Eating healthy seems straightforward, but sometimes you may need extra support. While there are foods to eat that support overall health, your diet can be personal, and what works for one person might not work for you.
If you’re an athlete with specific fitness goals, dealing with a medical condition, or struggling with nutrition in some way, seeking personalized and professional guidance could be beneficial. If you’re a fitness professional who educates your clients on healthy diets, maybe you’re looking to take your knowledge and scope of practice to the next level.
There are two types of recognized nutrition professionals to understand: registered dietitians and certified nutritionists. The main difference is the education requirements which lead to what each profession is able to do in their practices. Here’s everything you need to know about registered dietitians, certified nutritionists, the difference, how to pursue both career paths, and the other types of diet professionals.
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
- What is a Registered Dietitian?
- What is a Certified Nutritionist?
- What’s the Difference Between a Registered Dietitian and a Certified Nutritionist?
- How to Become a Registered Dietitian?
- How to Become a Certified Nutritionist?
- Other Certified Diet Professionals
- Frequently Asked Questions
A registered dietician — also called a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) — is a licensed healthcare professional. They are nutrition experts and may be board-certified by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). They have a bachelor’s or master’s degree and a certification from a program approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). They have completed further coursework, multiple levels of training, and have passed a national exam to receive their license to practice.
Registered dietitians can assess the eating habits of their clients and educate them about healthy eating. They are also qualified to create meal plans to treat people with health conditions like diabetes, kidney disease, obesity, and eating disorders.
RDN’s work in private practices and/or public health, as well as clinical settings like long-term care facilities, nursing homes, pediatrics, and hospitals. They may also work in correctional facilities, food-related industries, universities, or doing research for pharmaceutical and other types of companies. (1)
Certified Nutrition Specialists (CNS) and Clinical Nutritionists must meet certain standards to be recognized by the American Nutrition Association (ANA). If you want to work with a nutritionist with specialized knowledge, it may be helpful to look for those certifications.
Certified and clinical nutritionists learn about their clients’ eating habits and health goals. They provide education and behavioral coaching on how to eat healthier to support their goals and needs. While they may offer nutrition advice for people with medical conditions, they don’t treat those conditions or prescribe intervention. Their scope of practice is more limited to teaching their clients about how nutrition can support their wellness holistically.
The main difference between a registered dietitian and a certified nutritionist is their education — which leads to different credentials and scopes of practice.
Registered dieticians are licensed medical professionals that may also receive a nutritionist certification as part of their credentials. All registered dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians.
One main difference between the two scopes of practice is that registered dietitians can diagnose nutritional conditions and refer you to a physician for a medical condition. They may work in clinical settings like long-term care facilities, inpatient and outpatient hospitals where they help patients manage conditions like diabetes and kidney disease. They may also work with mental health professionals to treat people with eating disorders or addictions where nutrition may help their conditions.
Registered dieticians can provide medical nutrition therapy (MNT). MNT is an evidence-based educational and management tool for people with diabetes. It includes a diagnosis, therapy, and nutrition counseling. It helps people manage diabetes by establishing health goals, creating meal plans, counting carbohydrates, and following up on eating, behavioral, and lifestyle habits. (2)(3)They can also prescribe supplements.
Research shows that MNT is effective at managing glycemic, lipids, and blood pressure levels for people with diabetes. It works by teaching people to balance their macronutrients. This may lead to treating obesity, increasing insulin resistance, and overall boosting their metabolic health. (4) Undergoing MNT with an RD may help with weight loss, lowering cholesterol levels, and potentially reducing the need for medication. (2)
Registered dieticians can choose to specialize in areas like diabetes by becoming Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialists (CDCES). They may also specialize in sports nutrition by becoming a sports dietitian (CSSD). Other areas include pediatrics (CSP), renal or kidney nutrition (CSR), and nutrition for oncology (CSO). They may also focus on research, management, and community. (1)
Certified nutritionist is a broad term, and some may have further specializations and credentials than others. These include certified nutrition specialists (CNS) and certified clinical nutritionists (CCN).
Generally speaking, certified nutritionists are nutrition coaches that have earned at least a bachelor’s degree in nutrition or a related field. They can educate people and the public on how to live healthy lifestyles and provide general nutrition advice. They can explain the link between eating well and overall health. They can also guide their clients toward eating a balanced amount of macro and micronutrients to help prevent diseases or reach certain health goals. In some states, only RDs can give meal plans to their clients or patients, and nutritionists cannot. (5)
Certified nutritionists work in private practices, clinical settings, schools, sports organizations, and public health. They may be in the same settings as registered dietitians, but they focus more on education and guidance.
There are five steps to becoming a registered dietitian. As of July 2023, you must receive a bachelor’s degree in clinical nutrition or a related field. Beginning January 1, 2024, the minimum degree for eligibility will change to a master’s or higher graduate degree. (6) The degree program must also be approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).
