Nutritionists vs. Registered Dietitians... What's the Difference?
by Janelle Zakour RD
This is a question that I am asked a LOT.
‘Janelle, what is the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian anyway?’
Well, we could start off with a couple definitions here.
Nutrition is the branch of science that deals with nutrients and nutrition, particularly in humans.
Dietetics is the branch of knowledge concerned with the diet and its effects on health, especially with the practical application of a scientific understanding of nutrition.
You will see why I started off with a definition in a bit. Long story short, all dietitians are nutritionists… but not all nutritionists are dietitians.
The real difference lies in the depth, scope, length, and type of formal education and training.
A dietitian, specifically registered dietitian, noted by the RD after one’s name, has a specific meaning. In Trinidad and Tobago, 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, biochemistry, medical nutrition science, and other sciences,
2) A 1,200-hour supervised practical internship,
3) Passing advanced clinical, community and foodservice nutrition examinations,
4) Completing ongoing continuing education with at least 15 credits and finally
5) Being held to a professional code of ethics.
The term ‘registered’ refers to the current registration status of the dietitian. Just like other health professionals, we must be registered with the Trinidad & Tobago Council of Professions Related to Medicine in order to practice in our field. We are assigned a registration number and maintain registration status by the annual submission of a portfolio to the Board of Nutrition and Dietetics that shows our commitment to staying current with new evidence-based nutrition information. You can search online for registered health professionals on the Council’s website here. These include dietitians, speech and language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists and others.
Dietetics is very very broad. All dietitians undergo the basic steps listed above but some eventually find their niche and choose to focus on one field. You will find dietitians who specialise in wellness, in paediatrics, in renal nutrition, in nutrition for bariatric surgeries and so many others. Many medical doctors in this country are only required to take a single nutrition course and often refer their patients to dietitians to learn about eating for certain conditions. But to add to this, a common myth is that you only go to see a dietitian when you’re sick and need a ‘diet sheet’. This could be further from the truth! All dietitians are advocates for healthy eating and overall wellness and will seek to inform the public on such. I personally love clinical nutrition; my practice is currently very generalised and the PCN office sees a wide range of disease states. But what I absolutely love to do is to demonstrate that healthy eating can be delicious. A little more on that in a bit.
We also practice evidenced-based nutrition… and leave pseudo-science completely out of the equation. The relevance and the quality of evidence both matter in translational research. For example, design decisions regarding population size, type of intervention, comparator, and outcome criteria affect whether or not high-quality studies are considered relevant to specific guidance questions and are therefore included as evidence within the context of systematic review frameworks used by authoritative food and health organisations.
Onto nutritionists. The term nutritionist isn’t regulated, so technically, anyone can call himself or herself a nutritionist, even with no formal training, license, or certification. Essentially, a person can do a certificate in nutrition on the internet and call themselves a nutritionist after. If you’re considering information or advice from a nutritionist who is not a registered dietitian, ask specifics about his or her training. Do they have 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 specialised was their training? If they are certified, find out about the certifying agency – what were the particulars about what was required to grant and maintain certification. There are vast differences among the various non-RD certifications. Sometimes the advice given may work for one person may be totally inappropriate, not effective, or even dangerous for another. Some nutritionists fall into the pseudo-science trap too. This is why formal training and credentials are so important.
Nutrition is NOT common sense – it is a specialised science. And just like any other specialty, its application is just as important as the knowledge. A person who completed one year of medical school probably knows more than a person with no medical training, but it is the lack of applied experience that can lead to a wrong diagnosis or treatment. It is the same with nutrition. Often times, these nutritionists may have some knowledge on nutrition but no experience in its application.
I’ve seen clients, friends and even family members 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 realise why their advice was poor. I’ve had a little cousin in her early teenaged years end up in hospital with heart failure because a nutritionist had given her a weight loss program to follow… One of the first things you learn in university about nutrition through the life cycles is that you NEVER prescribe weight loss to young people under the age of 18. You emphasise healthy choices and exercise… the last thing you want to do is instil a sense of inadequacy and perpetuate disordered eating in someone so young.
Many dietitians take offence to being called a nutritionist, I am not totally against the idea of being referred to as one though. In addition to my RD credentials, I do actually refer to myself as a culinary nutritionist or culinary nutrition consultant. Why? I have undergone a formal classical culinary arts education as well as having over a decade of experience in the foodservice industry. To combine that with applied nutrition gives me a bit of an advantage when it comes to demonstrating recipe makeovers and family menu planning.
At least I like to think so. What I am really trying to say is that there is no shame in being called a nutritionist, once you have the necessary credentials under your belt that legally qualify you to dispense nutrition information.
I just want to leave you with this… Before you put your trust in any health professional’s hands, including a nutrition professional, be 110% sure that you feel confident in his or her qualifications.