Is there a difference between a dietitian and nutritionist - image of various foods on a counter and someone holding food in a bowl

Is There a Difference Between a Dietitian and Nutritionist?

Is there a difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist? Absolutely! But, believe it or not, the answer isn’t that simple.

The Oxford definition for nutritionist is, “a person who is an expert on the relationship between food and health.”

There is no regulation on how the term nutritionist is used. 

Nutrition certifications vary based on their pre-requisite requirements. A four-year college degree is not required for all nutrition certifications (especially on-line certifications). However, some nutritionists may hold a bachelor’s or graduate degree. 

What this means is anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.

So…dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians.

Board Certified Dietitians and Nutritionists

Currently, there are 4 boards that certify dietitians and nutritionists:

  • Commission of Dietetics Registration (CDR) – Registered Dietitian or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist pathway
  • Board of Certification for Nutrition Specialists (BCNS) – Certified Nutrition Specialist pathway
  • Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB) – Certified Clinical Nutritionist pathway
  • Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board (HNCB) – Holistic Nutritionist pathway

Registered Dietitian or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RD/RDN)

Registered Dietitians and Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RD/RDN) have met all the criteria specified by the Commission of Dietetic Registration (CDR) to use this credential.

Eligibility requirements include:

Here is the RD/RDN Licensure Map by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) to find out if your state requires a licensure to practice dietetics.

If “Practice Exclusive” is shown for your state, only licensed dietitians are allowed to practice dietetics in that state. 

To maintain this certification, dietitians must complete 75 continuing education units (CEUs) every 5 years.

What is the difference between RD and RDN?

Dietitians may use the credential RD or RDN.  The N, or nutritionist, was added to the RD credential to show that all dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians.

Certified Nutrition Specialist – CNS®

The Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS) supports the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS®) certification.

The Certified Nutrition Specialist® is accredited by National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). The title is protected by trademark because it can only be used by those who passed the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists exam.

Eligibility requirements to sit for the CNS® exam include:

The CNS® Licensure Map, by the American Nutrition Association, shows where Certified Nutrition Specialists can practice with their licensure.

The CNS® certification is a federally recognized board certification while the state-by-state licensures are not federally recognized.

There are approximately 5 states that give CNS® nutritionists and RD nutritionists the same licensure (called an LDN), while 13 other states uphold the CNS® certification without licensure.

For recertification, 75 continuing education credits (CECs) are required every 5 years.

Additional certifications offered by BCNS include:

Certified Clinical Nutritionist – (CCN)

Certified Clinical Nutritionists are certified through the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB).

Eligibility requirements include:

  • Satisfy core academic requirements.
    • Bachelor’s degree or advanced professional degree or graduate degree in nutrition
  • Submit credential review application and college transcripts
  • Receive credential review approval
  • Complete the Post Graduate Studies in Clinical Nutrition (PGSCN) Program
  • Achieve a passing score on exam.

No internship or supervised hours are required for the CCN certification.

Recertification for the CCN credential includes 40 continuing education hours every 2 years.

National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP) and Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board (HNCB)

The NANP and HNCB recognize Holistic Nutrition Professionals (HNP) are not licensed in any state.  They provide a map highlighting states with greater leniency vs. those where only dietitians, and sometimes certified nutrition specialists may practice.

The two credentials offered by NANP and HNCB are:

  • Board Certified Holistic Nutrition (BCHN)
  • Certified Nutrition Professional (CNP).

A supervised practice is required and 10 continuing education credits are needed each year to maintain the CNP credential.

Table comparing RD/RDN, CNS, CCN, CNP certifications

Online Nutrition Certifications

There are several on-line nutrition certifications available.  Individuals with these certifications may use the title “nutritionist”.  Most online certifications do not require a bachelor’s or graduate degree in nutrition, which is one big difference between a dietitian and nutritionist certified on-line.

When choosing to work with any professional, it is important to be aware of their certifications and what each certification entails (pre-requisites, education level, etc.).

