Ask the RD
Our resident nutrition expert describes ways to beef up your nutrition chops.
Question: I’m working toward a career change to health and wellness and have a particular interest in nutrition. My interest is in coaching individuals to adopt more healthy eating patterns (I'm currently an ACE-certified Health Coach) and lose weight, as well as work with those whose doctors may have suggested "lifestyle changes" to help prevent cholesterol or blood sugars from creeping up further, but who have not yet become diabetic or developed serious heart issues. I would like to increase my knowledge and training so I can suggest meal plans and supplements in addition to helping with general fitness and stress reduction.
I'm trying to make sense of nutrition and dietician degrees and certifications. I read recently that registered dietitians are licensed and nutritionists are not. I'm aware of many certification options, but I like the idea of studying with an accredited education institution. It's all fairly confusing and I would appreciate any perspective.
Answer:While some people use the terms “dietitian” and “nutritionist” interchangeably, they can mean very different things. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition practitioners and the professional association for credentialed dietetics practitioners, believes that “all registered dietitians are nutritionists but not all nutritionists are dietitians.”
The reason is that the title “nutritionist,” which implies a person who advises on matters of food and nutrition, is not subject to professional regulation and anyone can call themselves a nutrition expert even if solely self-taught.
On the other hand, the title of registered dietitian (RD) can only be used by those who have met strict educational requirements; completed a 1,200-hour accredited, supervised practice program; and have passed a national examination, which board certifies them.
The rigorous training RDs undergo ensures that they have a depth of scientific knowledge coupled with hands-on training in nutrition counseling and evaluation. As a result, part of an RD’s scope of practice is the qualification to provide medical nutrition therapy, which encompasses nutrition assessment, nutrition diagnosis, planning and implementing nutrition intervention—and, ultimately, monitoring and evaluating progress. Medical nutrition therapy can be provided for a variety of conditions that include weight management and eating disorders as well as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Nutrition certification programs vary dramatically in their requirements and rigor. In the end, however, the only credential that will legally allow you to nutritionally diagnose as well as recommend diets and supplementation is the RD. If you would like to be able to prescribe diets, I would look for a program that offers the RD credential.