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What is a dietitian: how to find the right nutrition professional for you

A dietitian is a nutrition and food expert who can help you find your best diet. Learn the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist and more.

Happy National Nutrition Month 2021! This month is designated by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to celebrate and encourage better nutrition for all. In line with the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, this year’s theme for National Nutrition Month is “Personalize Your Plate,” encouraging Americans to make healthy dietary choices within their traditional and cultural food customs. Variety is essential to a healthy diet after all, and not everyone’s diet has to look exactly the same.1 

Even still, how do you know what a healthy diet looks like for you? Your diet is very personal, and it can be overwhelming to make dietary changes, especially when you’ve only known a certain diet your whole life. This is where consulting a dietitian can be helpful. 

In this blog:

  • What is a dietitian (RD)?
  • Dietitian vs. Nutritionist (and other titles and certifications)
  • Dietitian specialties
  • Where do dietitians work?
  • What can a dietitian help you with?
  • Find a dietitian 

What is a dietitian (RD)? 

First of all, what is a dietitian or a registered dietitian (RD)? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics gives this definition: 

“Generally, RDs advise and counsel others on food and nutrition. They may explain nutrition issues to clients, assess the dietary and health needs of clients, develop meal plans for clients, gauge the effects of these meal plans, promote nutrition through public speaking and community outreach programs, and keep abreast of the latest research in nutritional and food sciences.”2

Education for dietitians

Registered dietitians have to meet specific educational requirements from the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), and they have to complete a dietetic internship of at least 1200 hours. Finally, they must pass the CDR’s Registration Examination for Dietitians. Becoming an RD requires a wealth of nutrition knowledge and dedication, to say the least! 

Beginning January 1, 2024, All RDs will also be required to have a master’s degree before they take the RD exam. As of a 2019 report, over half of all RDs in the United States held a master’s degree, and three percent of RDs held a PhD degree.3

Once they have passed the examination, dietitians may have the title of RD, for Registered Dietitian, or RDN, for Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. In order to maintain their credential, dietitians have annual continuing education requirements. 

Dietitian vs. Nutritionist (and other titles and certifications)

It’s easy to get confused by the differences between a dietitian and a nutritionist, but essentially it all comes down to the certification a practitioner holds. 

Dietitians (RD or RDN) go through the process listed above of rigorous education, an internship, and then an exam to earn their credentials under the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Some nutritionists also undergo specific education and licensing under a few different national nutrition licensing boards such as the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists (CBNS) or the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB). 

However, others may receive education from unreliable sources, or they may simply call themselves a nutritionist without any formal training at all. Because of these drastic differences in licensing and education, all dietitians may call themselves nutritionists, but nutritionists can not claim the title of “dietitian.” 

Whereas all states require licensure of RDs, some states require nutritionists to be licensed while others do not. However, licensed nutritionists are recognized by their state and work in many of the same positions as registered dietitians. Non-licensed nutritionists usually work independently, in their own practice or with a holistic or alternative medicine clinic.

To recap, a list of titles a general dietitian or nutritionist may be called includes:

  • Dietitian
  • Registered Dietitian (RD)
  • Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)
  • Licensed Dietitian (LD)
  • Licensed Nutritionist
  • Nutritionist

Dietitian specialties

Like medical doctors, dietitians can also choose to work within a specialty or with a specific type of patient. Some of these specialties include diabetes education, weight management, intuitive eating, eating disorders, sports nutrition, pediatric nutrition, oncology nutrition, and many more.5 Dietitians have the opportunity to earn an additional certification to show their knowledge in this specialty, or they may simply develop their own knowledge over time depending on the kinds of patients they work with.6 

Dietitians may also collaborate with other specialty doctors to assist in a treatment plan for a patient with a critical or chronic illness. For example, a gastroenterology department may have one or more dietitians assigned to the department to help patients with intestinal illnesses develop a dietary plan that helps them digest food more easily and heal the gut. 

Where do dietitians work? 

You can find dietitians in a lot of different healthcare settings. Many people don’t encounter a dietitian unless they end up hospitalized, where dietitians work within different departments or specialities. 

