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  • Writer's pictureJoan Medlen

Does the Label Matter? “Dietitian” meets “Nutritionist”

I haven’t had this conversation for about 26 years.  For some reason, it’s coming up fairly regularly now, and I see it’s an important point to make.

I want to be L A B E L E D.

A Dietitian, that is.

What is the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist?

Why? Because you wonder, “What is the difference between a ‘Nutritionist’ and a ‘Dietitian?'”  No need to deny it. You know you do.

I know this because once we talked about it, almost every other health care professional in the room at the Down Syndrome Medical Interest Group Meeting in San Antonio said, “Oh…I’ve always wondered about that! Good to know!” These are some of the most respected names in health care for people with Down syndrome in the United States. And they didn’t know. So don’t feel bad.

Simply put, anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist.” But only some can call themselves a Dietitian.

Let’s compare the two.

Dietitian: Dietitians are registered nationally, and licensed by their state in which they practice. To be registered, one must have at least a BS in Dietetics or Nutrition and complete an internship (or an approved alternative) following graduation. But wait, they’re not done yet! Once these criterion are met, a person is eligible to take the registration exam, administered by the Committee on Dietetic Registration. Once a person successfully passes this exam, they may call themselves a Registered Dietitian and place the letters. “R.D.” after their signature. Last, one can apply for a license to practice in each state they choose to practice medical nutrition therapy.

This rigorous training teaches the RD to work with you – in tandem with your health care team – to create a nutrition therapy plan that fits your lifestyle.

Nutritionist: Anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist.” There are no education, ethical, or license-related standards to govern the use of the title. It’s not necessary, but you can obtain a type of certificate from any number of programs – available in magazines, over the internet, on television, and more – for some “training” in nutrition.

Some Dietitians have jobs with the title “Nutritionist.” For example, Dietitians working in the Women Infant and Child program (WIC) are called “Nutritionists,” but their job description requires they are a Registered Dietitian. All individuals working in accredited hospitals, regardless of the job title on the door, are Registered Dietitians.

What about “Coach”? Another job title to take note of is one that has the word “coach” applied to it. There’s any number of combinations: wellness coach, nutrition coach, lifestyle coach, health coach, and so on. Although accrediting organizations do exist for coaches, there is no regulation on how the term can be used. In the end, anyone can call themselves a “coach.”

Don’t get me wrong. There are some amazing nutritionists and coaches. There are people who can’t meet the rigorous training or pass the registration exam, but have the educational background, for instance.

But there are some who are very scary too. And then, there are those who really just want your money. You may meet a Dietitian like this too. The difference? If you meet a Dietitian whose medical or ethical judgement  you question, you have a course of action.

Nutritionists are not held to ethical standards. There is no mechanism to complain and perhaps strip them of their credentials. If you have a complaint about the professional ethics of an RD, there is a mechanism to do this – just as with physicians.

For example, I make great tools to help people change their environment or develop skills that transform their environment to promote quality health, quality lives, in a connected community. I will coach you to that outcome whether you use my cookbooks or not. I will also sell you my tools without requiring you to participate in any of my programs. They are mutually exclusive.

The short answer is that a Registered Dietitian is someone who is highly trained, whose credentials are monitored, and who is required to complete relevant continuing education to keep their credentials.

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