Who’s Who? Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist

Dietitian. Nutritionist. Aren’t they the same? Sometimes they may be, but sometimes no. Are they both important cogs in the wheel that is the healthcare system? Absolutely.

I see a lot of confusing information online about these two roles and I want to clarify the difference between them so that if you are seeking services, you are able to ensure you are looking for them in the right place.

*Disclaimer: This blog is intended for informational purposes only. The information on this blog should not be used as a substitute to medical advice or medical treatment. As always, your Primary Care Provider, a doctor, or another health professional is your best resource for specific questions and medical advice. If you believe you or a loved one are experiencing a medical emergency, please contact 911.*

So, what is a nutritionist?

Generally speaking, a nutritionist is someone who sees healthy individuals. They are there to help advise people on how to eat and live healthy. They help you set goals and hopefully – achieve them!

Some services that a nutritionist may offer include diet/meal planning or individual guidance in regards to nutrition. They may also host cooking classes, or lead a presentation on nutrition.

A nutritionist who is educated at the college/university level in nutrition (and there are many who are) can provide evidence-based nutrition information to healthy individuals!

This is not the best source, but I really love how simply they broke down the major differences between nutritionist and dietitian here. Not all the criteria is the same depending on where you live, but it is a decent overview.

There is a small hitch with the title “nutritionist” in some areas that I do want to talk about quickly. In some provinces in Canada, Nutritionist or Registered Nutritionist (and several other similar titles) are protected titles. For example, in Alberta Registered Nutritionist and Nutritionist are both protected titles.

That means in Alberta (and a few other provinces), there is a regulatory body or college that nutritionists using this title are a part of (and therefore they abide by certain regulations and guidelines).

What does it mean when a health professional is a part of a regulatory body or college? It means they are a professional being held to certain standards and guidelines as laid out by their respective body/college. Not just anyone can register as a member of these regulatory colleges – they have to have completed certain schooling and have certain credentials. There is a college for pretty much every regulated profession – physicians, nurses, PT/OT, psychotherapy, and dietetics, and more!

It is also important to note that regulatory bodies exist to protect you – the public, from harm.

As the title nutritionist is not protected everywhere, there are nutritionists who have schooling and education, and who are knowledgeable and good resources for nutrition information for health individuals, but are not a part of a regulated body/college because it doesn’t exist in their area. In this case, you should check credentials.

This may be similar in the U.S. where nutritionist is also not a protected title under most jurisdictions. There are several different titles such as Licensed Nutritionist where further licensing is obtained, but again not every state requires this licensure.

How do you tell who these people are? That is more challenging. I think a good and honest nutritionist will make any education of theirs pretty known and public – if you’re online, you’d find this in an about section. They may also talk about their hands-on or practical experience, which is also very important. If you can’t find credentials, don’t be afraid to ask for them! If they tell you they attended a 48 hour nutrition course online, maybe see if there are other options in the area – because I can say that in 48 hours you can’t learn all the biology and human sciences behind nutrition.

As always, these decisions are your own. I am just here to provide information.

Ok, so what is a dietitian?

So a Registered Dietitian or “R.D.” is a protected title in Canada, but also in the U.S. and other places in the world. In Ontario, the College of Dietitians of Ontario is the regulatory body that governs R.D.’s here. This means that anyone who uses the title Registered Dietitian is working to set standards, and has a certain level of education and knowledge. If you’re curious exactly what is required to become registered in Ontario, you can check the criteria here.

The main difference, besides the regulation, between a dietitian and nutrition is that a dietitian can work with both healthy individuals and those with medical conditions that required nutrition therapy. A nutritionist, no matter their education, should not be providing nutritional therapy to anyone with a medical condition – unless, they are also an R.D. that also uses a nutritionist title (and this does happen).

Dietitians can take on a variety of roles in different levels of society – which is also slightly different than a nutritionist, who generally works with individual people. Dietitians also provide nutrition counselling for people (healthy and those with medical conditions requiring nutrition counselling or therapy), as well as help create food-related policies, provide nutrition education, conduct research, and more.

In Ontario, R.D.’s must have a university degree, a certain amount of practical/clinical experience, and they have to have successfully completed the Canadian Dietetic Registration Exam (CDRE).

The main difference(s)?

A nutritionist can be university educated and very knowledgeable, as I mentioned. However, be aware that there are also people who can use that title who have little or no nutrition education. That is one of the main differences – as the Registered Dietitian title is protected, you know that those using it are professionals and have met the standards for their college.

The second major difference of course is the population they work with – nutritionists work with healthy individuals, whereas dietitians can work with a variety of populations. You will often see dietitians working in the hospital, on different units, helping different people with different conditions manage their nutrition.

There will be differences in their education toodietitians university degrees usually have to be accredited. Nutritionists, in many places, don’t have educational requirements because they are not regulated – but many do have a university or college degree in nutrition, and possibly additional specialization or training.

Both can be good options to consult in regards to your nutrition – but in different circumstances, as discussed above. I hope this helps clarify the two roles, and as always – if I’ve forgotten any major details or made an error, feel free to contact me by e-mail at info@elephantinthewomb.ca.

This is the first post in my new series “Who’s Who?” which will be exploring the different roles of healthcare and allied health professionals, and complementary therapy providers. My hope is to help people be able to make informed decisions in regards to their provider – and not be potentially misled. Stay tuned for the next post on IBCLCs and other breastfeeding support roles!