General Nutrition

Nutritionist vs. dietitian: What’s the difference?

November 14, 2023

Written by Maeve Ginsberg

Medically reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

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Key Points

  • Registered dietitians (RDs) are the most qualified nutrition counseling provider you can hire.
  • RDs are required to go through extensive education and training in order to use the title. 
  • Dietitians are your trusted source to guide you through the complicated world of nutrition to help meet your individual goals.

When it comes to nutrition, there are a lot of different kinds of services and providers out there. With so many different options, it can be difficult to know which is right for you and your needs. If you’re looking for nutrition counseling, should you hire a dietitian or a nutritionist?

Is there a difference between a dietitian and a dietician?

First things first: dietitians and dieticians are the same thing. They have the same title and qualifications. The different lies in the spelling: “dietitian” is more widely used and accepted than “dietician.” Registered dietitian (RD) and registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) are also interchangeable titles when it comes to qualifications. Now, let’s get into the difference between nutritionists and dietitians.

Nutritionist vs. dietitian

Nutritionists and dietitians have different qualifications and education requirements. Dietitian is a protected title, which means only those who meet the qualifications can use it. Nutritionist is not a protected title and, in some states, can be claimed by anyone no matter their experience or education. That’s a significant difference in capability! Here are all the requirements for becoming a dietitian that make them the most qualified nutrition counseling provider.

Dietitian qualifications

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to earn the RD or RDN title, prospective dietitians must do the following:

  • Complete a minimum of a bachelor’s degree at a U.S. accredited institution or foreign equivalent, as well as coursework through the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) or another approved program. Approved education programs include coursework in food service systems, biochemistry, physiology, economics, and more. Starting in 2024, a master’s degree will be required.
  • Complete required supervised practice, like an internship, through an ACEND-accredited program (a minimum of 1,200 hours).
  • Pass the national exam by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR).

RDs and RDNs must renew their licenses each year and keep up with continuing education requirements as well.

Nutritionist qualifications

In some states, nutritionists don’t have any educational requirements. Some have a certification, some might have a master’s degree. Nutritionists are more limited in their scope of practice and cannot provide medical nutrition therapy or give diagnoses like RDs. Many nutritionists act more like health coaches. They are, overall, less experienced and less qualified than registered dietitians.

What dietitians do

Dietitians are nutrition experts who can work in medical settings. They can diagnose medical conditions and can treat health conditions. Dietitians can work in public health, long-term care facilities, outpatient counseling, sports dietetics, private practices, and more.

Dietitians also work one-on-one with clients who are interested in improving their overall health and wellbeing. They can offer nutrition counseling for weight management, specific health conditions, sports nutrition, and much more.

When you work with a dietitian, you can expect the following:

  • Start with an intake. This questionnaire will go over your existing eating habits, medications, supplements, exercise habits, food-related challenges, and more. The intake helps your provider understand your starting point so that they can offer relevant guidance and create a realistic routine to meet your goals.
  • Following the intake, they may ask you to keep a food diary for a few days to keep track of everything you eat. This is to gain an understanding of what you’re eating day to day, as well as to learn your eating schedule.
  • Once your dietitian has all the information they need, they will create a nutrition plan for you. This will include information like portion sizes, recipes, meal plans, and grocery shopping lists, as well as mindset-oriented resources like intuitive eating exercises and tools for recognizing hunger and fullness cues.
  • Meet weekly to check in. These weekly meetings are an opportunity for you to share any wins, struggles, and questions you have about your plan. Are you seeing any improvement? Are you having trouble with anything? The more open you are with your dietitian, the more they can help you.

A dietitian acts as a partner (a very qualified partner!) in your health journey. Whatever you want to accomplish, they are there to provide their expertise and support to help you meet your goals. Nutrition can be a confusing and overwhelming subject. Dietitians are your trusted guide who share the information that is most important to you, your health, and your individual goals.

Should you hire a registered dietitian or a nutritionist?

Now that you know more about dietitians’ extensive education and experience, you can see why registered dietitians are the premier nutrition experts in the field. Working with a nutritionist without the RD or RDN title is kind of like working with a lawyer without a JD. Not exactly the same level of qualification! You want to know you are getting the most knowledgeable and proficient dietetic professional available – and that’s what you get with a registered dietitian. RDs have the best background to offer medical, outpatient, and one-on-one nutrition counseling. 

How much does a dietitian cost?

In the United States, health insurance is required to cover nutrition counseling services. Dietitians are almost always covered; nutritionists are not. Your coverage will depend on your specific insurance plan. To know more about your plan’s coverage, you can call your insurance provider and get more information.

You can use a database like Fay Nutrition, which offers a list of vetted RNs and RDNs who are covered by insurance. You can filter by insurance, as well your specific interests, to find a dietitian who will be covered your insurance plan. A tool like Fay helps connect you to a trusted provider faster and saves you money by billing directly to insurance after your appointment. With Fay, you’re likely to pay closer to $10 per visit, or even have your visits completely covered for free.

When to work with a dietitian

“A registered dietitian can help you meet any number of health goals,” says Rita Faycurry, RD. “They act as your trusted source as you navigate the often-overwhelming world of nutrition.” As nutrition experts, registered dietitians can offer one-on-one support for a wide range of clinical dietetic services, including:

  • Health conditions: If you have PCOS, kidney disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, or another diagnosis that benefits from lifestyle changes, like diet, a dietitian is a vital resource. Your doctor might hand you a few pamphlets with information, but an RD will educate and guide you through the step-by-step changes you need to make. This continued support is invaluable when facing a new diagnosis.
  • Eating disorders: If you struggle with food restriction, binge eating, or an overall negative relationship with food, hiring a professional is an important step for healing. An RD can help you learn healthy eating behaviors and will support you as you regain balance and confidence in your diet.
  • Weight management: Whether you’re looking to lose, gain, or maintain weight, a dietitian can help you create a custom meal plan that suits your needs and will keep you feeling satisfied while reaching your goals.
  • Healthy eating: If you’re simply looking to make healthier eating choices, an RD is an excellent source to turn to for education and support. They can help create a realistic plan for you to introduce healthier foods into your existing diet so that your new lifestyle is realistic and sustainable.

If you’re ready to connect with a vetted RD or RDN to help meet your health goals, Fay Nutrition can connect you with a provider that is covered by insurance. Click here to see your options.

The views expressed by authors and contributors of such content are not endorsed or approved by Fay and are intended for informational purposes only. The content is reviewed by Fay only to confirm educational value and audience interest. You are encouraged to discuss any questions that you may have about your health with a healthcare provider.

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Maeve Ginsberg

Written by Maeve Ginsberg

Maeve Ginsberg is a health and wellness writer with a personal passion for fitness. As an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and former powerlifter, she loves combining her interests in health with her writing. Maeve has a Bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University. 

Rita Faycurry, RD

Medically Reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

Rita Faycurry, RD is a board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in clinical nutrition for chronic conditions. Her approach to health is centered around the idea that the mind and body are intimately connected, and that true healing requires an evidence-based and integrative approach that addresses the root cause of disease. In her books and articles, Rita offers practical tips and insights on how to care for your body, mind, and spirit to achieve optimal health and wellness.