Nutritionist vs Dietitian

I find that many people often are confused about these terms. Now that we are implementing our Nutrition Program at CrossFit Surmount, I figured I’d do some education around this terminology. The difference lies in the depth, scope, length, and type of formal education and training.
The term nutritionist isn’t regulated, so technically, anyone can call himself or herself a nutritionist, even with no formal training or certification. Dietitian, specifically, Registered Dietitian (noted by RD after one’s name), has a specific meaning. That title requires 1) a minimum of a four year college degree from an accredited university’s program that includes specific course work in human physiology, nutrition science, and other sciences 2) a 1,200 hour supervised hands-on internship 3) passing a comprehensive examination and 4) completing ongoing continuing education. RDs are also held to a professional code of ethics. Personally, I use the terminology (which is now acknowledged and used by the governing body, RDN) as many people identify with the term, Nutritionist.

I’ve heard some nutritionists say that you only need a dietitian or RD if you’re sick, or that RDs don’t have training in holistic nutrition and wellness. Neither is true. Just like medicine, dietetics is an incredibly broad field. All RDs start out with basic training (the four steps I just described), but most then specialize in a given area. At CrossFit Surmount, Kelly Patterson, is a Sports Dietitian. She has gone on to work with a specialized area of Nutrition, acquired additional training hours, and passed her comprehensive exam in Sports Dietetics. I (Meredith), while not an Eating Disorder Certified Dietitian (CEDRD), have worked with a mentor, done extensive research in this field, and have personal and practical experience with the therapies and disciplines that treat eating disorders/disordered eating. Maybe one day I will go for my specialized training and become a CEDRD—it’s on my list of to-do’s.

If you’re considering information or advice from an RD, be sure that he or she specializes in your needs. If you’re considering information or advice from a nutritionist who is not an RD, ask specifics about his or her training. If she has a degree, what is it in, where is it from, what classes did it include, and how long did it take to complete? How in depth and specialized is her training? If she is certified, find out about the certifying agency – exactly what do they require to grant and maintain certification? There are vast differences among the various non-RD certifications. Also note that while it’s not true for all, most MDs are only required to take one single nutrition course.

Finally, it’s not true that RDs only practice western medicine. Many RDs, myself included, utilize a blend of traditional and alternative methods. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND, formerly known as the American Dietetic Association), the organization that grants the RD credential, includes a Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine practice group. Many times, I have utilized yoga and breathing techniques in nutrition therapy—it just depends on the individual.

The take away is, what works for one person may be totally inappropriate, not effective, or even dangerous for another person. That’s why formal training and credentials are so important. Throughout my years as a practitioner, I’ve seen clients and friends harmed by nutrition advice given by people without adequate training. In most cases, the people who gave the advice truly believed they were helping, and didn’t realize why it was poor advice.

Bottom line: nutrition isn’t common sense – it’s a specialized science. Before you put your trust in any health professional’s hands, be sure you feel confident in his or her qualifications.