Dietitian and Nutritionist are often confused
Dietitian and Nutritionist are often used interchangeably to describe nutrition experts. And you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re the same thing. The truth is, they’re very similar professions.
If you’re looking for help with your diet, you want advice you can trust. Advice that’s backed by real science. So we need to take a closer look at what the titles Dietitian and Nutritionist actually mean.
But first, where shouldn’t you go for nutrition advice?
The choice of nutrition “experts” is overwhelming!
Social media is overflowing with fitness and lifestyle gurus promoting diets and quick fixes. Every Instagram diet pundit has their superhero micronutrient or evildoing macronutrient. And we all have a friend or family member with persuasive dietary opinions. Often expressed with evangelical conviction.
And then there’s a mind-boggling choice of professional nutrition coaches. Nutritionists, Dietitians, Nutritional Therapist, Sports Dietitian, Nutripaths, Personal Trainers… the list goes on.
But how many of these “experts” have real knowledge of nutrition and how it impacts your health? Because taking even seemingly insignificant diet advice from an unqualified source isn’t a smart move. At best, the wrong advice could prevent you reaching your health goals. At worst, it could be horrible for your health.
Nutrition is a Science
Nutrition is a relatively new scientific discipline. There’s a lot of well-established science. But there’s still a lot we don’t know. And new studies that seem to challenge the existing advice make good headlines.
The media would have you believe nutrition scientists are constantly changing their minds. The reality is, the “latest” science is building upon what we already know.
Registered Dietitians and Nutritionists are qualified nutrition professionals. They have the knowledge to give you evidence-based diet advice. That means their advice is backed by robust scientific studies. Not the trending diet “breakthrough”.
And they have the skills to assess the practical relevance of new developments. And crucially, they can recognise unproven new findings and pseudo-science. It doesn’t matter how excited the media gets, they’ll only base their advice on solid, scientific evidence.
Dietitian vs Nutritionist
In simple terms, registered Dietitians specialise in nutrition for sick people. And the focus of Registered Nutritionists is diet and lifestyle to prevent illness in the first place.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. And there’s a lot of overlap between the two. You may come across greater variation between consultants than between the professions.
But importantly, they have similar standards of scientific integrity and codes of ethics. And for both, the bar of scientific proof is set higher than any other nutrition expert.
Dietitian is the established client-facing nutrition professional. The roots of the profession are in clinical practice. Dietitians manage the complex interplay of nutrition with diseases and their treatments. Their primary role is caring for the nutritional needs of sick patients.
Coming from a clinical background, Dietitians are regulated by the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). And Dietitian is a legally protected title. This legal protection means only qualified and registered Dietitians can practice as dietitians.
The HCPC regulate and set the standards of conduct, performance and ethics for dietitians. Their professional body and trade union, the British Dietetic Association, sets their educational curriculum.
The minimum qualification for a Dietitian is a BSc in Dietetics or a post-graduate specialisation in Dietetics.
Dietitians are trained to work in hospital and clinical settings. Mandatory supervised NHS placements are an important part of their education. And unsurprisingly, the majority of dietitians go on to find a career in the NHS.
Typically, dietitians work as part of a multidisciplinary clinical or other health care team. Their role is to ensure the nutritional needs of patients are met.
Some dietitians cross over to public health roles or private practice. They may work promoting healthy diets and behaviours in individuals and groups. Or they may work in other industries from food manufacturing and catering to sport and media.
Nutritionists are relative newcomers as client-facing professionals. The profession evolved out of scientific research and previous generations of nutrition scientists.
Our scientific understanding of nutrition has expanded exponentially in the last 70 years. And with it our appreciation of the link between nutrition and the prevention of disease.
But at the same time, seismic changes in society have seen preventable chronic disease skyrocket. People need help translating the complex science into practical actions that can improve their health. And today, that’s the principal role of nutritionists.
Unfortunately, the profession of Nutritionist has no legal status. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist without having any formal training. This leaves it up to you to verify their qualifications and professional ethics. Not ideal!
