Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: What’s the Difference?

If you want to start a career in the nutrition field, you'll need to understand the difference between dietitians and nutritionists. We break down education, licensing, and job opportunities for both paths.
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Updated on September 22, 2023
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Tyler Epps is an editor for BestColleges. He writes and edits content about higher education, specializing in degree planning and college rankings. He is passionate about helping students prepare for college and navigate their educational journey. He...
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  • The primary difference between nutritionists and dietitians is the education required for their jobs.
  • As of 2024, registered dieticians will need a minimum of a master's degree for licensure.
  • Many states don't have any education or licensure requirements for nutritionists.
  • Both dietitians and nutritionists use their knowledge of food and nutrition to support their clients' health and well-being.

Are you interested in a career in nutrition but don't really understand the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian?

Comparing them is kind of like comparing apples and oranges. They're similar in a lot of ways — with a few key differences (mostly, the education and credentials required to do the job).

Understanding those differences is the first step to picking the career that's just right for you.

What Is a Dietitian?

Dietitians are credentialed through the Commission on Dietetic Registration and are food and nutrition experts who use the science of nutrition to promote health, prevent disease, and manage medical conditions. Dietitians have a wider scope of practice than nutritionists; namely, they can provide medical nutrition therapy in clinical settings.

As of 2024, a master's degree in nutrition (or dietetics) will be the minimum education requirement for licensure as a registered dietitian (RD) almost everywhere in the United States.

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What Is a Nutritionist?

Like dietitians, nutritionists help clients use food to nourish their bodies and meet health goals. They tend to focus on general education and addressing food behavior. But unlike dietitians, education and credentialing requirements for nutritionists vary widely by state.

In some states, there are no regulatory restrictions on who may provide nutritional advice. This means your free-spirited aunt who uses moon water to cure the hiccups and has strong opinions about sourdough starters could fashion herself a non-licensed nutritionist and start billing clients tomorrow (at least, in Michigan and Arizona).

But many states (and employers) have stricter guardrails and require certified nutritionist specialists (CNSs) to earn at least a four-year degree, certification, and in some cases, licensure. Nutritionists who go on to get a master's degree can compete for clinical roles with better pay, more responsibility, and a broader scope of practice.

Breaking Down the Differences Between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist

Dietitians and nutritionists have many job responsibilities that overlap, making their roles appear similar. However, the required education and credentials between the two vary greatly.

Here's a chart to help you see the differences.

Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: Which Path Should I Choose?

If you are interested in providing medical therapy or clinical healthcare, becoming a registered dietitian is probably your best bet — though in many states, you can work with clients in outpatient settings as a certified or clinical nutritionist as well. In either case, you'll need to meet rigorous education requirements, complete an internship, and pass certification exams.

If you're interested in public health, fitness, or wellness coaching, becoming a nutritionist might be just the thing. In any case, the more education or certifications you have in the field, the more job opportunities you'll have access to.

Frequently Asked Questions About Dietitians vs. Nutritionists

Should I see a dietitian or a nutritionist?

That really depends on your goal: If your needs are medical, and you want to use your insurance when you receive nutrition care (managing, treating, or preventing disease), then you should probably see a dietitian — especially if you can find one who specializes in your particular issue.

If you are looking for general guidance on healthy nutritional habits or weight management, find a nutritionist. But be mindful that (depending on what state you live in) not all nutritionists have the same educational background. Look for someone who has relevant training and experience.

Which dietitians make the most money?

Dietitians working in the pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing industry tend to have the highest salaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), they earned an annual mean wage of $93,920 in May 2021.

Industry, location, and specialization can all impact your salary as a dietitian.

What is a registered dietitian nutritionist?

A registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) is an optional designation for registered dietitians introduced by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) in 2013. It is intended to communicate the breadth of expertise that dietitians have — or as AND puts it, to highlight the fact that "all dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians." is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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