If you know a Registered Dietitian, you know we harp on our credentials. We will correct people who call us nutritionists, and we will even go as far as correcting the spelling of “dietician” to the accepted spelling of “dietitian.”
Why do we make such a big deal out of this stuff? Why does it matter?
I want to explain why it matters so much (the short answer is “because of your safety!”), and I want to clarify that it isn’t just semantics. It is the difference between having to meet the requirements needed to call ourselves nutrition professionals and having to meet no requirements at all. And it is knowing that taking nutrition counseling from anyone who doesn’t have the Registered Dietitian (RD or RDN) credential behind their name is risky business.
I always think a picture speaks a thousand words, so take a look at the requirements for dietitians vs. nutritionists:
RD (or RDN)
Bachelor's Degree in Human Nutrition (or similar) required
Many have Master's Degrees, and by 2024, a Master's Degree will become the minimum education requirement
Post-Undergrad Supervised Practice Program (900-1200 hours) required (covers clinical & disease-state nutrition and food service/commerical nutrition)
Successful passing of National Registration Examination for Dietitians required
Governance by Commission on Dietetic Registration required
Annual Code of Ethics education required
75 hours of Continuing Education required every 5 years for credential maintenance
Licensure to practice required in most states
No education required
No state or federal mandates for the use of the term nutritionist
I often explain it to my clients like this: if you needed a root canal, would you go to a dentist, or would you go to someone who completed a weekend seminar on dentistry? I think the answer is pretty obvious for most people. It gets more muddled when the topic in question is nutrition. We all eat, right? And we all watch the media and read the internet, so we all know what’s current and going on with nutrition, right? Because the media tells us everything we need to know, and the internet never lies, right?
We might all eat, but we are not all food & nutrition experts. The human body is an intricate beast, and how it utilizes the nutrients it receives, how those nutrients affect potential medical conditions, and how current research into nutrition progresses is complicated! And – gasp! – the media generally gets it wrong.
It takes years of studying chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, biology, physiology, anatomy, metabolism, health education, health communication, food science, micro- and macronutrients, microbiology, etc, etc, etc…to be able to fully understand how human metabolism and nutrition work. And even after studying all of that, we have to continue to learn to keep up with the latest (scientifically accurate) research and developments!
(One quick side-note: doctors are not nutrition experts. Doctors are experts in medicine. Most doctors had a total of only 4-7 clock hours of nutrition education in their entire training.)
So when you’re looking for a professional to help you with your nutrition needs, look for the right credential. S/he needs to have a RD or RDN* behind their name.
(*The RDN stands for Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Our governing body, the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), expanded the RD credential to RD or RDN several years ago in response to the public’s confusion on the term dietitian. The media has done such a “wonderful” (insert sarcasm emoji) job on promoting the term “nutritionist” that the general consumer no longer understood what a dietitian was. By adding the “N” to RD, the Commission was able to signify that dietitians work in nutrition – they are the experts in the field. Both the RD credential and the RDN credential are accepted credentials for Registered Dietitians, and you will see them used interchangeably by practitioners.)