However, dietitians also work in non-profit organizations, community support programs, senior care facilities, public health clinics, food service, cafeterias, grocery stores, and food and CPG companies. They may also have their own private practice where they consult with clients on their nutrition and dietary patterns.2, 3 

What can a dietitian help you with?

You know that a dietitian can help you with making healthy changes to your diet, but what does that look like? It often depends on context. In a critical care hospital setting, a dietitian may be advising doctors on nutrition for a certain patient, which may look like intravenous (IV) nutrition or a liquid only diet in severe cases. 

Otherwise, dietitians generally work with a patient to develop healthy meals within that person’s comfort level and cultural food traditions. They may also provide education on meal balancing and meal frequency depending on the patient’s needs. Overall, a dietitian is there to support you in making lasting changes to your dietary pattern to help you live your longest, healthiest life. 

To that end, a great dietitian strives to educate and cater to an individual’s nutritional needs and taste preferences. After all, you’re not going to eat healthily if the food tastes bad, are you? Dietitians may even provide people with cooking demonstrations or recipes for healthy and balanced meals. 

A short list of ways a dietitian can help you: 

  • Teach nutrition principles
  • Dispel misinformation about fad diets and health trends
  • Recommend specific dietary changes 
  • Help parents increase children’s nutrition
  • Counsel on achieving or maintaining a healthy weight
  • Manage inflammatory or autoimmune conditions using food

Dietitian for chronic illness

If you’re looking for guidance on managing a chronic condition through your diet and nutrition, a dietitian can be an excellent resource. While it is important to have a well-rounded approach to managing any illness, we know that diet and nutritional status play a crucial role in our health and our body’s ability to heal itself.7

Dietitians can also provide guidance for the many chronic illness-specific diets out there, such as GAPS, AIP, low FODMAP, and more. If you are going to make any radical changes to your diet, it’s much easier to do so with a professional who can educate you and support you along the journey. 

Find a dietitian

Whether you want to optimize your nutrition from a place of general health or you want to improve your diet to heal chronic disease, you can find a dietitian near you using the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Find an Expert tool. You can search by zip code or by expertise, if you are looking for a practitioner tailored to your needs. The tool displays the dietitian’s name, location, email, and phone number so you can easily get in touch and set up an appointment to start your nutrition journey. 

Conclusion

A dietitian is a highly credentialed and trained healthcare professional qualified to give food and nutrition advice to and practice medical nutrition therapy with those seeking to optimize their diet and take control of their health. They often work closely with doctors in hospital or clinic settings to provide the nutrition perspective on patient care, but they also work one-on-one with patients to create healthy meal plans and provide education on food and nutrition. 

On the whole, working with a dietitian can be an excellent investment in your health and wellness. To all the dietitians out there, thank you for what you do, and happy National Nutrition Month!

Published on March 18, 2021 in What's Fresh
  1. Personalize Your Plate During National Nutrition Month® 2021. Accessed March 18, 2021. https://www.eatrightpro.org/media/press-releases/national-nutrition-month/nnm-2021-personalize-your-plate
  2. Registered Dietitian Career Overview. Accessed March 18, 2021. https://www.nutritioned.org/registered-dietitian.html
  3. Griswold K, Rogers D. Compensation and Benefits Survey 2019. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2020;120(3):448-464. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2019.12.015.
  4. Licensed Nutritionist Career Overview. Accessed March 18, 2021. https://www.nutritioned.org/licensed-nutritionist.html
  5. Work Settings and Areas of Expertise for RDNs. Accessed March 18, 2021. https://www.eatrightpro.org/about-us/what-is-an-rdn-and-dtr/what-is-a-registered-dietitian-nutritionist/work-settings-and-areas-of-expertise-for-rdns
  6. Finding Your Niche — Certification Options for the RD. Accessed March 18, 2021. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/tdmar2007pg40.shtml
  7. Ojo O. Nutrition and Chronic Conditions. Nutrients. 2019;11(2). doi:10.3390/nu11020459