Nutritional science is a fascinating field that studies how food choices either optimize or jeopardize human health. If you are passionate about following a healthy lifestyle, you may be interested in earning your nutritional sciences degree and becoming a nutritionist or dietitian (also known as a registered dietician nutritionist).
However, what exactly is the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian? These terms are often used interchangeably. Although there is considerable overlap, they refer to two distinct professions. Continue reading this career guide to explore the similarities and the main differences between nutritionist and dietitian career paths.
In This Article:
- Nutritionist vs. Dietitian
- Is There a Need for Nutritionists and Dietitians?
- Nutritionist vs. Dietitian: Which Career Is Right for You?
- Earn Your Nutritional Sciences Degree From GCU
Nutritionist vs. Dietitian
Both nutritionists and dietitians specialize in nutritional sciences. Both professions focus on helping individuals and groups of people make healthy decisions to manage underlying medical conditions or improve overall wellness.
The main difference between the two career paths is that dietitians have demonstrated meeting certain criteria through educational competencies and passing the credentialing exam. Dietitians need to undergo approved academic studies and more rigorous training and pass a national credentialing exam to call themselves registered dietitians (RDs) or registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs). In contrast, there are fewer steps to becoming a nutritionist. Dietitians, therefore, have certain professional abilities and privileges that non-regulated nutritionists do not have. A nutritionist has many more regulations and less ability to provide nutritional advice.
Nutritionists and dietitians both work with groups and with individuals one-on-one, teaching about general nutrition and the effects of food choices on health. Different states set different regulations regarding what nutritionists can do, but in general, they can help clients learn about food and nutrition. They may also develop meal plans, either for individuals or in some states, patients in a hospital. However, nutritionists usually cannot provide medical nutritional counseling or diagnose or treat illnesses.
In contrast, a registered dietitian is a credentialed professional. In addition to doing everything a nutritionist can do, an RD can provide medical nutritional therapy and counseling. Dietitians can help diagnose and treat certain illnesses. For example, an RD may provide nutrition-based treatments to diabetic patients or develop nutrition plans in a clinic setting. An RD can also develop nutrition plans for athletes.
Additionally, dietitians often work closely with mental health professionals to screen patients for eating disorders. They may develop nutrition plans for patients who are struggling to overcome an eating disorder or another health condition, such as substance abuse.
When considering the question, What is the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian? you should also examine the typical work environments of a nutritionist vs. dietitian. Although there are some differences regarding what nutritionists and dietitians can do, both can work in similar settings.
Many nutritional science professionals work in clinical settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, other long-term care facilities and outpatient clinics. Others work for government agencies, including state health departments, private facilities, school districts, professional sports organizations and research centers.
Some other common employers for nutritionists and dietitians include:
- Government agencies, including health departments
- Nursing homes and other residential care facilities
- Outpatient care centers
If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you might consider launching your own wellness company, providing nutritional counseling to health-minded individuals in your community.
Another way to examine the question, “What’s the difference between a dietitian and nutritionist?” is to take a look at the academic requirements for these different roles. One of the main academic differences is that the requirements for nutritionists vary depending on the jurisdiction, whereas the requirements for dietitians are more standardized across states. In addition, another difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist is that aspiring dietitians must generally achieve a higher level of education.
Specific requirements for nutritionists vary widely from one state to the next. In many states, the use of the title “nutritionist” is not regulated. In other states, an aspiring nutritionist must obtain certain certifications in order to practice. Before you choose a nutritional sciences program to enroll in, it is best to check the requirements for the state in which you plan to practice.
Getting a Degree To Become a Dietitian
Before becoming a registered dietitian, an individual must meet the criteria set, in the United States, by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). An aspiring RD must complete an accredited nutritional sciences or dietetics degree. Beginning Jan. 1, 2024, aspiring dietitians must also have a master’s degree.1
After completing most of your coursework, aspiring dietitians must also complete an accredited dietetics internship (DI). These internships allow you to develop in-depth skills and knowledge across all dietetics competencies. Expect a minimum of 1,000 practice hours working under supervision.2 After that, dietitians need to pass the national board credentialing exam and obtain state licensure to practice as an RD or RDN.
Is There a Need for Nutritionists and Dietitians?
Individuals looking for a stable career field might want to consider healthcare professions. Healthcare is a field with reliability and consistency as people always need help with their physical and mental health.
Like other healthcare professionals, nutritionists and dietitians are needed. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for dietitians and nutritionists to increase by about 7% from 2021 to 2031, as fast as average, accounting for an estimated increase of 5,100 jobs in the field.3
Nutritionist vs. Dietitian: Which Career Is Right for You?
Even after learning about the similarities and differences between nutritionists and dietitians, it may be challenging to discern which career path is more appropriate for you. Whether you’re still in high school or working on your undergraduate degree, you have time to decide. It is important however to be mindful and do research on what career path is the best fit for you. Changing major especially later in your degree program can cause a delayed graduation and incur additional costs. Consider connecting with your school’s career services office and its alumni network. You might even be able to discuss your options with graduates who have gone into nutritional science careers.
Before making your decision, consider which state you may want to practice in. Research that state’s regulations regarding nutritionists vs. dietitians. Then, consider whether you are interested in pursuing the advanced degree and training required of dietitians or whether you might prefer to become a nutritionist and enter the workforce sooner.
Your decision-making process should also consider exactly what kind of work you are interested in. For example, to provide medical nutritional therapy to patients with specific conditions, such as eating disorders and diabetes, you would need to become an RD. However, if you are primarily interested in providing general nutritional guidance, and the state you wish to practice in doesn’t heavily regulate nutritionists, then becoming a nutritionist may be the right choice for you.
Another path to consider is that of a certified nutritionist. This path does not have many job opportunities but this can be an ideal career path for those who are passionate about the public health field. To qualify for certification through the ANA, you will need to earn a master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited school and pass the certification exam. You will also need to complete 1,200 supervised practice hours.4
Earn Your Nutritional Sciences Degree From GCU
If you’re passionate about helping others achieve better health through good nutrition, consider earning your nutritional sciences degree at Grand Canyon University. The Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences program prepares students to pursue a rewarding career as a nutritionist. Graduates will emerge with a solid framework of immediately applicable skills and knowledge that allows them to counsel clients regarding healthy lifestyle changes. Fill out the form on your page and begin exploring your future at GCU.
1 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (n.d.). 2024 Graduate Degree Requirement: Registration Examination Eligibility. Retrieved April 11, 2023.
2 American Nutrition Association. (n.d.). About the CNS Supervised Practice Experience (SPE) Program. Retrieved April 11, 2023.
3 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is effective September 2022, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Dietitians and Nutritionists, retrieved on April 17, 2023.
4 Nutrition ED. (n.d.). Registered Dietitian Education. Retrieved April 11, 2023.
Approved by the associate dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology on June 5, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.