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What’s the Difference Between a Nutritionist and a Dietitian?

These professions are quite similar, but their educational requirements differ.

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Home » Blog » Nutritionist vs Dietitian
emily polner

Written and reported by:
Mimi Polner
Contributing writer

The jobs of nutritionists and dietitians can be very similar: They both assess patient health and wellbeing, plan menus, educate the public on nutrition issues, and conduct research on the relationship between health and fitness. 

Despite these similarities, however, nutritionists and dietitians have different educational backgrounds, training, and legal requirements.

Overview

All dietitians are also nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians. The main difference between these two titles is legality. 

“Dietitians receive their education from an accredited program, so they’re legally protected to be a nutrition practitioner,” says Kayla Halvey, a registered dietitian at Kayla Bud Nutrition in New York City.

A legally protected title can only be used by a person who meets specific requirements, including education, as set by a state, a group such as a professional association, or an accrediting agency.

Dietitians have strict educational and certification requirements to meet before they can use that title. In addition to attending an accredited program, most states require dietitians to be licensed or to have professional certification, or both.

Dietitians have strict educational and certification requirements to meet before they can use that title.

In contrast, only about half of states require such credentials for nutritionists. Even so, many professional roles for nutritionists call for at least a bachelor’s degree, and the same certification is available for nutritionists and dietitians alike.

Job Duties and Responsibilities

Nutritionists and dietitians have similar job descriptions and responsibilities. Both can prepare meal plans, provide nutrition education, and research food’s impact on the body, to name a few examples. They can also work alongside doctors to treat patients with acute or chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure. 

The job descriptions for either role can vary based on workplace, but both nutritionists and dietitians can work in hospitals, private practices, sports clinics, schools, and research centers. Both can:

  • Work with athletes to develop meal plans to support overall training goals
  • Create meal plans for patients with diseases such as cancer or for children and families
  • Consult with private clients on eating habits, routines, and overall health and wellness
  • Research food and its effects on the body

Education

Dietitians and nutritionists can take similar coursework, but dietitians must complete an accredited bachelor’s degree program and earn Registered Dietitian/Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RD/RDN) certification from the Commission on Dietetic Registration.

While requirements to be a nutritionist can be looser than for a dietitian, the reality is that you must have at least a bachelor’s degree to work as a nutritionist in a professional setting.

In contrast, if you plan to become a nutritionist but don’t intend to earn a RD certification, you can enroll in any educational program. While this is true, the reality is that a bachelor’s degree is usually considered an important degree for a nutritionist, and many employers will look for job candidates with this education—plus certification.

Dietitian Requirements


To become a dietitian, you need to earn a bachelor’s degree from a program accredited by the

Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND), an arm of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

However, it’s important to note that starting Jan. 1, 2024, you’ll also need to hold a master’s degree to earn an RD/RDN credential.

Common bachelor’s degrees for dietitians include clinical nutrition, dietetics, and public health.
Your core classes may include: 

  • Food science
  • Chemistry
  • Health care policy
  • Clinical nutrition
  • Biostatistics
  • Microbiology 
  • Food service management

You’ll also need to complete a dietetic internship. This is required before you can take the RD certification exam.

“The dietetic internship is usually a 1,200-hour program, sometimes more, depending on your concentration,” says Halvey. “You can’t take the Registered Dietitian exam until after you complete the internship. When you pass, you earn the RD title. For some jobs, this is enough, but other jobs require licensure from the state to be considered.”

Dietetic internships can vary, but all of them give you hands-on, supervised experience through several rotations in clinical, community, and food service settings. 

Nutritionist Requirements


Although many states have no formal requirements to be a nutritionist, it may be difficult to get a job at a professional institution without a bachelor’s degree. And to advance in the field, you’ll likely need a master’s degree. 

So, whether written in law or not, dietitians and nutritionists many times need a similar education.

Common bachelor’s degrees for nutritionists include nutrition science or a related discipline, such as dietetics, kinesiology, food system management, or biochemistry. Some of your courses might include: 

  • Trends in nutrition
  • Biomedical statistics
  • Clinical nutrition
  • Food, nutrition, and behavior
  • Nutritional ecology
  • Community nutrition
  • Physiology

Whether written in law or not, dietitians and nutritionists many times need a similar education.

Some degree programs include internships, but in others you’ll have to find opportunities on your own. If you plan to earn a RD/RDN credential, you’re required to complete an internship. The number of hours you’ll need may depend on requirements in the state where you’ll work.

Whether you plan to earn a credential or not, it’s a good idea to complete at least one internship to gain valuable experience before seeking a full-time role. 

