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Nutritionist vs Dietitian: Understanding the Differences

Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Published in Industry

8 min read

June 13, 2023
a female dietitian working at her desk
a female dietitian working at her desk

There are a number of reasons you may want to seek guidance from a nutrition expert. If you’re in need of a trusted healthcare professional to provide healthy eating advice, meal plans, or even help you reach other health goals, it’s important to know how to choose the right nutrition professional to fit your dietary needs.

But with all of the different names and labels you may have heard used to describe someone who offers nutrition advice, you may be wondering what makes each of them unique. Is one credential better than another?

If you’re feeling confused about the difference between dietitians and nutritionists, we’re here to help. Here’s everything you need to know to navigate the many titles and qualifications of nutrition professionals.

What is a Nutritionist?

differences between rdns and nutritionists list

There are many nutrition credentials out there, and each one technically falls under the extremely broad heading of “nutritionist”, including dietitians. However, not everyone who calls themselves a nutritionist will meet the qualifications provided by specific credentials. 

In addition to the term registered dietitian, you may have heard of titles such as: 

  • Certified Nutrition Specialist
  • Holistic Nutritionist
  • Nutritional Therapy Practitioner 
  • Certified Nutritionist Consultant

In many states, almost anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. While they may not be able to legally add the words “licensed” or “certified” to that title without specific training, the term “nutritionist” can often be adopted freely. 

As you might guess, this means that in many states someone with little to no evidence-based training in nutrition science, biochemistry, or clinical nutrition can call themselves a nutritionist. This is why it’s important to learn more about the credentials and training someone might have before taking their nutrition advice or guidance to heart. 

What is a Dietitian?

A registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) is a highly trained and qualified nutrition professional. The RD/RDN designation is administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

To become a registered dietitian, you’ll need a  master’s degree in nutrition science or public health degree with a nutrition focus and a Dietetic Internship (DI). The ACEND (Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics) also requires that you gain at least 1,200 hours of supervised pre-professional experience.

Registered dietitians may go on to complete specialized board certification in seven different areas such as:

board certifications for dietitians list

In order to maintain the RD/RDN credential, dietitians must complete regular continuing professional education credits within a designated number of years. 

Is There a Difference Between a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)?

There is no real difference between a registered dietitian and a registered dietitian nutritionist. Anyone who is a registered dietitian can use the RD or RDN credentials interchangeably. So why do they both exist?

For many years, registered dietitians used only the RD credential, but in 2013, the credential was extended to include RDN. According to the Commission on Dietetic Registration, this was done to communicate a broader concept of wellness (including prevention of health conditions beyond medical nutrition therapy) as well as treatment of conditions.

What is a Certified Nutrition Specialist?

a dietitian holding an apple and taking notes

A Certified Nutrition Specialist, or CNS, is another highly qualified and trained nutrition professional. The Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) designation is administered by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS), the certifying arm of the American Nutrition Association. 

Many states accept the CNS credential or exam for licensure purposes. To qualify for the credential, applicants must have at least a master’s degree, complete 1,000 hours of supervised experience, and pass an exam. 

To maintain the CNS credential, these nutritionists must also complete continuing education credits within a designated number of years.

Other Types of Nutrition Certifications

a spread of fresh veggies

Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN) is another common credential you may come across. This certification has no supervised practice requirement and may not be eligible for licensure in most states.

Now that you know more about some of the more common nutrition credentials, you might be wondering about various other certifications you’ve seen online. There are also online programs that certify health coaches or create additional nutrition certifications. 

These might include things like:

This is far from an exhaustive list. For dozens of additional varieties, the AFPA alone offers around ten different types of holistic nutritionist certifications through their website. However, none of these credentials are eligible for licensing in most states.

Integrative and Functional Nutritionists

Functional nutrition is a branch of functional medicine gaining in popularity. Like functional medicine, functional nutritionists seek to go beyond symptom-based management and seek to identify root causes of diseases. 

One of the most common certifications for functional nutrition is through The Integrative and Functional Nutrition Academy (IFNA). Those eligible for this credential may include health care practitioners (i.e. RDNs, RNs, MDs, NDs, PAs, MSW, etc.), dietetic interns, and Masters or Doctorate level students in the health science/nutrition field.

