Over the last decade, our understanding of health and delivery of health care has become increasingly focused on of nutrition as prevention and treatment of disease. Yet, when it comes to nutrition in healthcare, there is often confusion as to who is the nutrition expert. For many, the terms “nutritionist” and “registered dietitian” are interchangeable, both describing any person who provides dietary advice. However, the differences between these two professional titles depend on a person’s educational background and training, in addition to the state licensing laws where an individual hopes to practice.
According to The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Registered Dietitians (RDs) must complete a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from a Dietetics Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) Accredited Program. This degree ensures that RDs have the foundation knowledge of biochemistry, nutrition, food science and medical nutrition therapy. Candidates must also complete a supervised clinical program/internship consisting of 1200 hours of supervised practice in areas of community, clinical, food service, and administrative nutrition. RDs provide direct supervision and guidance to develop future practitioners. Finally, individuals must pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) examination to become a RD. After successfully completing these requirements, an individual earns the legal right to practice as an RD in an assortment of settings, including hospitals, clinics, long-term care settings, private practice, universities, schools, and community or government programs. Once credentiale all RDs must obtain continuing education credit throughout their career, ensuring that they stay up-to-date in their field.
While the formal training required of a Registered Dietitian is regulated by professional accreditation bodies in all states, many states in the US allow individuals to practice nutritional counseling as a nutritionist without licensing or accreditation. Alternatively, there are some states (including New York), require individuals to obtain licensure, but not RD accreditation, before practice legally within state lines. In Texas, without legal opposition, anyone may declare themselves a nutritionist despite having no formal training or licensure. These inconsistencies of title, training, and licensing, contributes to the lack of distinction between the two titles. RDs are required to adhere to a strong professional ethics standard that ensures that the public and their clients health and safety are prioritized.
Continuing to add to the confusion of RD versus Nutritionist, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, announced a change to the title of dietitians. In 2013, RDs were encouraged to add an “N” for “Nutritionist” to their credential. This change was suggested as a way to better communicate the knowledge and training of dietitians as nutrition experts. Yet, because this was not a mandatory change, dietitians now present their credentials as either a Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) – further complicating the debate over the title dietitian or nutritionist.
If becoming a registered dietitian is of your interest, The University of Texas at Austin offers a didactic and coordinated program in dietetics that meet the mandated standards from ACEND. In 2024 all individuals planning to obtain their RD credential must hold a Master’s degree prior to registered to take the RD exam. The Department of Nutrition at UT Austin also offers an online Master’s of Science in Nutritional Sciences for those who are interested in deepening their understand of nutrition at a graduate level.