Below is a brief overview of six online nutrition certification programs and their pre-requisites from the following organizations:

  • ACE – American Council on Exercise
  • ISSA – International Sports Sciences Association
  • NCSF – National Council of Strength and Fitness
  • Precision Nutrition
  • NASM – National Academy of Sports Medicine
  • AFPA – American Fitness Professionals Association

ACE – American Council on Exercise – Fitness Nutrition Specialist

To be vetted as an ACE – Fitness Nutrition Specialist, an individual must first hold a National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) accredited certification. ACE recognizes several certifications or credentials on their website linked above.

The course is $699-799. At the time of this article, the program was 50% off ($349.50-399.50) and included a textbook, multiple video series on nutrition and behavior change, and a quiz (passing score of 70% is needed to gain certification).

This course offers 15-25 CECs depending on the board overseeing a person’s continuing education.

ISSA – International Sports Sciences Association – Nutritionist Certification

The ISSA Nutritionist Certification is a 20 credit, 12 month program costing $39.28/month ($471.36) at the time of this article.

Pre-requisites include:

  • 18 years of age
  • High school diploma or equivalent
  • CPR/AED/First Aid Certified

According to the website, this is a self-study course that most individuals can complete in 10 weeks.  The quizzes are open-book, and the final exam is an un-timed open book test with 363 questions.

The course includes a textbook covering:

  • Macronutrients
  • Micronutrients
  • Lifestyle changes and strategies
  • Client assessment and goal setting
  • Product Label Reading and Claims
  • Dietary Guidelines
  • Trending Diets and Myths
  • Supplementation
  • Business of Nutrition Coach

NCSF – National Council on Strength and Fitness – Certified Sports Nutritionist

The NCSF Sports Nutritionist certification includes a textbook, an e-learning platform, sample practice exams questions (200+), flashcards, and on-line instructional videos.

According to the website, the course typically takes 2-4 months to complete and offers 8 continuing education units.

There are 4 modules and 16 lessons covering the topics of:

  • Macronutrients
  • Micronutrients
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Nutrient Analysis

The exam is 150 questions and a passing score of 70% is required. 

At the time of this article, the cost of this program was $419-649 (40% off normal listing price).

Precision Nutrition – Certified Nutrition Coach

The Precision Nutrition Certified Nutrition Coach course has been named the #1 online nutrition certification.  This course includes three unit textbooks that focus on:

  1. Coaching
  2. Science of Nutrition
  3. Step-by-step application process

This course is offered during open enrollment only and is presently in the pre-sale phase (next group begins in March of 2023).

If you get into the pre-sale, a 30% savings or $99/month for 12 months price ($999 for one-time payment) is offered.  Those not signed up for the pre-sale pay $119/month.

According to the website, future coaches follow the process of:

  • Watching the chapter videos
  • Read the chapter
  • Practice what you have learned
  • Take the end of chapter exams

There are twenty 10-question exams for a total of 200 questions throughout the course. A certificate is granted if at least 150 of the 200 questions are correct (75% or higher is required to pass).

NASM – National Academy of Sports Medicine – Certified Nutrition Coach

The NASM Certified Nutrition Coach is a non-accredited certification regularly costs $899 for 12mths.  At the time of this article, it was 30% ($699). 

A non-accredited certification means it is not recognized as meeting prescribed standards or requirements.

The course includes:

  • 24 chapters on various nutrition, behavior change, and coaching topics
  • 40+ lecture videos
  • Chapter quizzes (15 questions)
  • Practice exams
  • Final exam – 100 questions (90-minute time limit) – requires score of 70% or higher to pass.

