Sep 22, 2023 • 9 min read

Nutritionist vs. Dietitian: Differences & Deciding Which to See

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Most people have heard of nutritionists and dietitians, but what’s the difference? Are they the same thing? Nutritionists and dietitians are very similar as they both specialize in diet and nutrition. However, there are big differences in education, training, licenses, and certifications. 

Many people don’t know the difference between dietitians and nutritionists because their roles appear to be the same. Both are often sought by those who are looking to improve their health or to lose weight. 

Dietitians are nutrition experts who have met certain education and training requirements to earn their Registered Dietitian (RD) credentials. A nutritionist is a more general term which may include dietitians. Therefore, all dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians. 

If you’re interested in booking a dietitian visit, you can do so through us here at Zaya Care. 90% of our patients pay $0 for appointments since our providers accept over 100 insurance plans such as Aetna, CignaUnited HealthcareEmpire BlueCross BlueShield, and many more. 

This guide goes over what nutritionists and dietitians are, key similarities and differences, and how to decide which is best for you.

Nutritionist vs. dietitian overview

A registered dietitian is a healthcare professional who specializes in food and nutrition. They use evidence-based nutrition information to help individuals improve their health and well-being. They also play a key role in the prevention and management of certain health conditions. 

Dietitians are required to have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from a dietetics program. They also need 1,200 hours of supervised practice from an accredited internship. They earn their Registered Dietitian (RD) credentials once they pass the national exam. 

To legally practice as a dietitian, they must follow state licensure laws in the state in which they plan to work. They also must earn at least 75 hours of approved continuing education every five years to keep their RD credentials. 

Registered dietitians can work in various settings from providing nutrition care to patients in a hospital to helping student athletes eat properly at a university. Many dietitians are also located in a private practice, working with a specific population. There is a growing need for their expertise in many places. 

Nutritionists (also called nutrition coaches) also specialize in food and nutrition, but they are not always credentialed professionals. There are several different types of nutrition certifications that one can earn online to enhance their nutrition education. 

While nutritionists often obtain a certain level of education, training, and certification, they are not legally able to provide certain services that registered dietitians provide. They may work in similar settings as a dietitian, but their roles are more limited. 

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Dietitian vs. nutritionist: education requirements

Dietitian

To become a dietitian, one must complete a bachelor’s degree in a Didactic Program of Dietetics (DPD). The curriculum includes courses such as organic chemistry, biology, food science, physiology, psychology, biochemistry, and more. 

Starting in 2024, dietitians must also have their master’s degree. Once an individual has completed their DPD, they need to complete 1,200 hours of supervised practice through a dietetic internship. All coursework and internship curriculums must be approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).

Following the coursework and internship, the final step is to pass the national Registered Dietitian Exam. Once they’ve earned their credentials, dietitians must complete a certain amount of continuing education every five years to maintain their RD status. 

Nutritionist

There are no mandatory requirements for someone to call themselves a nutritionist. Some nutritionists may have earned a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nutrition but have not completed other required education and training like dietitians. 

Some nutritionists may earn a health or nutrition-related certification to further their education. Employers may require this for certain jobs, however, there is no formal education requirement to become a nutritionist. 

It’s worth noting that neither dietitians nor nutritionists are doctors. If you have more serious problems, you should always see a doctor first who can advise you if seeing a dietitian/nutritionist is appropriate.

Dietitian vs. nutritionist: certification requirements

Dietitian

There are no other required certifications to become a registered dietitian. Once you have your RD credentials, however, you may be practicing in a certain work setting that highly encourages additional certifications. 

Registered dietitians can specialize in different areas of health and nutrition. To further their education in those areas, they may receive an additional certification. Certifications that dietitians can earn may be in oncology, eating disorders, weight management, pediatrics, and more. 

Nutritionist

There are no mandatory certifications to become a nutritionist. However, certain employers may require a nutritionist to be certified in order to qualify for a certain position. There are a variety of nutrition certifications that are offered online.

Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) is considered a more advanced certification for personalized nutrition practitioners. For those who are fitness professionals, such as personal trainers, nutrition certifications are offered through fitness training companies, like the National Academy of Sports Medicine and the International Sports Sciences Association

Dietitian vs. nutritionist: regulation

Dietitian

The Commission on Dietetic Registration sets the standard for the credentialing process to become a Registered Dietitian and for the continuing education requirements. They also regulate the dietitian’s scope of practice. 

Most states require dietetics practitioners (RDs or RDNs) to hold a state license to legally practice within that state. Requirements to obtain licensure vary from state to state. These licensure laws help ensure that only qualified individuals are delivering dietetics services and medical nutrition therapy. 

Nutritionist

The term “nutritionist” covers a broad range of certifications and training. Unlike dietitians, there is no official body that regulates nutritionists. Some states do not regulate the use of this term, while others require certain qualifications to provide services as a nutritionist. 

In some states, nutritionists may practice nutrition counseling, as long as it is not medical nutrition therapy, if they are a licensed and Certified Nutrition Specialist. Other states only allow Registered Dietitians to be eligible for licensure to practice nutrition counseling. In all states, it is illegal to practice medical nutrition therapy as a nutritionist. 

Dietitian vs. nutritionist: what they can help with

Dietitian

Registered dietitians can help people with a wide variety of health and nutrition needs. Dietitians can practice medical nutrition therapy, for the prevention and management of certain diseases. They can also help people with higher nutrition demands, such as those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, meet their nutrition needs.  

If you struggle with food allergies, intolerances, or food sensitivities, seeking help from a dietitian is a good option for you. They can help you navigate food choices and determine a well-rounded eating plan with certain food restrictions. 

