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 dietician).
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 distinct professions. Continue reading this career guide to explore the similarities and the main difference between nutritionist and dietitian career paths.
An Overview of the Difference Between Nutritionists and Dietitians
Both nutritionists and dietitians specialize in nutritional sciences. And 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 are more thoroughly regulated than nutritionists. Dietitians need to undergo approved academic studies and more rigorous training to earn the credentials necessary 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.
Nutritionist vs. Dietitian: What Do They Do?
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 for patients in a hospital. However, nutritionists usually cannot provide medical nutritional counseling or diagnose or treat illnesses.
In contrast, a registered dietitian is a licensed 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 geared toward weight loss for clients with obesity.
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.
Where Do Nutritionists and Dietitians Work?
Although there are some differences regarding what nutritionists and dietitians can do, both can work in similar settings. Most such 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.
Here’s the breakdown of the other most common employers:
- 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.
Nutritional Sciences Degree for Nutritionists
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 degree program to enroll in, it is best to check the requirements for the state in which you plan to practice.
Nutritional Sciences Degree for Dietitians
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 January 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 about 900 to 1,200 practice hours working under supervision.2 Many internships require an exit exam for successful completion. After that, dieticians need to pass the national board certification exam and obtain state licensure to practice as an RD or RDN.
Is There a Demand for Nutritionists and Dietitians?
Individuals looking for a stable career field have long gravitated toward the healthcare professions. Healthcare is one of the few fields that can consistently be relied upon to continue experiencing considerable expansion. Like other healthcare professionals, nutritionists and dietitians are in high demand.
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. If you are still in high school or even if you are already working on your undergraduate degree, you have time to decide. 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 be able to 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 an excellent choice.
Another path to consider is that of a certified nutritionist. 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 1,000 hours of supervised practice hours.3
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 or health literacy promoter. Graduates will emerge with a solid framework of immediately applicable skills and knowledge that allows them to counsel clients regarding healthy lifestyle changes. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to explore your future at GCU.
1Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2024 Graduate Degree Requirement: Registration Examination Eligibility, in March 2021.
2American Nutrition Association, About the CNS Supervised Practice Experience (SPE) Program, in March 2021.
3Nutrition ED, Registered Dietitian Education in March 2021.
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.