You see it all the time – a “nutritionist” on TV, authoring a magazine article, writing a book about how you can change your life by eating x,y,z. And then there are those people with all these letters following their names – “R.D.”, “R.D.N.”, “L.D.”, “L.D.N.”, etc. Who does what? What does it all mean? And most importantly, how do you know which kind of person is going to give you the most sound and safe nutrition advice?

The laws and rules regarding titles like “nutritionist” vary from state to state. In Ohio, for example, an individual may not use the title of “nutritionist” or anything that suggests they provide nutritional guidance unless they are a Registered Dietitian. In Maryland, if you once read a book about nutrition or think food is pretty delicious and want to tell other people about that, there are no rules preventing such a person from calling themselves a nutritionist. With that said, there are also a number of Registered Dietitians who call themselves “nutritionists” on a day-to-day basis because they feel it is a more relatable and approachable term for the general public.

What is the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?

So, what is this Registered Dietitian thing? Time and time again I hear people say that they think a Dietitian is someone who puts them on diets or works in hospitals, while a Nutritionist is something…gentler, more holistic, less clinical. Registered Dietitians do work in hospitals – they are the ONLY nutrition professionals who are qualified to do so! But, they also work in the community, in private practice, at gyms, etc. A Registered Dietitian is someone who has earned certain credentials that symbolize they have gone through a particular form of education, training, and testing, much like the “M.D.” behind a doctor’s name signifies their extensive training.

While a “nutritionist” may have no formal or real nutrition training at all, a Registered Dietitian has completed a rigorous classroom education, built on a strong foundation of intense science courses, and earned a Bachelor’s of Science in the field of nutrition and dietetics. Following this extensive education, the individual must apply for a supervised practice experience, much like a residency period that a medical student would go through. Of the hundreds and thousands of students who apply for these internships each spring, only about 50% of them will be matched with a program. In other words, it is an incredibly competitive process. Once matched, the individual will spend the next 9-12 months working in a variety of dietetic settings, from hospitals and out-patient medical centers, to schools, kitchens, and community services like WIC. At the end of this supervised practice, the individual has spent over 1200 hours practicing the art of dietetics. Once a person has earned their degree and completed 1200+ hours of hands-on experience, she may then sit for the Registered Dietitian board exam – a very difficult, standardized exam, much like the boards medical students take to officially become a doctor. If she passes the exam, she has now earned her “R.D.” credentials. These credentials are recognized world-wide. Unlike the title of “nutritionist”, once one has become an “R.D.”, they are qualified to practice nutrition no matter where they go, regardless of state lines or laws.

Because the general public seems to respond better to the term “nutritionist” (I think it sounds less scary myself!), the dietetic profession has started using the term “Registered Dietitian Nutritionist”, or “R.D.N.” so as to try and bridge the assumed gap between dietitians and nutritionists. As for “L.D.N” or “L.D.” – this merely recognizes licensing within a state. Some states allow nutritionists to be “licensed”, while others only allow Registered Dietitians/Nutritionists to receive licensure. So, at the end of the day, the only professionals in the field of nutrition who have actually received a carefully structured, standardized classroom education, degree, practical experience in the field, and passed a rigorous test, are those with the R.D. or R.D.N. credential. If you’re looking for sound nutritional advice – whether it be to lose some weight or improve your eating habits and overall health, or to try and control a disease state like diabetes or heart disease – a Registered Dietitian is the person to see. We can do everything a “nutritionist” does and more. And we do it with credentials to back us. Think of it this way – would you let someone who called himself a “healer” operate on your heart or the guy who earned his M.D. credentials?

Hope to see you soon!

Aubrey M.S., R.D.N.