Dietitian vs Nutritionist Career: Choosing the Best Path For You


As you may expect, there is a great deal of commonality between dietitians and nutritionists. They are both professionals trained to understand food and diet and the impact they have on the human body. In this post, we’ll break down the differences between dieticians and nutritionists, what a day in the life looks like for each role, how to become a dietician or nutritionist, as well as some dietician vs nutritionist FAQs.


Dietitian vs Nutritionist: What’s the Difference?

The difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist is that nutritionists often give general diet-related counsel, whereas dietitians are qualified to diagnose and help treat nutrition-related illnesses and disorders. Because of this distinction, dietitians are more specialized and require more education and certifications to comply with stricter regulations.

To put it simply, every dietitian is a nutritionist, but not every nutritionist is a dietitian.

Dietitian vs Nutritionist Differences

  • 6-8 years of education and training
  • Work in diverse environments like hospitals, schools, private practices, psychiatric facilities, and more
  • Make $62,000 a year on average
  • Must pass a certifying exam to satisfy legal requirements before referring to themselves as dietitians
  • Required to acquire continuing education credits to retain status as licensed dietitian
  • 2-8 years of education and training
  • Work in diverse environments like hospitals, schools, private practices, psychiatric facilities, and more
  • Make $53,000 a year on average
  • No legal requirements preventing nutritionists to refer to themselves as nutritionists at any point
  • No requirements for continuing education

Dietitian vs Nutritionist Salary

On average, dieticians make $62,000 a year in comparison to nutritionists, who make roughly $53,000 a year. There is a wide range for potential financial growth in both disciplines, but generally, dietitians make more.

For nutritionists, pursuing further training and becoming a Registered Dietitian can be a path to higher salary. Both dietitians and nutritionists can also turn their diet-related foundations into a medical career by going to med school. While an extremely costly option, it will eventually yield a higher income.

Curious to learn more about what doctors actually make in comparison to other professions? Check out our guide: Doctor vs. Engineer – A Financial Analysis.


What Is a Dietitian? Job Description and Day-to-Day

Dietitians, sometimes referred to as RDs (Registered Dietitians) or RDNs (Registered Dietitian Nutritionists), can work in a wide variety of capacities, though most often, they work directly with patients to improve their health through diet expertise and adjustment. This includes working with individuals suffering from illnesses or injuries to create health and diet plans to improve health. It also means conducting screenings to determine patient health and tracking progress to ensure nutritional adjustments are serving their patients.

It’s typical for dietitians to work alongside other medical providers, such as doctors, nurses, and therapists, to ensure patients are getting thorough care.

Dietitians also work in research capacities, studying populations and gathering data to better understand the effect of modern diet practices on our physical and mental health.

Some dietitians work in private practices, providing one-on-one consultation and individually-crafted diet plans for clients seeking a healthier relationship with food or a better understanding of personal nutrition. This role can also encompass working with clients who are recovering from eating disorders or maintaining intentional diets for other reasons.

Dietitians can also work within schools, correctional facilities, community centers, and counseling programs to create diet plans and provide nutritional information to larger populations.


What Is a Nutritionist? Job Description and Day-to-Day

Nutritionists have very similar duties as dietitians but require less regulation.

A nutritionist advises clients on nutrition and how it affects their bodies. They work with clients to change their diets and eating habits to encourage a healthier lifestyle. It’s not about detoxes or crash diets—good nutritionists teach people realistic and sustainable ways to eat and understand their relationship with food.

Nutritionists work in different environments, including hospitals, psychiatric facilities, corporate organizations, athletic organizations, food service centers, and travel destinations.

Like dietitians, nutritionists can also work in private practices to provide individual consultations with clients and tailor-made plans that address both mental and physical illnesses or other nutrition-related needs.

Nutritionists’ day-to-day tasks often involve assessing their clients’ dietary needs and restrictions. They create diet plans to address any issues, advising clients on what to expect, keeping track of goals and progress, and educating clients on nutrition information relevant to their needs.


How to Become a Dietitian

Dietitians are a regulated profession, which means becoming one requires a certain level of higher education. That said, there are many different ways to become a dietitian.

