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What is a Registered Dietitian?

When I became a Registered Dietitian, I had no idea that I would spend a good chunk of time explaining what that even is, or politely correcting people when they called me a nutritionist. Most people don't know that a nutritionist and a dietitian are two VERY different things. Some people have never even heard of a dietitian! Knowing the difference between a nutritionist and dietitian is extremely important to ensure that you are getting your nutrition and health advice from a credible source.

Annie Cavalier, MS, RDN, LD at the farmer's market

Today is Registered Dietitian Day, so I thought it was the perfect time to explain some of the key differences between a dietitian and a nutritionist. Let's jump right in!

Who is a nutritionist?

Anyone. There are actually zero requirements to be able to call yourself a nutritionist! Someone can simply read the health column in a gossip magazine and call themselves a nutritionist. There is no specific education or licensing requirement to become a "nutritionist."

With that being said, there are hundreds if not thousands of online certifications that people can get on nutrition (though the credibility of some of these programs is questionable), and some may even have a degree in nutrition. I have come across some really great nutritionists, but I've also seen some giving advice that make me want to cringe. It's important for you to do your research to see if a specific nutritionist you may be looking to work with is truly a credible resource and has the education behind them especially if you are seeking help for a medical condition. Sadly, there are a lot of nutritionists out there who are giving inaccurate recommendations or preaching things that have no scientific evidence to back them up, or worse, are advised against.

Who is a registered dietitian?

Registered Dietitians (RDs) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) are the true experts of the field. They are required to complete a rigorous nutrition education plan and supervised practice rotations as well as pass a national registration exam. Below are the most-recently updated steps required to become a registered dietitian:

  1. Receive a bachelor's degree in nutrition and dietetics or a closely related field as well as a minimum of a master's degree from an ACEND (Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) accredited program.

  2. Complete a highly competitive ACEND accredited supervised practice program (Dietetic Internship) with rotations in at least clinical nutrition, community nutrition, and foodservice areas. These rotations must include a minimum of 1,000 hours of supervised practice.

  3. Pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration's exam. Beginning in 2024, all those working towards their credential must have a minimum of a master's degree to be eligible for the exam (those with their RD/RDN credential prior to 2024 were grand-fathered in and not required to go back to school for their master's degree).

  4. Gain licensure for your state of practice, if applicable

  5. Maintain continuing education, which is a minimum of 75 hours of continuing education every 5 year cycle for the RD/RDN credential. Specific states may also have separate continuing education requirements for their state licenses.

Many dietitians also go on to get specialty credentials in their areas of practice. Here are just a few examples of the specialty credentials RD/RDNs can obtain:

  • Certified Nutrition Support Clinician (CNSC)

  • Board Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition (CSO)

  • Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES)

  • Board Certification as a Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management (CSOWM)

  • Board Certified as a Specialist in Pediatric Nutrition (CSP)

  • Board Certified as a Specialist in Renal Nutrition (CSR)

The takeaway:

All dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians. It scares me how many places (such as gyms, supplement stores, etc.) hire nutritionists to work with their clients rather than dietitians. The same goes for social media - some of the most successful nutrition bloggers and influencers out there are not registered dietitians. Once again, nutritionists may have a degree in nutrition, but they also might not. It's up to you to determine which resources are credible and which are not. Your health is too important to take a chance by listening to someone without the actual expertise.

My education background:

For anyone who is curious about my education background, I received my bachelor's degree in nutrition and dietetics from the University of Texas at Austin in 2019 and my master's degree in nutrition from Texas Woman's University in 2021. I also completed my dietetic internship through Texas Woman's University and had rotations at one of the largest hospitals in DFW (where I am proud to now work as a credentialed RDN), a nearby school district for foodservice management, community nutrition rotations at WIC, and several private practice and media nutrition rotations for electives. I am also very blessed in my current position at the hospital to work as a preceptor for dietetic interns working towards their RD/RDN credential, which is always extremely rewarding.

Please feel free to reach out to me or comment below if you have any questions or are interested in becoming a RD/RDN!

Annie Cavalier, MS, RDN, LD


*Disclaimer: The above article is specific to the United States as of 2024. Requirements may differ in other countries.



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