We explain the key differences between the two.

By Rebecca Norris
November 10, 2020
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Credit: Getty / Mladen_Kostic

When it comes to understanding more about what and how to eat mindfully, turning to a dietitian or nutritionist could help. But which expert should you choose? So often, we assume that the two professions are simply interchangeable as the same thing: a food expert. However, when you get down to brass tacks, there truly is a difference.

According to Florida-based registered dietitian nutritionist Lee Cotton, a dietitian is the true expert in the field of nutrition. "Dietitians provide evidence-based medical nutritional therapy," she says, noting that a dietitian has credentials and licensure. What's more, as a result of those credentials, dietitians are able to provide fact-based nutrition education on chronic diseases and provide a nutritional prescription if need be.

Because of this, Brigid Titgemeier, functional medicine registered dietitian and founder of My Food Is Health, says that it's best to visit a dietitian (RD) or certified nutrition specialist (CNS) if you have any health concerns relating to the food you're eating. "Ensure you are working with a licensed or certified healthcare practitioner that has advanced schooling in nutrition and over one thousand hours of clinical experience," she advises. "This is especially important if you have any health condition that would impact nutrition recommendations such as hypothyroidism, high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, PCOS, acid reflux, and so on."

As for nutritionists? Despite the seemingly-scientific name, Cotton says that the term nutritionist is unregulated in regards to professional titles. "Dietitians are nutritionists' the 'N' in 'RDN' stands for Registered Dietitian Nutritionist," she explains, noting that anyone can broadly label themselves as a nutritionist. Ultimately, then, a dietitian is always a nutritionist—but a nutritionist is not always a dietitian. "It's fairly easy to become a nutritionist through short online nutrition certification programs," Titgemeier explains.

On the other hand, dietitians have a bachelor's degree in nutrition and, most often, a master's degree in nutrition or a related field. What's more, Titgemeier says that dietitians must go through a dietetic internship to practice, which involves completing 1,200 hours of clinical rotations and passing a board certification program.

While registered dietitians are almost always a better option than nutritionists, they aren't the only trustworthy nutrition experts out there. According to Titgemeier, if you want to work with a professional who takes a more holistic approach, you can seek the advice of a functional medicine registered dietitian, which she is. Just be sure that they have continued their education and received additional board certification through the Integrative and Functional Nutrition Academy (IFNA).

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