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Nutritionist vs. Dietitian: What’s the Difference?

Katherine Tom, MS, RD, LD, CDCES
Updated September 8, 2023
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Dietitian vs. nutritionist: what's the difference? Discover requirements to pursue these roles. Compare and contrast career responsibilities.
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Nutritionist in telehealth meeting showing foodsCredit: Getty Images

Many people use the terms “nutritionist” and “dietitian” interchangeably, but the roles have some key differences. It can be confusing to distinguish what makes the roles separate and unique. This article compares the similarities and differences between nutritionists vs. dietitians, including the steps you need to take to pursue these professional roles, job requirements, responsibilities, and compensation.

Nutritionist and Registered Dietitian Key Similarities and Differences

Nutritionists and registered dietitians (RDs) are food experts. Both work to ensure that groups of people or individuals eat in a manner that promotes health and wellness. The term “nutritionist” refers to someone who studies nutrition or holds expertise in the field. For this reason, all RDs are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians.

RDs have more specialized training to readily provide medical nutrition therapy (MNT), a therapeutic nutrition intervention to help manage disease. Medicare and third-party payers cover MNT for patients with specific conditions, which translates to different reimbursement models for each career.

What is a Nutritionist?

A certified nutrition specialist (CNS) is different from a nutritionist. A CNS is a designation from the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists by the American Nutrition Association. Nutritionists must complete comprehensive training and supervised practice before passing an exam to earn the credential. A CSN may work in wellness centers, provide nutrition education and programming, and contribute to nutrition research and health promotion. State laws dictate whether they must also be licensed to work.

What is a Registered Dietitian?

A registered dietitian (RD) is someone with specialized training to provide nutrition advice tailored to promoting wellbeing. RDs help people with medical conditions maximize their nutrition status. These conditions include cardiovascular disease, food allergies, kidney disease, or diabetes.

Registered dietitians may develop plans for intravenous feedings, select tube feedings, design meal plans, or create nutrition education programs. Before earning the credential, RDs must meet specific education and training requirements set by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR).

Comparison of Nutritionists and Dietitians
Degree RequiredNutritionist: bachelor’s;

CNS: Master’s or doctorate

Bachelor’s (master’s in 2024)
Certification Options

Certified Nutritionist Specialist

Specialty Certification options:

  1. Certified ketogenic nutrition specialist
  2. Certified nutritional genomics specialist

Registered Dietitian

Board Certification in seven areas:

  1. Geriatric nutrition
  2. Pediatric nutrition
  3. Renal nutrition
  4. Oncology nutrition
  5. Sports nutrition
  6. Obesity and weight management
  7. Pediatric critical care nutrition
Duties and Responsibilities
  • General nutrition education
  • Health promotion programming and/or management
  • Individual nutrition counseling as determined by state laws
  • Providing medical nutrition therapy
  • Individual nutrition counseling
  • Nutrition education
  • Food procurement and food safety
Average Annual Salary (Aug. 2023)$57,550$50,950

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Duties and Responsibilities

Comparing nutritionist vs. dietitian responsibilities can be confusing due to some overlap in their roles. Both positions provide nutrition expertise, but state legislature dictates the specific scope of practice between each role. The following sections explore these similarities and differences.

What Does a Nutritionist Do?

Nutritionists disseminate and compile generalized nutrition information related to education, research, community, and food service settings. A CNS has demonstrated additional knowledge through a certification examination and completed supervised experience beyond that of a generalist. Some responsibilities of a nutritionist may include:

  • Speaking to groups about the relationship between healthy eating and disease
  • Creating educational materials about adhering to a healthy eating and lifestyle plan
  • Working to disseminate food or supplements, culinary skills, or public nutrition campaigns
  • Managing culinary or longevity nutrition programs

A CNS may participate in nutrition research or have studied a specific eating pattern more closely to earn a specialty certification, such as implementing the ketogenic diet.

What Does a Registered Dietitian Do?

A registered dietitian applies evidence-based strategies outlined in nutrition practice guidelines set by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Dietitians often work in hospitals, outpatient centers, nursing homes, and dialysis clinics.

Common duties and responsibilities held by a dietitian include:

  • Providing medical nutrition therapy in clinical settings to people suffering from or wanting to avoid disease
  • Counseling individuals on eating habits and food selection
  • Facilitating food procurement and food safety in food service settings
  • Managing food programs to include budgeting, staffing, and administrative duties

Dietitians may help patients manage health conditions such as disordered eating, diabetes, malnutrition, and heart disease.

Education and Certification

Nutritionist vs. dietitian requirements for education and certification differ, but both require you to complete supervised practice and pass a certification exam. Explore these requirements in the following sections.

How to Become a Nutritionist

Nutritionists seeking CNS credentials must have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nutrition or other related fields. Candidates can also qualify by graduating from programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Nutrition Professional Education.

Each candidate must pass the Certification Examination for Nutrition Specialists to earn CNS credentials. Regardless of the degree pathway, exam eligibility for the CNS credential includes obtaining 1,000 hours of self-directed, supervised practice.

How to Become a Registered Dietitian

Registered dietitians must first meet specific education and training requirements set by the CDR before qualifying for the examination. You can become an RD through three pathways.

The first pathway includes earning a bachelor’s degree and completing a didactic program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ASCEND) and a dietetic internship. A candidate may also pair a bachelor’s degree with an ASCEND-coordinated program. The third pathway includes completing an ASCEND-accredited, graduate-level program with specific courses and 1,000 hours of supervised practice.

To renew RD credentials, you must complete a professional development portfolio with at least 75 hours of continuing education credit every five years. To practice dietetics, you may also need to obtain a separate state license. Each state dictates continuing education requirements for licensure maintenance.

Salary and Career Outlook

Compensation for nutritionists and dietitians varies by work setting. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), from 2021-2031, employment of dietitians and nutritionists is projected to increase by 7%, slightly outpacing the average for all occupations.

Nutritionist Salary and Career Outlook

Average Annual Nutritionist Salary


Payscale data from Aug. 2023 indicates that nutritionists earned an average annual salary of $50,950, but top earners in the field earned up to $83,000. Salaries vary based on several factors, including the employer, location, and responsibility level.

Typically, nutritionists with specialty certifications and more experience can expect to earn nearly 10% more than their counterparts without certification. Also, nutritionists working for the state or in direct care capacities, such as providing individual nutritional counseling, may make more than those in non-direct care roles.

Registered Dietitian Salary and Career Outlook

Average Annual Dietitian Salary


As of Aug. 2023, data from Payscale indicates that registered dietitians earn an average annual income of $57,550, with the top 10% of RDs earning $75,000 or more. Payscale data also indicates that dietitians working in operations management make 55% more than those working in general fields.

Equally important to total compensation is the employer and reimbursement model for services. Fields with greater reimbursement may offer higher wages. It is common for a dietitian to seek out employment where services are reimbursed by third-party payers and federal funding, like dialysis and diabetes care.

Nutritionist vs. Dietitian: Which Career is Right For Me?

Nutritionists and dietitians both contribute to health promotion and preventing chronic disease. However, their scope of practice is defined by state and federal legislation. As of Aug. 2023, more states in the U.S. offer pathways for RDs to practice individual nutrition counseling than for nutritionists.

CNS and RD candidates must both meet degree, supervised practice, and exam requirements. When comparing nutritionist vs. dietitian careers, you must consider your education level and ability to conduct self-directed supervised practice experience, as both are minimum requirements for the certified nutritionist specialist credential.

Lastly, you may want to choose a path based on your desired work setting. Nutritionists are more prevalent in research, general education, and health promotion settings, while dietitians typically work in clinical settings.

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