you might feel like you need to start taking night classes just to sort the hucksters from the legit.

The good news is that you don’t need a degree to sort this all out. All you need to do is find the expert with the right degree. And that’s incredibly important.

“Given the increase in online nutrition certification courses, more people are working in the field of nutrition than ever before,” says Kim Yawitz, R.D., a gym owner in St. Louis, MOO. “Because of this, there’s a lot of confusion about the differences between dietitians and nutritionists. And I get it—I often have to explain it to even my close loved ones.”

“That being said, the education, training, oversight, and legal scope of practice are very different for dietitians compared to nutritionists.”

Yawitz adds that these differences could dramatically help or hurt your well-being, especially if you have a chronic medical condition.

“As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I often get questions about what the differences are between a registered dietitian and a nutritionist. There is so much confusion among these terms, largely because the regulations for the term ‘nutritionist’ differ from state to state. In most states, almost anyone can call themselves a nutritionist after graduating a simple certificate course that takes just weeks or months to complete,” says Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., an inclusive plant-based dietitian in Stamford, CT.

We’re here to help you find the expert you need to help you achieve the goal you want.

The Difference Between Dietitians and Nutritionists

As the saying goes, not all nutritionists are dietitians, but all dietitians are nutritionists, says Yawitz.

“Regulations for nutritionists vary state by state,” says Gorin. “In certain states, such as Alaska and Florida, the term is strictly regulated. But in most states, anyone who offers general nutrition advice can call themselves a nutritionist. If someone wishes to gain licensure as a nutritionist, each state has certain regulations that they require.”

Not all nutritionists are dietitians, but all dietitians are nutritionists.

“In most states, anyone with an interest in nutrition can call himself a nutritionist regardless of training or experience,” says Yawitz. “By contrast, dietitians are required to complete a bachelor’s degree from an accredited program, followed by at least 1,200 hours of supervised practice and a passing score on the dietetic registration exam in order to become accredited. They also accrue a minimum of 75 hours of continuing education every five years to maintain their credentials.”

For instance, Gorin notes says “went to school for years and years and years to complete the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree (for me, this is in addition to two additional bachelor’s degrees), and I completed over 1,000 dietetic internship hours when I worked in hospitals, acute and long-term care facilities, a WIC facility, school nutrition programs, and private practice.”

That’s a lot of learning.

“Given their extensive training requirements, dietitians have a broader scope of practice than nutritionists. Dietitians are qualified and legally permitted to practice medical nutrition therapy (MNT)—meaning they can prescribe diets to help treat medical conditions,” says Yawitz, noting that this is actually illegal for nutritionists in most states.

“A nutritionist cannot perform medical nutrition therapy for disease states such as diabetes, celiac disease, or Crohn’s disease. This means that if a nutritionist is giving you personalized guidance on how to eat to live with one of these conditions, they are performing outside the realm that they are credentialed for,” says Gorin.

One more thing: Effective in January 2024, Gorin highlights that all registered dietitians in the United States will need to have received a master’s degree.

The Difference Between an R.D. and an R.D.N.

This answer is pretty straightforward: “The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) introduced R.D.N. as an alternative credential in 2013, partly to raise public awareness that all dietitians are also nutritionists,” says Yawitz. “The training and education are exactly the same for R.D.s and R.D.N.s, and the AND leaves it up to dietitians to decide which credential they prefer to use.”

So whether you see an “R.D.” (that’s “registered dietitian”) or an “R.D.N.” (“registered dietitian nutritionist”) next to a practitioner’s name, you should rest assured they underwent equally rigorous, in-depth training.

The Warning Signs of a Poor “Nutritionist”

Sadly, in this internet era, there are bad “nutrition” tips abound. Gorin emphasizes the importance of nutrition advice being rooted in research.

“Backed by science means that the guidance supports the body of current scientific literature, including peer-reviewed journals,” says Gorin. “Some of the advice not backed by science is pretty scary, such as eating 1,200 calories or less for a long period of time to lose weight in an unsupervised setting, avoiding fruit because it is ‘too high in sugar,’ and more.”

Of course, some nutritionists who don’t have the R..D credential excel at what they do.

“To be clear, there are lots of great nutritionists out there. The biggest red flag of a poor nutritionist is someone who’s operating out of their scope of practice,” says Yatiwz. “I’d also be leery of any nutritionist with a one-size-fits-all approach. A good nutritionist will individualize your plan based on your goals, food preferences, lifestyle, daily routines, diet history, and other factors. From there, she’ll help you to actually stick to that plan, providing ongoing support and troubleshooting.”

Yawitz shares a few ways to identify a one-size-fits-all nutritionist:

  • They talk more than they listen
  • They expect you to get right on board with a meal plan without easing you into it
  • They keep encouraging you to get on track when you’re struggling, without helping you dig deep into why you’re having so much trouble staying on plan

    “Be sure to look for someone who asks tons of questions and really takes the time to get to know you. I’ve had my clients tell me our sessions feel like therapy,” says Yawitz.

    What to Look For in a Good Dietitian

    Here are some things to look for when seeking out a dietitian that’s an excellent fit for you.

    “Ultimately, the registered dietitian you choose to work with should have experience working with patients in the field in which you are seeking expertise. So for instance, I work primarily with clients who want to eat a balanced plant-based diet. That’s my area of expertise. If you have cancer, you will want to seek out an oncology dietitian. If you have kidney failure, you will want to seek out a renal dietitian,” says Gorin.

    “If you are seeking treatment for prediabetes or diabetes, you will likely want to seek a dietitian who is also a certified diabetes educator and has the C..D.C.E.S credential. If you are seeking a sports dietitian, you will want to look for a certified sports dietitian with the C.S.S.D. credential,” she says.

    You want to make sure that the way the dietitian works with patients aligns with your philosophy.”

    Making sure you’re a fit beyond specialties goes a long way, too. “In addition to credentialing, you of course want to find a dietitian who meets your needs—including whether they accept your insurance, whether their food philosophy aligns with yours, etc.,” says Gorin.

    Keep in mind that consulting with a dietitian goes far beyond meal planning. “A good dietitian doesn’t just tell you what to eat—she’ll also help you identify and break down barriers to healthy eating. This can feel vulnerable at times, depending on what’s going on in your life, and requires a lot of trust and rapport,” says Yawitz, who recommends finding three or four dietitians who you think might be a good fit, then scheduling exploratory calls with them to determine whom to hire.

    How to Find a Good Dietitian

    First, both Gorin and Yawitz recommend searching for credentialed registered dietitians at eatright.org, the official website for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

    “Experience is only one part of finding a good dietitian. You want to make sure that the way that the dietitian works with patients aligns with your philosophies. For instance, some dietitians hand out strict meal plans whereas others teach intuitive eating,” says Gorin. “Oftentimes, a dietitian’s ‘About’ page will give you a good sense of the way that they work with clients, but you can also feel free to call the dietitian’s office and ask some questions before making an appointment.”

    Yawitz also shares that your doctor may also be able to provide a referral if you’re looking for a dietitian to help you manage a medical condition. In fact, some doctors may work in tandem with dietitians to help patients more holistically. Remember, as with any health professional, you want to feel comfortable and confident with your practitioner so don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you see fit before moving forward with an R.D. (or R.D.N.).

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