Dietitians (RDs) are certified by relevant bodies as food and nutrition experts who guide individuals with nutrition advice. Nutritionists (CNSs) also require advanced academic qualifications, though individuals also use this term with no training but are interested in nutrition.

You may need advice on diet and nutrition, but you wonder what truly defines the correct expertise you are seeking. The terms nutritionist and dietitian are often used interchangeably by many and could confuse. You will be interested to know that these two terms refer to different individuals with different roles. Although they advise people on the best foods and diets necessary for better health, their qualifications vary greatly. This article uses the regulation and definitions as used in the United States in helping you understand the available differences.

The Role of a Dietitian

In many countries, a dietitian is certified by relevant bodies as a food and nutrition expert who can guide individuals with nutrition advice. These individuals have attained a higher level of education in nutrition and dietetics, a field on nutrition, food science, and their effects on human health. Dietitian training equips them with the experience and expertise to offer evidence-based medical nutrition treatment and counseling to meet their nutritional needs. They can work across different settings such as research institutions, outpatient clinics, local communities, and hospitals.

Academic Credentials Required to be a Dietitian

Most countries have governing bodies and institutions that regulate the qualification of practitioners in the fields of nutrition. A person must meet the set criteria to be registered as a dietitian or dietitian nutritionist. In the United States, dietitians are regulated by the Academy of Nutrition, while Australia has a Dietitians association. Other countries have different governing bodies that offer qualified individuals a certification.

A person aspiring to be a dietitian must first graduate with a bachelor’s degree or have a similar credit from a reputable university or college offering accredited programs. The degree program will allow the undergraduate to study sciences, including organic and inorganic chemistry, biology and microbiology, anatomy, biochemistry, and physiology. Additionally, the student must also study nutrition courses during their undergrad.

The United States recently upgraded the requirements for all dietetics students to hold a master’s degree to be registered as a dietitian by the examination board. Additionally, the United States requires that all dietetics students be attached to a competitive internship program. The council must accredit these internships for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).

The students spend 900-1,200 hours supervised unpaid practice on four areas of study, carefully adhering to competencies and specific study requirements. They are also required to complete in-depth projects and present case studies done outside these hours. Moreover, at the end of the internship, the students are required to pass an exit exam supervised by the exam board. Those who pass the examination could then apply to become a registered dietitian.


Different states and countries vary on their certification requirement before the dietitian begins to practice. Some states require licensing of dietitians to practice, while in others, it is optional. Licensing has an additional advantage in that the dietitian takes a jurisprudence exam to ensure they practice in accordance with to laid down code of conduct for public safety.

Types of Dietitians

There are four categories of a dietitian, clinical, community, food and service management, and research dietitians. Clinical dietitians help with outpatient and inpatient hospital settings where they provide support to the doctors in treating several acute illnesses by supervising the nutrition of patients undergoing treatments. Research dietitians work with universities, research hospitals, or food service management to suggest nutrition interventions for certain illnesses.

A dietitian can also help with community advocating for public policies and providing needed expertise, such as in public health organizations championing women, infants, and children’s health. A dietitian in the food service management help oversees the manufacture of nutritional foods that meet the set standards with large organizations such as military base or school district.

Conditions Dietitians Treat

Registered dietitians can administer nutrition therapy that addresses a wide range of acute and chronic conditions depending on their practice setting. Therefore, they can treat nutrition-based issues arising from cancer or those associated with its treatments. They could also help individuals prevent diabetes.

They can also work with hospitals to treat those who need nutrients through feeding tubes and people who are clinically malnourished. Additionally, they work with individuals preparing for bariatric surgery, kidney issues, and eating disorders. Dietitians could also work with athletes to help enhance their performance through optimized nutrition.

Roles of a nutritionist

A nutritionist has a wide range of training and credentials in nutrition. Several states have varying qualifications that must be met by individuals calling themselves nutritionists. For example, they are often granted certifications, such as Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS), providing them with authority to practice nutritional care and other related medical therapy. Some states in the U.S, including Florida, Maryland, Alaska, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, provide the same license to CNSs and RDs known as Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (LDN) license.

People enthusiastic about nutrition and diet can call themselves nutritionists in states that do not regulate how these terms are used. The individual may use their interest in nutrition to run food blogs and work with clients that need nutrition advice. However, because most self-proclaimed nutritionists have no training and expertise in these fields, following their advice is considered harmful. It is important to check if the state you live in regulates the use of this title before contracting their services.

Academic qualifications for a Nutritionist.

In the United States, there may be no credentials needed to be a nutritionist in states that do not control the use of the term. One needs to have an interest in nutrition; however, states that regulate the use of this title, appropriate credentials are required. Nutritionists with CNS credentials have qualifications like doctors and nurses, requiring advanced health degrees and completed additional course work. They are also required to have completed set practice hours and passed examination supervised by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists.

Conditions that CNSs treat

Nutritionists can treat conditions similar to those handled by an RD. CNSs can administer prescribed nutrition therapy for managing chronic conditions. They also help in the community-based education programs that deal with nutrition.

However, nutritionists without any accreditation or license may pursue nutrition approaches outside traditional medicine that are either scientifically backed or not. Lack of proper training and knowledge makes their advice harmful, especially for those with serious health issues. 

The Bottom Line

CNSs and Dietitians are regulated and accredited by governing bodies with extensive formal education and training. Some countries and states require that dietitians and nutritionists meet additional qualifications before practicing for public safety. They can apply their skills and expertise in various settings, including research centers, hospitals, communities, and foodservice management. However, in some states in the U.S, the term nutritionists could refer to unregulated self-proclaimed individuals interested in nutrition but without proper knowledge and training.

Nataly Komova

Nutritionist. Bluffton University, MS In today's world, people's eating and exercise patterns have changed, and it is often lifestyle that is the cause of many diet-related illnesses. I believe that each of us is unique – what works for one does not help another. What is more, it can even be harmful. I am interested in food psychology, which studies a person's relationship with their body and food, explains our choices and desires for specific products, the difficulty of maintaining optimal body weight, as well as the influence of various internal and external factors on appetite. I'm also an avid vintage car collector, and currently, I'm working on my 1993 W124 Mercedes. You may have stumbled upon articles I have been featured in, for example, in Cosmopolitan, Elle, Grazia, Women's Health, The Guardian, and others.