When Should You Call In a Registered Dietitian?

What is the difference between a dietitian, nutritionist, health and nutrition coach? With the variety of terms being thrown around, it can get quite confusing. Furthermore, social media influencers will often toss around titles without the backing of formal education, making it even more unclear if you're considering adding a health expert to your journey.

When you do seek nutrition advice, you do want to go to the credentialed individual who has been formally trained to help you. To clear up the confusion, we're breaking down the differences between all the confusing terms you may see on and offline.

Dietitian Versus Nutritionist

Every dietitian is a nutritionist, but not every nutritionist is a dietitian. According to registered dietitian nutritionist, Malina Malkani, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and creator of the Wholitarian Lifestyle, "The rigorous process of becoming a registered dietitian and maintaining the registered dietitian credential is similar, in many ways, to that of medical doctor." Malkani explains that registered dietitians must currently complete a minimum of a bachelor's degree with coursework from an accredited university or college, although, starting in 2024, the minimum requirement will include a graduate degree. All registered dietitians must also complete 1,200 hours of supervised practice during a dietetic internship program at an accredited healthcare facility, pass a national exam to receive their board certification, and complete continuing education credits on an ongoing basis to maintain their credentials.

In addition, you may see the term "R.D." (registered dietitian) as the credentials, or "R.D.N." (registered dietitian nutritionists), as several years ago the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics combined the terms "dietitian" and "nutritionists" into one title to show that dietitians are nutritionists. Thus, the credentials R.D. and R.D.N. are the same thing.

"Nutrition is a science, not an opinion," says Malkani. "Registered dietitian nutritionists are trained to make nutrition recommendations that are based on a vast body of medical literature, rather than relying on opinions and personal anecdotes. In an age where dietary guidance flows freely from influencers, celebrities and people who may not have any nutrition-related education or training, it's helpful to know that you can rely on a registered dietitian nutritionist to provide evidence-based guidance, grounded in science."

But what about nutritionists and nutrition coaches? Many individuals give themselves their own titles such as nutritionist, health or nutrition coach, or even a health expert. However, "no formal governing body oversees the training, expertise or ongoing education of nutrition coaches or self-proclaimed nutritionists," says Malkani.  These individuals do not qualify to carry medical insurance for nutrition counseling.

When Is It Time to Call an R.D.N?

Malkani recommends reaching out to a registered dietitian nutritionist at the first sign of food strife. "Whenever anyone has a food or nutrition-related struggle, question or concern, I recommend reaching out to a registered dietitian nutritionist first so that you can receive the best practices and recommendations, based on the latest research."

Registered dietitian nutritionists can specialize in various disciplines, as well, including weight loss, kidney disease, heart disease, cancer, pediatrics, diabetes, food allergies and sensitivities, eating disorders, weight management, sports nutrition and much more. There are even specialty exams registered dietitian nutritionists can take in order to specialize in various areas. You can discuss your concern with your primary care physician and ask for a referral to a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in your specific area of concern.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, can also help you find an expert in your area. Visit the eatright.org homepage and click on "Find an Expert." When you enter your zip code, you can search by proximity and/or area of expertise. "Insurance companies cover many types of nutrition services delivered by RDNs," Malkani adds. "Ask your primary care doctor for a referral and contact your insurance company to learn more about what is covered under your plan and find an in-network RDN near you." 

If you've struggled with weight loss in the past, are looking to meet new goals, have a health condition or just want to learn more about the right ways to fuel your body, an investment in a registered dietitian nutritionist could open your world up and improve your overall health in incredible ways.