AFPA – American Fitness Professionals Association

The American Fitness Professionals Association has several Nutrition Certifications. The certifications include:

  • Autoimmune Holistic Nutrition Specialist Certification
  • Holistic Nutritionist Certification
  • Nutrition & Wellness Consultant Certification
  • Nutrition Consultant Certification – Master Level
  • Weight Management Specialist Certification
  • Sports Nutrition Certification
  • Senior Nutrition Specialist Certification
  • Youth Nutrition Specialist Certification

Each certification supplies continuing education credits for some accredited providers:

  • American Nutrition Association
  • International Practitioners of Holistic Medicine
  • The American Naturopathic Medical Certification Board
  • Federation of Holistic Therapists
Online Certification Comparison of ACE, ISSA, NCSF, Precision, NASM

What You Can Do as a Dietitian vs. a Nutritionist

Dietitians (RD/RDN)

Dietitians are recognized as food and nutrition experts who practice Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT). The Scope of Practice of a dietitian can, at times, be covered by health insurance. 

Dietitians are hired in several professional areas including:

  • Health care systems
  • Long-term care
  • Community and public heath
  • Education (K-12, college, university)
  • Research
  • Private practice
  • Governmental agencies
  • Business and industry
  • Food service
  • Sports nutrition.

To find a dietitian practicing in your area, use the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Find a Nutrition Expert link.

Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS®)

Certified Nutrition Specialists typically work in:

  • Public health programs
  • Corporate wellness
  • Education (schools and college campus
  • and alongside functional MDs, chiropractors, and acupuncturists.

You can use the American Nutrition Association Practitioner Finder to locate a CNS® in your area.

Nutritionist

Nutritionists with on-line certifications often work in the following areas:

  • Health clubs and gyms
  • Lifestyle coaching
  • Personal Training
  • Private practice

Nutritionists typically follow state licensure requirements to see what is allowed for their practice in that state. Often times, nutritionists are aligned with heath coaches.

Is There an Income Difference Between a Dietitian and Nutritionist?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for Dietitians and Nutritionists in May 2021 was $61,650.00.

The lowest range in pay was $42,530.00 to the highest range of $93,640.00.

Because the work of RD/RDNs and CNS® are more defined by the work environments shown in the linked report above, it is my assumption that these numbers reflect these two professions vs. individuals with online nutrition certifications.

Final Thoughts on the Difference Between a Dietitian and Nutritionist

In many states, only an RD/RDN can offer nutrition counseling on specific diet plans (Medical Nutrition Therapy). CNS® typically work in public health programs. Other nutrition professionals follow state licensure guidelines to ensure they practice within their scope of practice.

The maps below can help clarify licensure requirements in each state:

For more information about The Dietitian Resource, visit our site or check out the blog.  Thanks for visiting!

2 Responses

  1. I like that you mentioned how different nutrition certificates have different prerequisites. For certain nutrition certificates, especially online certifications, a four-year college degree is not necessary. I’ll talk about this with my sister, who gave birth almost three weeks ago. She stated that she is unsure of how much milk she should be giving her infant, therefore I would suggest that she seek the advice of a reputable nutritionist.

  2. Hi Elle,
    I went to college for four years and earned my BS in food and nutrition. I chose not to attend the dietetic internship due to financial costs at that time. I consider myself a Dietitian/Nutritionist. The only difference is that I did not sit for the dietetic registration exam. Where I am working, that is really not needed, as I will not be working in a hospital where they require you to be “registered.” I feel that it is necessary for an individual to have a four-year college degree. You have to take a lot of courses in chemistry, and nutrition counseling, and they are not easy courses. So, I would consider myself to be a reputable nutritionist, as that is what I call myself to my clients. I have never been asked if I was a dietitian. I am currently working on a new website so I am not able to leave my name at the bottom at this time.

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More About Rochelle

Rochelle Inwood MS, RDN, ACSM EP-C

Hello there! I’m Rochelle Inwood, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and Exercise Physiologist (ACSM EP-C). With over 14 years of experience, I have sharpened my expertise through diverse roles, including weight management program co-coordinator, patient/employee gym supervisor, outpatient dietitian, program manager, dietetic internship preceptor, and more. I am passionate about learning, creating, teaching, and supporting personal growth and development.