The Difference Between Registered Dietitians (RDs) and Nutritionists

April 8, 2020

Welcome back! I hope you are nourishing yourself well and keeping your sanity while staying at home! I wanted to write a blog post on this topic because it’s one of my favorite things to educate both colleagues and clients about. Many non-nutrition professionals use “dietitian” and “nutritionist” interchangeably, but it certainly gets many of us RDs a bit fired up. There’s actually a HUGE difference!

To become an RD, you need to complete a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Starting in 2024, anyone who wants to become an RD will actually need a Master's degree (anyone who is already an RD with a Bachelor's will be grandfathered in and won’t have to complete a Masters. Personally, I had always planned on going back for my Master's at some point, so I did complete my Master's in 2018). Once you have the university accredited degree, you need to complete 1,200 hours of supervised practice experience under practicing and licensed RDs. There are three areas of dietetics you must complete in supervised practice; clinical work (hospital/rehab/long term care settings, shout out to Emerson Hospital and all the RDs there, I miss you!), community work (often non-profits and/or heavily lay-public education based. I did my community rotation at Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters), and foodservice work (usually school or hospital kitchens, I did my rotation at Community Servings in Jamaica Plain, MA). THEN, once you’ve spent about a year completing all of your supervised practice, you can sit for the national RD exam. Just like nursing board exams or MTELs for you educators out there, we have to study for months and months too, lose sleep, and cry over how stressed we are to take and pass our exam! (Yes, I did cry in my car after taking my exam and passing on the first try 😊). Once you are officially a Registered Dietitian, you need to maintain continuing education credits in a portfolio put out by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. If you fail to maintain continuing education credits, they’ll take away your RD credential. Beyond all the registration requirements, then there is licensing. In order to actually practice dietetics, you have to be licensed in your state; this basically means you have to pay a bunch of money to the state licensing board every two years. If you want to practice in multiple states, you need to be licensed in each state. On my website, you’ll notice my name is written as “Jennifer Belanger, MS RD LDN.” That means that I have a Master’s of Science, Registered Dietitian, and Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist credentials! Some RDs choose to use “RDN,” which means Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist. Both RD and RDN mean the exact same thing, it’s just personal preference which credential you use. This is a good segue into the term “nutritionist." All RDs are automatically nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are RDs!

Clearly, use of the RD credential is highly regulated. Conversely, the term “nutritionist” is NOT regulated AT ALL. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist and get away with it. My favorite example is the person with the “online certification.” You could very well take a weekend crash course online about nutrition, print out your certificate at the end, and start calling yourself a “nutritionist.” It’s so, so important that before taking advice from a “nutritionist” that you know their background and where they obtained the information that they are then selling to you. A huge red flag to be aware of is a nutrition professional that is trying to sell you a supplement, powder, or some other product. RDs have a strict code of ethics to abide by and you won’t find many RDs selling you anything. To be fair, there plenty of nutritionists out there who are incredibly smart and have an extensive educational background. Consider an individual who has their PhD in nutrition sciences, but just hasn’t taken the time to obtain their RD. PhDs have more schooling than I do! Or, consider nutritionists for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). WIC does not require their nutrition educators to be RDs, yet I know plenty of WIC nutritionists who are very educated in their area of expertise which is generally infant/toddler nutrition. Additionally, some RDs don’t mind being called “nutritionists” because the term is a little more user-friendly. For example, when I’m in a counseling session with a child, they usually haven’t heard the word “dietitian,” but they have heard the word “nutritionist.”

I hope that this clears up some of the confusion around this topic. If you’ve ever called me a “nutritionist” and I’ve corrected you, well, this is why! I worked very hard for my credentials, and I like to use them 😉.