Functional Nutrition Degree Programs  

There are many schools now offering a variety of degrees in functional nutrition. For example, Saybrook University’s Master of Science in Integrative and Functional Nutrition degree program is designed to fulfill the current academic requirements for the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential. 

Another example is Bastyr University’s Master of Science in Nutrition/Didactic Program in Dietetics (MSN/DPD). This program combines an integrative and functional nutrition-focused curriculum within the didactic program for dietetics in order to meet the requirements for the Registered Dietitian/Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RD/RDN) credential. 

Outlining the Key Differences Between Types of Nutritionists

a dietitian and her client creating a meal plan

Who should you trust when looking for guidance in improving your diet and overall health? Here are some of the differences between types of nutritionists and the training they receive.

1) Education

There are many different nutrition education programs out there, though they aren’t all created equal in terms of the training involved. Many of them can lead to a number of different career paths.

Some programs such as those for RD/RDN and CNS credentialing may require at least a two-year master’s degree, a clinical internship or supervised practice program, and passing a board exam. Some other certifications may be obtainable after as little as a two week online course.

This isn’t to say that some of the individuals completing the less involved programs aren’t excellent health coaches. However, they lack the more in-depth training that would allow them to work in more advanced clinical nutrition settings or be able to offer custom nutrition therapy advice. 

2) Certification and Licensure

As discussed earlier, the requirements for certification and licensure for credentials like RD/RDN and CNS and others vary by state. The board certifications associated with those are:

  • Commission on Dietetic Registration (for RD/RDN)
  • Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (for CNS)
  • Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (for CCN)

However, you might also have heard of The Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board (HNCB). They offer two credentials:

  • BCHN (Board Certified Holistic Nutritionist)
  • CNP (Certified Nutrition Professional)

Unfortunately, there are no regulations for the use of the BCHN and CNP credentials. Many states do not regulate the use of the holistic nutritionist title, meaning that the BCHN and CNP credentials are not licensed in any state

3) Areas of Expertise

a dietitian holding a chart and talking to her client

As described above, RDs/RDNs and CNS are two of the more common groups of nutrition professionals who are qualified and legally able to provide more in-depth nutrition therapy guidance, depending on the state licensure. Some areas of expertise for these individuals may include  nutrition support for:

  • Chronic disease prevention and management for conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney and liver disease, cancer, gastrointestinal conditions, and many others
  • Acute and critical care (RD/RDN only)
  • Athletes and sports performance
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Health and wellness optimization

4) Scope of Practice  

a dietitian holding a clipboard and talking to a client

Customized nutrition therapy plans for personalized support are important for reaching your goals. However, not everyone will be legally able to provide those plans.

Depending on the state licensure laws, RD, RDN, and/or CNS will be the credentials primarily required for nutritionists in order to provide custom medical nutrition therapy guidance. Many states and insurance providers place limitations on specific nutrition counseling.

Some states allow different types of nutritionists to perform nutrition counseling, but they cannot seek reimbursement from insurance. There are states that require nutritionists to be licensed before they can provide nutrition counseling, and others require a professional to be an RD/RDN to lawfully provide nutrition counseling.

Who Should I See for Health Counseling?

a woman drinking a green juice and working at the computer

At Nutrisense, we are a little bit partial. We want you to feel confident in the nutrition guidance you receive. That’s why we feel it’s important to ensure our members get top quality nutrition guidance from some of the most qualified experts in the field.

Our team of nutritionists all possess either an RD/RDN or CNS credential. In addition to this, we look for individuals who have experience and additional training in integrative and functional nutrition. 

To learn more about how Nutrisense’s nutrition team can help you reach your health and wellness goals, click here.

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Jordyn Wallerius, MS, RDN, CD

Reviewed by: Jordyn Wallerius, MS, RDN, CD

Jordyn has a bachelor’s degree in biology, a graduate degree in Human Nutrition and completed a dietetic internship at the Memphis VA. She's a dietitian at Nutrisense, and has experience working as a clinical dietitian at a VA medical center specializing in oncology and at the Mayo Clinic, working with a wide range of patients ranging from neonates in the NICU to adult ICU.