Fortunately, Nutritionists have a professional body and register. The Association for Nutrition (AfN) maintains the UK Voluntary Register for Nutritionists (UKVRN). It isn’t mandatory for a Nutritionist to join the UKVRN. But to register a Nutritionist must hold qualifications meeting the strict standards of the AfN. And Nutritionists must be UKVRN registered to work in NHS.
The minimum requirement for registration is an AfN accredited BSc (Honours) or postgraduate degree in nutrition. To be sure you’re speaking to a qualified Nutritionist, look for the post-nominal letters RNutr or ANutr. That indicates they’re UKVRN registered.
A Nutritionist’s speciality is health improvement and disease prevention through diet. They provide scientific, evidence-based guidance on diet, lifestyle and wellbeing. And they help individuals or groups improve their health through diet lifestyles changes.
Some nutritionists do work in clinical teams under the supervision of a medical professional. But unlike dietitians, they’re not qualified to work independently with acutely ill patients. Or to give dietary advice for medical conditions.
As a result, the majority of Nutritionists work in non-clinical settings. And not just private practice. Nutritionists work in research, teaching, sports performance, public health, food service, food manufacturing, media and more.
What education do Dietitians and Nutritionists have?
In the UK, both professions require a degree or postgraduate degree. But although Dietitian’s and Nutritionist’s specialisations are different, their education is very similar.
(When I studied for my nutrition degree we shared lectures, tutorials and exams with the dietitian students throughout the four years.)
And that’s not surprising. Because Dietitians and Nutritionists use the same scientific evidence to guide their judgements. The difference is the focus of the training as the degree progresses.
In the age of the internet, it’s important to understand every country has its own education standards Dietitians and Nutritionists. If someone from outside the UK gives you diet advice, make sure you understand their qualifications.
Your circumstances may determine if you see a Nutritionist or a Dietitian
Both registered dietitians and nutritionists are highly trained nutrition experts. And as you’ve seen, there’s a lot of crossover in education and where they work.
Because the majority of dietitians work in the NHS, your GP is most likely to refer you to a dietitian. But as NHS focuses more on prevention and lifestyle change, more nutritionists are being brought on board.
If you seek help outside the NHS you’re more likely to find a Nutritionist – but not exclusively.
Help with your diet when you have an illness like cancer or kidney disease should come from a dietitian. Your consultant should refer you. A nutritionist isn’t qualified to work with you. And a Registered Nutritionist won’t try to treat you and will refer you a Dietitian.
If want to make changes to your diet and lifestyle and improve your health, both a registered nutritionist or a dietitian can help you. Their advice can prevent or reverse chronic conditions like obesity, high blood pressure, digestive problems and diabetes. And it can reduce your risk of heart attacks, strokes, cancer and other diseases.
Good Nutritists and Dietitians have more than scientific knowledge
Both an AfN Registered Nutritionist or Registered Dietitian have the knowledge you need. But diet and nutrition success relies on a lot more than science. Applying evidence-based knowledge to real-life requires skills and life experiences beyond a science degree.
When you’re looking for help from a nutrition professional. Ask yourself,
- Do you like them? It might be a long relationship, and it won’t always be easy. You need to get along.
- Do you trust them? Exploring your eating and diet habits can expose some very personal issues. You need to know they have your back.
- Do they empathise with you and understand your challenges? Change isn’t easy. We all face different hurdles.
- Do they understand food? You eat food, not nutrients. And eating should be enjoyable. Healthy doesn’t have to be boring!
- Do they have real cooking experience and skills? Staying on track can be difficult. Practical tips that help you prepare delicious healthy food quickly and easily are priceless.
- Do they have any exercise coaching experience? Looking after your health is more than diet alone.
- Do they understand sports training and exercise nutrition? You don’t have to be an athlete. Even if you have only modest exercise goals, your nutrition can be the clincher.
Ultimately, if you want help with your diet, the choice isn’t Nutritionist or Dietitian. But instead, Registered Nutritionist or Dietitian should be your minimum requirement.
And then the questions become,
- Are you are comfortable working with them?
- And do they have the skills beyond nutrition science knowhow to help you reach your goals?
And if the answers are yes, then you’ve found your nutritionist… or dietitian.