Nutritionist vs Dietitian

Happy Tuesday! Hope everyone had an amazing 4th of July if you live in the United States. I celebrated by hanging out with family, eating lots of watermelon while watching fireworks, and getting started on the newest season of Stranger Things, which has been so far pretty intriguing! Whether you had a long weekend, or a normal one, I hope this week hasn’t been hectic so far.

This week’s post is a conclusion to one two weeks ago about the differences between a Nutrition and Dietetics degree. The main differences if you remember are that Dietetics will allow you to get into an internship while nutrition has fewer foodservice classes and might instead focus on other areas of health. Today we’ll talk about life after college and how a nutritionist differs from a dietitian
(*note: anything in this article about the difference between the two professions is only in reference to the US. Other countries have different rules and laws. Maybe someday I’ll do a post about dietetics around the world, if people are interested!*) .

Nutritionists have fewer legal protections

Do people sometimes practice as nutritionists? Sure. But that doesn’t mean they can legally do the same things that dietitians do. Something you’ve probably heard or even told someone is that all dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians. Dietitians are able to practice across the US, but beyond that, much of the dietetics/nutritionist differences are defined by the states. Each state has its own legal requirements for whether someone is allowed to provide nutrition counseling and/or medical nutrition therapy. Some states allow nutritionists to practice counseling, while others require them to be licensed. Some states require dietitians to be licensed in the state, while others have no such requirements. As if the system isn’t complicated enough, a nutritionist may be able to counsel in a state, but a patient’s insurance might not cover them. Depending on the insurance and policy, some patients can have some/all costs covered for seeing a dietitian, but not receive the same coverage for consulting a nutritionist.

If this is all a little frustrating or confusing, I share your pain! If you’re curious about starting your own private practice, talk to professors or RDs in your area that understand the legal and insurance requirements. If you’re not sure about what your future holds, but want to know more, helped me immensely when writing this article and provides way more information than I could.

Is there any other reason to choose nutritionist over dietitian?

Yes, as with nutrition, you aren’t required to do any internships, which saves you time and money. If you choose this though, you have to know for sure that you aren’t interested in most areas of dietetics. Because most states won’t allow nutritionists to practice in a medical setting, the main option is to go into nutrition counseling and start a private practice. You have to have a lot of business and entrepreneurship savvy. It’s hard, but doable! However, I would caution that unless you’re very sure that this is what you want to do with your life, dietetics is going to be the better choice of the two. With dietetics you’ll have more schooling, more experience before beginning your career, more available career choices, and more credibility!

In the interest of providing options, I will say that if the nutritionist route sounds right for you, there are certifications some of which are similar to dietetics. This website here provides a full list. Just be warned that “nutritionist” can imply a less science-/evidence based practice to professionals. For example the website that I linked to is called Natural Healers, which focuses on holistic medicine, which some people have strong opinions on. If that’s your cup of tea, then pursue that as hard as you can! Just keep in mind other’s might feel differently.

Finally, I’d like to add that, whether you’re a nutritionist, or someone who’s graduated, but hasn’t earned their RD yet, WIC centers are usually open to hiring those without an RD certification. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk (source). Since nutrition sessions are required to take part in the WIC program, clinics need “nutrition professionals” to educate the clients. From what I understand, this job can be repetitive, and sometimes clients aren’t very receptive (I saw one dietitian refer to it as “the DMV but for food vouchers”). However, it’s a great starting point if you’re looking for nutrition experience after college, but haven’t quite made it to the process of applying for an internship (or are happy with being a nutritionist!).

In short, nutritionist is a viable career choice, but a very narrow one. If you know for sure WIC career or a private practice in a state that allows it is what you want in life, go for it!

What questions do you have about nutritionist versus dietetics? Let me know in the comments section!

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