Some dietitians focus more on weight management, fitness, and sports. The people they help may vary from elite athletes who want to eat better to improve their performance, to individuals who are just starting their fitness journey and simply want to lose weight and be healthier. 

Nutritionist

Like dietitians, nutritionists can also help people with a variety of nutrition needs. However, they cannot legally provide nutrition services in order to help someone manage a specific health condition. They also should not provide individualized meal plans or specific supplements and doses. 

Nutritionists often help people achieve general health and wellness goals. This may include providing practical nutrition advice, like increasing protein and vegetables, guidance on how to structure meals, and suggestions for meals or recipes. 

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Dietitian vs. nutritionist: Specialties

Dietitian

Dietitians often have a certain niche that they are passionate about. On top of their RD credentials, they may receive other certifications in specific areas. Areas of interest for dietitians include sports nutritionpediatricsoncology, geriatrics, renal nutritionweight managementeating disorders, and more. 

A registered dietitian may earn other credentials which include, but are not limited to, a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD), a Certified Nutrition Support Clinician (CNSC), and a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE). 

Nutritionist

Nutritionists also tend to have a specific niche they focus on. This could be weight loss, sports nutrition, women’s health, and more. Nutritionists, however, are not legally allowed to prescribe nutrition changes to help someone with a specific medical need. 

Dietitian vs. nutritionist: where they work

Dietitian

Dietitians are needed in a variety of work settings. They can work in clinics, hospitals, long-term care facilities, professional or collegiate athletics, universities, community centers, and more. Some dietitians have their own practices where they provide nutrition services related to their niche. 

Nutritionist

Nutritionists can also work in various settings, such as grocery stores, fitness centers, community centers, and private practices. Employers will typically specify whether they are looking to hire a nutritionist or specifically a registered dietitian, depending on the job description. Some may include their specialty in their titles, such as holistic nutritionists.

Dietitian vs. nutritionist: cost & insurance coverage

Dietitian

On average, a one-hour appointment with a dietitian can cost anywhere from $100 to $200 out-of-pocket. The cost can vary based on the dietitian you see, the location, and your specific situation. Most major insurance companies provide some coverage for dietitian visits

Depending on your insurance provider and your policy, you may pay as little as $0 for your dietitian visit. However, many insurance policies have specific requirements, such as a doctor referral to see a dietitian and a set limit on how many visits they will cover. It is important to check with your provider on the details of your coverage. 

Nutritionist

Like dietitians, the cost of seeing a nutritionist can vary depending on the state you live in, and the experience and area of expertise of the nutritionist. You may pay anywhere from $69 to $147 per visit. Because services provided by nutritionists are not considered medically necessary, insurance typically does not cover nutritionist visits

Dietitian vs. nutritionist: what to expect in appointments

Dietitian

Your initial appointment will most likely be the longest appointment, roughly 45 minutes to an hour. During this appointment, your dietitian will get to know all about you and your nutrition needs. You may be asked questions about your health history, diet history, eating patterns, food budget, traditions around food, and more. 

The goal of the first appointment is for your dietitian to get a good idea of your lifestyle and nutrition needs and to determine the best plan of action for you to reach your goals. You can also ask any questions you have for your dietitian that may help them tailor your care and make sure your concerns are addressed. Your dietitian may leave you with a structured meal plan to follow or a few specific nutrition goals for you to focus on. 

The number of follow-up appointments you need depends on your situation. These appointments typically take less time. Your dietitian will assess your progress toward your goals and make changes or assign new goals as needed. If you were given a meal plan to follow, your dietitian may make changes to it depending on how well you were able to stick to it. 

Nutritionist

Appointments with nutritionists may be very similar to appointments with dietitians. You may be asked similar questions about your goals and your current food habits. You will likely be left with some specific nutrition goals to work on, and the number of follow-up appointments needed will depend on your long-term goals and the progress you make. 

>> Read more: What to expect in your appointment with a dietitian or nutritionist

Should I work with a dietitian or nutritionist?

Dietitians and nutritionists can help with a variety of health-related concerns, and most people find some benefit to working with a dietitian or nutritionist. For some people, it can be confusing to tell which one you need to see. 

If your doctor referred you to see a nutrition professional for a specific health need, such as diabetes or kidney disease, you will need to see a registered dietitian. Nutritionists are not legally able to provide specific recommendations to manage a health condition. 

Another thing to consider is whether or not you have the insurance coverage or the finances to work with a nutrition professional. As mentioned earlier, nutritionists are typically not covered by insurance. 

If you are seeking general nutrition advice for weight loss, to improve your energy, or to simply be healthier, both nutritionists and dietitians can help you. To choose which is best for you, you will need to consider other factors such as cost, specialty, experience level, and reviews. 

In most cases, seeing an RD or RDN is preferred to seeing a nutritionist.

How Zaya Care helps you book registered dietitians covered by your insurance

Here at Zaya Care, we’re dedicated to helping people find the care they need based on their preferences, needs, and insurance.

When you request an appointment with one of our Registered Dietitians, we’ll check your insurance so you know exactly how much you’ll have to pay, if anything at all.

It’s worth noting that 90% of Zaya Care patients pay $0 for nutrition care with a registered dietitian as we are in-network with many major carriers.

If you’re ready to schedule your free consultation, you can see our dietitians and book a visit here.

Find a Registered Dietitian through Zaya Care

Looking for a dietitian who can help with something specific? Check out our guides that can help you find your match:

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Kamryn is a Registered Dietitian who specializes in performance nutrition and weight management. She has experience in a variety of settings as a dietitian, including sports, clinical, and private practice. She currently provides individualized nutrition and fitness coaching to adult men and women. Kamryn is passionate about using evidence-based nutrition strategies to help people achieve long-term success with their fitness goals and to maintain a healthier lifestyle.