In most countries, the title “dietitian” is legally protected. That means only people who’ve met the following dietician education requirements can use the term.
- at least four years of study from an accredited university,
- coursework in human physiology, nutrition science, and other sciences,
- a 900 – 1200 hour supervised internship,
- a comprehensive examination, and
- ongoing continuing education.
Just so you know, Registered Dietitians (RDs) are mostly trained to work with large, general populations in institutional settings.
Interestingly, while some dietetics programs focus on culinary arts, and others focus on medical nutrition, very few offer either holistic nutrition or preventative nutrition training. And even fewer offer fitness and sports nutrition training.
As a result, most RDs end up working:
- in the food industry,
- within community health settings, or
- as part of medical teams, with inpatient (i.e. hospitalized) populations.
Some RDs also work in private practice.
Compared to the “Registered Dietitian” credential, the title “Nutritionist” is much broader and less clearly defined.
In other words, while the registered dietitian requirements are typically quite rigorous, the nutritionist requirements are often pretty loose.
Interestingly enough, people use the term “nutritionist” so loosely that it can indicate anything from PhD level graduate training to the completion of short-term continuing education courses to meet the nutritionist education requirements.
Typically, however, most nutritionist training will include some background in biochemistry, physiology, and anatomy, along with other relevant subjects.
Note: nutritionists can’t “prescribe” nutrition to “treat” disease. Again, this is left to RDs and MDs. But nutritionists can consult with clients and offer guidance about healthier eating.
In the end, the credential you choose should match what type of education you want, and which career you want to pursue.
- Want to work in hospital/institutional settings treating disease with nutrition? Then you’ll want to go the RD or MD (with nutrition specialization) route and meet the dietitian requirements outlined here.
- Want to work for a big food company or as a nutrition policy maker? Then go RD.
- Want to help healthy, active people eat and live better? Then becoming a nutritionist is just fine.
Just remember: Training in nutrition – at any level – isn’t there just so you can call yourself a “dietitian” or “nutritionist”.
It can also be valuable as an adjunct for other professionals including:
- personal trainers,
- child care workers,
- hospitality workers,
- food bank volunteers,
- social workers,
- and many more.
Don’t forget, lots of other people choose to learn more about nutrition for their own interest. Even to improve their own health.
And why not? A good diet is important for everyone. So learning how to eat well – and to teach others how to do the same – are important skills.