Just what is the difference between the two?
By Tim Fenster
If you have never sought consultation from one of either before, chances are that you have never put much thought to the question — what’s the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian?
But while the titles might seem like two words for the same thing, patients should be mindful that there is an important difference.
Nicole Klem, director of the nutrition and dietetics program at Trocaire College, warns that the term nutritionist is a non-accredited title, unlike the accredited “dietitian.” She said that some “nutritionists” have simply given themselves their title.
“The term nutritionist is not protected by law in almost all countries so people with different levels of knowledge can call themselves a ‘nutritionist,’” Klem said.
She added that while some nutritionists do in fact have degrees in areas such as food science, human nutrition or food technology, they do not have any professionally supervised practical training. “[They] should not be involved in the diagnosis and dietary treatment of conditions,” she said.
Meanwhile, the titles of dietitian and dietetic technician are protected by law in the U.S. and Canada. Here in the U.S., Registered Dietitian Nutritionists and Nutrition and Dietetics Technicians, Registered (sic) must meet the educational, experiential and examination standards laid out by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest organization of food and nutrition professionals in the U.S.
This means that to use the dietitian title, prospective professionals must go through programs such as those offered at Buffalo State College and Trocaire. At Trocaire, students must complete a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree that includes three mandatory supervised field experience courses at health care facilities and community sites in the area.
“The program is designed to educate students in the areas of medical nutrition therapy and dietetics with a focus on the role of human nutrition in health and wellness,” Klem said.
Upon graduation, students are eligible to take the CDR’s registration examination for dietitians. Many move on to receive baccalaureate and master’s degrees in specific dietetic program concentrations, such as clinical nutrition, dietetics management and communication, public health nutrition and school nutrition (among others), while others look for work with their AAS degree.
Given the differences in training and certification requirements, Klem says nutritionists should not be relied upon unless it’s for basic culinary and nutritional advice, such as healthy recipes. Those with more serious ailments should see an RDN (registered dietitian nutritionist) or or NDTR (nutrition and dietetics technician, registered).
“I am very, very concerned that individuals without a broad and in-depth scientific understanding of human biology and food science are providing diagnoses with associated nutrition therapy to individuals who are seeking an answer to their distress,” Klem said. “Chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity can have multifaceted and complicated effects on the body, and (treatment) may not be as simple as a diet plan or supplement.”
Many insurance companies seem to agree, and require that medical nutrition therapy providers be RDNs or medical doctors.