Step two is to complete a dietetic internship where you will undergo 1,200 hours of supervision with a licensed professional. Step three is to take and pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam. After passing the exam, step four is to receive licensure in your state. After you get licensed, the final fifth step is to maintain your state license by completing 75 continuing education credits every five years. (7)
People may call themselves a nutritionist after completing a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nutrition, public health, or other related fields. There are many certifications you can get that require different levels of education and training.
If you want to get board-certified, you can choose to become a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS). This is recognized by the Board of Certification for Nutrition Specialists (BCNS) and the American Nutrition Association (ANA). This is an advanced credential for personalized nutrition.
The requirements to become a CNS are: a master’s of science degree or higher in nutrition or a related field, 35 hours of relevant coursework in nutrition and biochemistry approved by the Accreditation Council for Nutrition Professional Education (ACNPE), 1,000 hours of supervised practice, passing the Certification Examination for Nutrition Specialists, and completing five BCNS case studies. You must recertify every five years by completing 75 continuing education credits. (8)
The CNS credential is widely recognized, but it is not a license.
You may come across other types of certified nutrition professionals. Some of them may be RDs who pursued further specializations, and some are separate certifications. These are typically available to people who are already health professionals in some way. Here are a few common types.
Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN)
A certified clinical nutritionist (CCN) applies principles of biochemistry and physiology to improve health through nutrition on an individual basis. A CCN can assess a patient’s blood work and other physical factors to give nutrition advice to help them achieve optimal physiological function. Based on their findings, they may refer patients to other licensed medical professionals. (9)
They can make suggestions for nutrition and lifestyle modifications, suggest supplements, and provide education on the patient’s individual biological makeup. Being a clinical nutritionist is not a license—though licensed professionals may pursue this certification—and on their own, they cannot diagnose or treat medical conditions.
The Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB) is a postgraduate program and continuing education. Candidates must first have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nutrition or a related field to be approved by the CNCB. They can then take courses through CNCB. Afterward, they must pass the CNCB exam to receive a certification in clinical nutrition. (10)
Certified Sports Nutritionist
Sports nutritionists focus on nutrition for athletes. They provide nutrition advice to help them improve their athletic performance, strength, endurance, and muscle recovery. They may also suggest supplements and educate their clients on how to eat properly before and after training. Certified Sports Nutritionists may work with teams or individual athletes. They may work in schools, athletic departments, general and professional sports organizations, food companies, rehab centers, or in the research field. (11)
Similar to generalized nutrition, you can become a sports dietitian or sports nutritionist. Registered dietitians can further specialize in sports dietetics and pass an exam to become a sports dietitian (CSSD). Licensed sports dietitians can also work with athletes with medical conditions and provide medical nutrition therapy.
You can become a sports nutritionist by getting a certification through fitness organizations like ISSA, ACE Fitness, NASM, NCSF, and Fitness Mentors. This may be beneficial for certified personal trainers looking to increase their knowledge and scope to help their clients optimize their nutrition to better reach their goals—competitive athletes and general population alike.
Certified Intuitive Eating Coach Counselor
The concept of intuitive eating comes from a book called Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, written in 1995 by registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. (12) It’s meant to help with “rebuilding a healthy body image and making peace with food” without dieting. Tribole and Resch define it as a “self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought.” (13) New editions with updated evidence and guidance have been published since.
Intuitive eating is meant to help you pay attention to sensations in your body to help you eat for your biological and psychological needs while freeing you from thoughts, beliefs, restrictions, and rules around food. (13) It is not meant for weight loss or managing medical conditions. Bodybuilders may benefit from intuitive eating during their offseason to give their minds and body a break from competing.
Two types of certified counselors can teach intuitive eating to their clients. Health professionals can become Certified Intuitive Eating Coach Counselors, and non-health professionals can become Certified Intuitive Eating Lay Facilitators. Both types need to complete and pass Helm Publishing’s Self-Study Intuitive Eating Course, complete an Intuitive Eating PRO Webinar, and complete three supervision sessions with the founders. (14)
To become a Certified Intuitive Eating Coach Counselor, you must have a bachelor’s degree or higher and a certification or license in a related field. A few fields include registered dietitians, certified nutritionists, certified personal trainers, certified health/wellness coaches, health educators, psychologists, and social workers. (14)
Registered dietitian nutritionists and certified nutritionists also may choose to get an intuitive eating coaching certification to further specialize in helping clients learn to listen to their bodies’ hunger and fullness cues and build a better relationship with food.
Health At Every Size (HAES)
The Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) is a non-profit organization that promotes the Health At Every Size (HAES) principles. HAES states that people of all sizes deserve access to healthcare. There is a weight stigma that often prevents larger people from receiving quality medical care and can end up making their conditions worse. (15)
HAES is a weight-inclusive practice that believes in a holistic definition of health or health status that shouldn’t be used to judge or discriminate against any individual. HAES aims to improve public health and care for all people by acknowledging the weight stigma and bias, while providing principles for health professionals to care for patients of all sizes.
[Read More: How Much Protein Do You Actually Need Per Day?]
