Question: I’m working toward a career change to health and wellness, and I have a particular interest in nutrition. My interests are in coaching individuals to adopt healthier eating patterns (I’m currently an ACE-certified health coach) and lose weight, and in working with people 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 dietitian degrees and certifications. I read recently that registered dietitians are licensed but 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 the terms dietitian and nutritionist are often used 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 a “nutritionist”—a person who advises on matters of food and nutrition—is not subject to professional regulation, and people can call themselves nutrition experts even if they’re solely self-taught.
On the other hand, the title of Registered Dietitian can be used only by those who have met strict educational requirements; completed a 1,200-hour accredited, supervised practice program; and passed a national examination, which board-certifies them.

The rigorous training that 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, including 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 want to be able to prescribe diets, I would look for a program that offers the RD credential.