An undergraduate degree is required for all dietitians. Typically, dietitians major in disciplines like nutrition, biology, or related sciences.

Then, dietitians must either obtain a master’s degree specialized in dietetics or nutrition or enter into an internship with an accredited organization.

The accreditation board for dietetics is called the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). All licensed dietitians must pass an exam proctored by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. Once licensed, dietitians must complete continuing education requirements regularly in accordance with the requirements of their specific states.

Typically, this process can take anywhere from 6-8 years.


How to Become a Nutritionist

For nutritionists, like dietitians, an undergraduate degree in a food or dietetics-related discipline is wise.

However, nutritionists aren’t as regulated as dietitians, and there are no legal requirements to meet before someone can call themselves a nutritionist. How to become a nutritionist can take many different forms.

Some nutritionists pursue accreditation to become a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) which, according to the American Nutrition Association, is the “most advanced certification for personalized nutrition practitioners.” Before you can sit for this credentialing exam, applicants are required to hold a master’s degree in a related field and have at least 1,000 hours of practical nutrition experience.

Another accrediting board for nutritionists is the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB), which requires a master’s degree and an exam.

This process can take anywhere from 2-8 years.


Dietitian vs Nutritionist Medical Career FAQ

Are Dietitians or Nutritionists Doctors?

In short, no. Neither dietitians or nutritionists are doctors. Dietitians and nutritionists do not go to medical school or pass any of the certifying examinations required of medical professionals.

Both disciplines can work in conjunction with medical professionals, such as doctors, nurse practitioners, and nurses, but they are not medical professionals themselves.

What Is the Doctor Equivalent of a Dietician/Nutritionist?

Neither nutritionists or dietitians hold medical degrees, so there is no direct doctor equivalent to either.

However, there are avenues for doctors already holding a medical degree to specialize in diet and nutrition-related fields. In these cases, nutritionists and dietitians already holding an MD or DO would be considered doctors in food-related fields.

If you’re already an MD or DO and are interested in certification as a nutritionist, you can follow the CNS pathway, which consists of 18 hours of nutrition-related credits at an accredited university, 1000 hours of clinical nutrition contact, a Personalized Nutrition case study, and passing the CNS certifying exam.

There are similar routes for MD or DOs to become dietitians, depending on your area and the program you choose.

How Can a Dietitian or Nutritionist Become a Doctor?

Both dietitians and nutritionists need to apply to medical school in order to become a doctor. While earning a certification as a dietitian or nutritionist gives you something impressive to put on your med school application and speak about during interviews, the certification in either path does not exempt you from going to medical school to earn either your MD (Doctor of Medicine) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathy).

Learn more about the path of applying to medical school with our comprehensive guides:  How to Get Into Medical School and AACOMAS Application Guide for DO Schools.


How to Choose the Best Path for You

how to make tough decisions diverging path

If you are interested in nutrition and diet and are eager to begin working with diverse populations as quickly as possible, pursuing a career as a nutritionist could be right for you.

However, if you want to specialize and work to diagnose and treat clients in a clinical capacity, becoming a dietitian would be a better fit.

Both career paths require empathy, patience, a passion for food, health, and dietetics, and specialized education. Each path also offers a fair amount of flexibility to work in a wide variety of different environments and with a diverse population of clients.

In short, dietitians make higher salaries on average, but becoming a dietitian requires more education and higher up-front costs. Dietitians are a regulated profession and require continuing education to stay informed of changing science surrounding nutrition.

Nutritionists, on the other hand, are less regulated and can begin practicing within their discipline sooner. There are also no legal regulations requiring anything specific for someone to refer to themselves as a nutritionist, meaning you can choose how many up-front investments you want to make.

Both nutritionists and dietitians are focused on helping improve the health and lives of others, and both can develop into robust, fulfilling careers, depending on the path you take.

Not sure which path to choose? Med School Insiders offers one-on-one advising with physicians who have already walked in your shoes. We’ll help you choose the ideal path for you, and if you choose to pursue medical school, we’ll help you craft a stand out medical school application that will get you noticed by the schools you most want to attend.

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