Both dietitians and nutritionists possess a deep knowledge of how different types of food impact our overall health. Consequently, they both use this knowledge to help people find the proper diet for their health needs.
Now while both professions share many similarities, such as the basis of what they do, where they work, and the salary range they fall into, they also have enough differences that make them distinct occupations, each on their own.
So what exactly separates a dietitian from a nutritionist? And which career is better for you under certain circumstances?
We give an in-depth analysis of all of these concerns and more below.
Dietician vs. Nutritionist - Job Description
While they both share certain similarities in function, one of the first ways to tell a dietitian from a nutritionist is in the full scope of what they do.
Who is a Nutritionist?
Nutritionists work with people who would like to learn more about the proper nutrition for them. People desire this knowledge for several reasons, including wanting to live healthier, get in shape for an event, or manage a condition.
A nutritionist’s job is to work with these people to understand their dietary preferences and devise an appropriate meal plan based on whatever goal they set out to achieve.
Nutritionists may work in clinical settings, school districts, research settings, sports organizations, and government positions.
Who is a Dietitian?
Like nutritionists, dietitians understand how various foods affect individuals based on their unique biological makeup. For this reason, they can devise a comprehensive plan focusing on taking advantage of helpful meals while eliminating harmful ones. In this sense, nutritionists and dietitians are no different.
What truly separates a dietitian from a nutritionist, however, is that dietitians are allowed specific roles and functions that nutritionists cannot perform. These include the ability to counsel, diagnose, and treat illnesses.
Dietitians work in several settings, including hospitals, outpatient and inpatient clinics, and long-term care facilities.
Differences in Responsibilities
Nutritionists are limited in what they can do in most states compared to dietitians. Below are some of the general roles and responsibilities of nutritionists.
- Assess clients’ nutritional needs.
- Develop diet plans considering the client’s health, meal preferences, and budget.
- Evaluate the effects of the plan on the client’s health
- Educate clients on healthy eating habits
- Stay up to date with the latest nutritional research
- Document the patient’s progress and make adjustments when necessary.
The limitations of a nutritionist compared to a registered dietitian are that they can’t offer counsel or diagnose/treat diseases.
Some states allow nutritionists to provide counsel, but they cannot seek insurance reimbursement. Other states require nutritionists to become certified to provide counseling, while some insist they must become registered dietitians.
Registered dietitians take on more comprehensive roles than nutritionists, as they don’t have the same legal restrictions as the latter. Below is a summary of the roles and responsibilities of a dietitian.
- Conduct a nutritional assessment of a patient’s diet, including medications and supplements.
- Understand food preferences and aversions, allergies, medical requirements, religious beliefs, and other factors that may influence what the patient can and can’t eat.
- Consider recurring medical conditions such as heart conditions or diabetes
- Create a nutrition plan with comprehensive dietary recommendations.
A dietitian can work in hospitals and implement meal plans for the cafeteria. They can do the same in schools, large food corporations, nonprofits, and government establishments.
Nutritionists have limited educational requirements compared to registered dietitians. Depending on the state of practice, becoming a nutritionist without formal education is possible.
You can also be a nutritionist with a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree.
To become certified, you’ll need additional training and education, which have varying duration depending on the certification in question. To become a Certified Nutrition Specialist, for example, you’ll need a Master of Science degree along with 35 hours of relevant coursework and 1000 hours of supervised work experience.
Dietitians must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree from a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). They must also obtain verification from a Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) and 1200 hours of supervised internship.
These qualify them to sit for the CDR(Commission on Dietetics Registration) exam. From 2024, this exam will require a minimum of a graduate degree.
Some states may have additional requirements for licensing.
Differences in Salary
The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the annual median salary of both professions simultaneously. As such, it often needs to be clarified to differentiate between both disciplines using this metric.
According to the BLS, the median pay for dietitians and nutritionists was $61,650 in May 2021. The lowest ten percent in both fields earned $42,530, while the highest ten percent earned $93,640.
Those who worked in outpatient facilities earned the most with a $75,640 annual average, while those in government followed with $61,830. Nutritionists and dietitians in hospitals earned $61,820, while those who worked in nursing and residential care facilities took home $60,840.
Choosing the Right Profession for You
Both professions are closely related, so choosing between them can be pretty challenging. Technically, the only difference between them is that only registered dietitians can counsel in most states, and only they can diagnose and treat medical conditions in all states.
Ultimately, choosing between them comes down to what you want to achieve in your career and what you value more than the other.
For instance, those who wish to work closely with people and help treat medical conditions should focus on becoming registered dietitians. On the other hand, those who want to support a wide range of people who eat healthier but are not necessarily concerned about diagnosing and treating medical conditions can do so by becoming nutritionists without worrying about becoming RDs.