HAES does not promote weight loss or weight control as a way to improve someone’s health. They focus instead on body acceptance regardless of size, intuitive eating, and physical activity as an enjoyable movement and not structured exercise meant to change your body. (16)
Below are the five principles of HAES. (15)
- Weight inclusivity: acceptance of all body shapes and sizes without suggesting that higher weights are not healthy
- Health enhancement: support health policies that are accessible to everyone to improve physical, economical, social, spiritual, and emotional well-being
- Eating for well-being: promoting individualized eating styles based on hunger and satiety, nutritional needs, and pleasure
- Respectful care: working to end weight discrimination, stigma, and bias in health care, understanding that socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and other identities impact weight stigma
- Life-enhancing movement: physical activities that are enjoyable and accessible to people of all sizes and abilities
Some studies have shown that people following HAES were able to improve their metabolic health (blood pressure and blood sugar), increase their energy expenditure, improve their eating behavior, and boost their self-esteem and body image while reducing depression — all without losing any weight. (16) It’s important to note that people of all sizes are worthy of respect and care even if they cannot improve these health markers—this is a core factor of HAES.
Registered dietitians, certified nutritionists, and other health professionals may take the HAES courses to incorporate these principles into their practices. As of 2023, the curriculum is being redeveloped and expanded to include the latest research on weight and health. (17)
Dietitian or nutritionist, what’s the difference? Registered dietitians are medical professionals who undergo several regulated levels of education and training and then become licensed by their states. Certified nutritionist is a broad term and not a license; however, you can get more education, training, and board recognition as a nutritionist.
The main difference between the two is that RDs can diagnose and treat people with medical conditions, and certified nutritionists focus on education about healthy eating. Other types of nutrition coaches, like intuitive eating coaches and HAES providers can educate their clients on how to improve their relationship with food outside of weight and other physical health markers.
It’s always best to be specific on what you are looking to get out of guidance from a diet professional and look at your provider’s experience and credentials.
Let’s answer a few common questions on these two types of nutrition professionals.
What is the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian?
Registered dietitians are licensed medical professionals that pass a national exam. Nutritionists receive less regulated certifications, and their levels of education and experience may vary. RDs can diagnose and help manage medical conditions and provide medical nutrition therapy. On the other hand, nutritionists provide education and health coaching.
What are the similarities between a nutritionist and dietitian?
Both registered dietitians and certified nutritionists are professionals that teach people about healthy eating to improve their overall wellness and help them reach their goals. They both have some level of education and training in nutrition and coaching.
What course is best to become a dietitian or nutritionist?
To become a registered dietitian, you must start with a master’s degree in nutrition or a related field approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). Then complete an internship and undergo supervision. Afterward, you’ll need to pass the National Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam and apply for a license in your state.
There are shorter online courses you can take to quickly become a certified nutritionist, and they won’t all require you to have a master’s degree. Certified personal trainers may choose to get nutrition certifications through their credentialing organization. Check out BarBend’s guide to the best nutrition certifications and choose from ISSA, NASM, NCSF, or Fitness Mentors.
However, to become a board-certified nutritionist specialist, you must start with a master’s degree. Then complete 35 hours of relevant coursework in nutrition and biochemistry approved by the Accreditation Council for Nutrition Professional Education (ACNPE), 1,000 hours of supervised practice, pass the Certification Examination for Nutrition Specialists, and complete five case studies.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. About RDNs and NDTRs. EatRight.org.
- Ellis, E., MS, RDN, LDN (2022, March 28). How an RDN Can Help with Diabetes. EatRight.org.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical Nutrition Therapy. CDC.gov.
- Franz MJ. Evidence-based medical nutrition therapy for diabetes. Nutr Clin Pract. 2004 Apr;19(2):137-44.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Dietitians and Nutritionists.
- 2024 Graduate Degree Requirement. Commission on Dietetic Registration. CDRNet.org.
- PublicHealthDegrees.org. How to Become a Registered Dietitian (RD). Public Health Degrees.
- American Nutrition Association. Nutritionists & Health Professionals Eligibility Requirements. Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists.
- Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB). Certification Agency. Clinical Nutrition Certification Board.
- Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB). Steps to Credentialing. Clinical Nutrition Certification Board.
- Koszyk, S., MA, RDN, & Dunn-Emke, S., MS, RDN. How to Become a Sports Nutritionist. Nutrition Jobs.
- Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
- E. T. (2019, July 17). Definition of Intuitive Eating. The Original Intuitive Eating Pros.
- How to Become a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor or Lay Facilitator. The Original Intuitive Eating Pros.
- Association for Size Diversity and Health. Health At Every Size® Principles. ASDH.
- Penney TL, Kirk SF. The Health at Every Size paradigm and obesity: missing empirical evidence may help push the reframing obesity debate forward. Am J Public Health. 2015 May;105(5):e38-42.
- Association for Size Diversity and Health. Health At Every Size® Curriculum. ASDH.
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