A nutritionist is an expert in the use of food and nutrition to promote health and manage diseases. These specialists advise people on what to eat in order to lead a healthy lifestyle or achieve a specific health-related goal. Most nutritionists work in hospitals, nursing homes, long-term care facilities, or medical offices.
The term nutritionist isn’t regulated, so technically, anyone can call himself or herself a nutritionist, even with no formal training, license, or certification. Dietitian, specifically registered dietitian, noted by RD after one’s name, or RDN for registered dietitian nutritionist (the terms are used interchangeably), has a specific meaning.1
To put it simply, every dietitian is a nutritionist but not every nutritionist is a dietitian.
While nutrition is an area of expertise with a broad array of real-world applications, there are two main areas of concentration that bring nutritionists into contact with the general public.
Clinical nutritionists work in clinical settings, often in one-on-one situations with inpatients and/or outpatients, as well as with their families, in assessing, designing, and implementing dietary strategies and nutritional therapies.2 Often the aim is to address a particular medical issue, which can include hypertension, diabetes, or obesity, although clinical nutritionists are also called upon to come up with a plan of action in situations where a treatment protocol, such as chemotherapy, impacts a patient’s overall diet or creates particular food sensitivities.
Schools, community health clinics and recreational centers, local, state, and federal government agency programs, and health maintenance organizations (HMOs) are some of the places you’re likely to find nutritionists and dietitians working in this capacity. Often, in these settings, specific subgroups—for instance, children, the elderly, at-risk families—and their specific needs are targeted in programs designed to address specific nutritional issues.3
For example, when the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services unveil revised USDA Dietary Guidelines based on the latest scientific data, it’s the job of community-based nutritionists and dietitians to explain the implications, educate the public, and implement plans of action for achieving the new goals.
A nutritionist often works as part of a multidisciplinary healthcare team that includes doctors, social workers, nurses, and home healthcare providers to help optimize treatment for everything from allergies and food intolerances and eating disorders to gastrointestinal disorders and weight problems.4
Towards that end, nutritionists typically do the following:
- Assess patients’ and clients’ nutritional and health needs
- Counsel patients on nutrition issues and healthy eating habits
- Develop meal and nutrition plans, taking both clients’ preferences and budgets into account
- Evaluate the effects of meal plans and change the plans as needed
- Keep up with or contribute to the latest food and nutritional science research. They should interpret scientific studies and translate nutrition science into practical eating advice.
- Document patients’ progress
Some nutritionists find an area of practice where they wish to focus their attention. To become a specialist, additional training and a deeper breadth of knowledge may be warranted.5
Athletes and active adults are seeking guidance from sports professionals to enhance their athletic performance. Sports dietitians are increasingly hired to develop nutrition and fluid programs catered to individual athlete or teams. A unique credential has been created for sports nutrition professionals: Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD)6 . If you’re looking for a sports nutritionist in your area, the International Society of Sports Nutrition offers a reputable online search directory to assist you.
These specialists work to promote the optimal nutritional health of infants, children, and adolescents. The Commission on Dietetic Registration now offers Board Certification as a Specialist in Pediatric Nutrition for registered dietitians.
These specialists design, implement, and manage safe and effective nutrition strategies to promote quality of life and health for older adults. At a time when nutrition is becoming even more recognized as an essential component of healthy aging and disease management, these specialists have what’s considered the “must-have” expertise of the aging network.
Renal or Nephrology Nutritionist
Diet therapy is critical for patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD), and it’s considered vital for someone knowledgeable about the specialized dietary needs to assess and conduct individualized medical nutrition therapy (MNT) for people with kidney disease. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, MNT can delay CKD progression, prevent, or treat complications such as malnutrition, and improve quality of life. Additionally, MNT can lower healthcare costs.7
Training and Certification
Dietitians and nutritionists are both nutrition experts who have studied how diet and dietary supplements can affect your health. Both are considered to be healthcare professionals, but the titles should not be used interchangeably. Dietitians tend to have more education and credentials, though that’s not always the case.
A dietitian is an expert in dietetics, a branch of knowledge concerned with diet and its effects on health. A dietitian will commonly alter a client’s nutrition based on a medical condition and/or individual goals.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a registered dietitian has to complete and pass the following in order to gain certification:8
- A bachelor’s degree with coursework approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics
- A minimum of 1,200 hours of supervised experience at an accredited healthcare facility, community agency, or foodservice corporation
- A national exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration
Furthermore, a dietitian must meet continuing professional education requirements each year to maintain board certification.
In the United States, the title nutritionist can be applied to anyone who offers general nutritional advice. Nutritionists are not as regulated as dietitians, and even those who do not have any professional training can legally call themselves nutritionists.9 Unlike dietitians, who are qualified to diagnose eating disorders and design diets to treat specific medical conditions, nutritionists deal with general nutritional aims and behaviors.
With that said, many nutritionists have advanced degrees and will pass nutritionist certification boards to obtain the protected title of certified nutrition specialist (CNS). This can be obtained through the Certification Board for Nutrition Specialists (CBNS).10 Applicants must have a master’s degree in nutrition (or similar field) and at least 1,000 hours of practical experience before they are allowed to sit for the exam. Only those who have passed the CBNS boards and met the practical experience requirements can legally add the letters “CNS” after their names.
Other Nutrition Professionals
The Clinical Nutrition Certification Board is another organization that offers certification for the title of certified clinical nutritionist (CCN).
Other nutritionists, such as health coaches and holistic nutritionists, don’t require as extensive a training program. Health coaches may only require several weeks of training through the American Council on Exercise or other reputable organization.
Holistic nutritionists who specialize in functional nutrition will need to complete a course approved by the National Association of Nutrition Professionals, followed by 500 hours of practical experience, before sitting for a certification exam administered by the Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board.11
The requirements for licensure can vary by state. Some states only license registered dietitians, while others license nutritionists if they’re certified by one of the above-listed boards.
The bottom line is that nutrition is a specialized science. Before you put your trust in the hands of a nutrition professional be sure you feel confident in his or her qualifications. When first meeting, don’t hesitate to ask about the provider’s education, credentials, and licensure.
Whether you seek nutrition counseling on your own or follow up from a doctor’s referral, here’s how you can make the most of your time with a nutrition professional:12
Have a medical checkup first. A nutritionist needs to know your health status before providing dietary guidance. Your healthcare provider can share your blood pressure and information from blood tests, such as blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood glucose (sugar), hemoglobin, and hematocrit levels (a measure of the volume of red blood cells in the blood), among others. Some health problems are managed in part or completely by diet and perhaps physical activity.
Share your goals. If you seek nutrition counseling on your own, know what you want to accomplish. Do you want to lose weight? Gain weight? Have more energy? Think about your goals ahead of time and be sure to make them realistic.
Be prepared to answer questions. Expect to talk about your eating habits, any adverse reactions to food, dietary supplements, your weight history, food preferences, general medical history, family health history, medications, and your lifestyle habits. These insights can help a nutritionist customize food and nutrition advice to match your lifestyle and health needs.
Record your food intake. If you’re asked to, write down everything you eat and drink for several days. Records the amounts (in cups, ounces, tablespoons, etc) and how the foods were prepared, such as fried, grilled, or baked.
Forget miracles and magic bullets. A qualified nutrition professional will focus on changes in your lifestyle and food choices, not on quick results, miracle cures, or costly dietary supplements.
The services of licensed dietitians and nutritionists may be covered by your health insurance, including Medicaid and Medicare.