What’s the difference between a Registered Dietitian and a Nutritionist?

The short answer is that Registered Dietitians are Nutritionists, but not all “Nutritionists” are Registered Dietitians.

There is no legal definition for “Nutritionist” so technically anyone can give themselves this title. Because of this, people with little or no formal education can call themselves “Nutritionists.” It is a case of “buyer beware.” In Washington State, to be a ‘Certified Nutritionist’ one must only possess a master’s degree in Nutrition. While this may sound good, it does not ensure the “Nutritionist” has completed any standardized coursework or had clinical training to prepare him/her to provide medical nutrition therapy to patients. It also does not ensure that the nutritionist has a good understanding of the science behind current research. There is no recognized professional certification exam, and no requirements for continuing education for ‘Certified Nutritionists’ in the state of WA. While there are some good “Certified Nutritionists” the Registered Dietitian credential ensures a well-defined and standardized education, level of expertise, and mandatory continued education to stay current.

A Registered Dietitian/Nutritioinst

is a food and nutrition expert who has met the minimum academic and professional requirements to qualify for the nationally recognized credential “RD or RDN.”

Educational and Professional Requirements for a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist

Registered Dietitian/Nutritionists must meet the following criteria to earn the RDN credential:

  • Receive a bachelor’s degree from a U.S. regionally accredited university or college and complete course work to meet standards approved by the Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education of the American Dietetic Association. Students wishing to become registered dietitians study subjects including food and nutrition sciences, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, anatomy and chemistry, foodservice systems management, business, economics, computer science, culinary arts, sociology, communications, and education.
  • Complete a CADE-accredited supervised practice program at a health-care facility, community agency or a food service corporation or combined with undergraduate or graduate studies. Typically, a practice program will run six to 12 months in length. It is this clinical internship experience which sets the RDN apart from other nutrition professionals. This is where the RDN gains knowledge and experience about interpreting medical labs, assessing patient needs, understanding food and medication interactions, and collaborating with other medical professionals as part of a health care team.
  • Pass a national professional examination administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. This is an extensive, comprehensive exam that generally takes 3 to 5 hours to complete.
  • Complete continuing professional educational requirements to maintain registration. (In Washington state a Certified Dietitian must be a Registered Dietitian. To maintain “RDN” status, the professional must meet professional continuing education requirements (75 units/ 5 years) to help ensure they are current with their education and information.)

Though not yet required, many Registered Dietitian/Nutritionists also have master’s degrees.  The Commission on Dietetic Registration has announced that a graduate degree will be a necessary requirement for new RDNs beginning in 2024. Consequently, universities are already beginning to modify their RDN degree programs to meet this requirement.

Many Registered Dietitian/Nutritionists hold additional certifications in specialized areas of practice, such as pediatric or renal nutrition, sports nutrition, nutrition support or diabetes education. These certifications are require a minimum of 1000 hours of experience in the specialized field, and passing a written exam, and must be renewed every 5 years. They awarded through CDR, the credentialing agency for Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and other medical and nutrition organizations, and are recognized within the profession but are not required.commision on dietetic registration.