Licensing and Certifications

Licensing and certification requirements for nutritionists and dietitians vary from state to state. State requirements for nutritionists are more varied and a bit looser than state requirements for dietitians.

A professional certification demonstrates your expertise and knowledge in your field. These are not certificate programs. A certificate indicates that you have taken a training program to learn a skill. Certification shows your mastery extends beyond your education and that you’ve passed a qualifying exam.

Here are the top certifications for dietitians and nutritionists.

Registered Dietician (RD)/Registered Dietician Nutritionist (RDN)


Taking and passing the Registered Dietitian exam earns you the title of Registered Dietitian or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. The titles are essentially the same. There’s no professional distinction between them, and you’re free to choose which one you want to use based on personal preference. To take the certification exam, you must:

  • Earn an undergraduate degree that’s accredited by the ACEND
  • Complete a dietetics internship

After Jan. 1, 2024, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree to qualify for the certification.

Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS)

The CNS credential is the highest certification a nutritionist can earn. It’s awarded by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists.To take the certification exam, you must:

  • Hold a master’s degree or PhD in nutrition or a related healthcare field
  • Have at least 1,000 hours of supervised work experience

You’ll need to complete 75 credits of continuing education every five years to maintain your  RD/RDN or CNS certification. 

Salary

Although they are different titles, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts dietitians and nutritionists in the same category and says they earn a median annual salary of $63,090. But there is a range in salaries, with the bottom 10% around $39,850 and the top 10% around $90,000, according to the BLS. 

Dietitians and Nutritionists

National data

Median Salary: $63,090

Bottom 10%: $39,840

Top 10%: $90,000

Projected job growth: 10.7%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $56,280 $40,830 $78,070
Alaska $72,900 $50,080 $108,540
Arizona $60,540 $38,060 $83,650
Arkansas $58,940 $42,700 $81,190
California $82,200 $51,710 $108,050
Colorado $60,180 $41,710 $84,890
Connecticut $69,240 $46,980 $92,880
Delaware $63,670 $44,290 $81,510
District of Columbia $72,020 $49,290 $102,590
Florida $60,710 $40,510 $83,130
Georgia $51,530 $22,420 $79,640
Hawaii $73,640 $52,260 $93,720
Idaho $46,540 $31,970 $76,920
Illinois $62,760 $42,940 $82,650
Indiana $57,500 $41,100 $79,010
Iowa $56,050 $31,330 $77,910
Kansas $59,950 $43,560 $81,590
Kentucky $58,940 $30,610 $79,200
Louisiana $58,090 $38,600 $83,210
Maine $61,590 $44,240 $92,630
Maryland $68,880 $47,890 $96,080
Massachusetts $66,530 $47,580 $104,170
Michigan $57,560 $33,250 $77,890
Minnesota $63,330 $48,110 $81,560
Mississippi $50,630 $31,380 $71,620
Missouri $59,250 $41,230 $81,640
Montana $56,060 $39,410 $78,950
Nebraska $56,380 $30,570 $78,950
Nevada $66,510 $38,580 $82,580
New Hampshire $64,500 $42,770 $83,000
New Jersey $71,810 $54,580 $95,930
New Mexico $59,840 $43,760 $84,060
New York $70,140 $49,030 $93,940
North Carolina $58,750 $41,630 $80,220
North Dakota $58,800 $42,560 $80,870
Ohio $60,310 $44,230 $82,830
Oklahoma $61,280 $39,510 $83,210
Oregon $72,000 $51,320 $98,190
Pennsylvania $60,670 $37,960 $82,330
Rhode Island $61,490 $24,280 $96,820
South Carolina $54,450 $26,350 $79,230
South Dakota $55,250 $42,190 $74,690
Tennessee $56,760 $36,700 $81,190
Texas $59,880 $34,360 $81,630
Utah $56,790 $30,740 $82,810
Vermont $61,900 $47,830 $81,850
Virginia $63,120 $36,330 $87,220
Washington $65,270 $40,360 $92,090
West Virginia $61,850 $33,600 $86,010
Wisconsin $59,170 $38,850 $80,130
Wyoming $64,030 $33,580 $118,890

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2020 median salary; projected job growth through 2030. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Job Outlook

Nutritionist and dietitian roles are expected to grow 11% from 2020 to 2030, according to the BLS. There are several reasons for this growth:

  • An aging population looking to stay healthy
  • A greater effort to control chronic health conditions like diabetes
  • An increased awareness and interest in preventive healthcare
  • The need to replace retiring dietitians and nutritionists
kayla halvey

With professional insight from:
Kayla Halvey, MS, RD
Registered Dietitian