Nope, these two titles are not synonymous.
Your doctor suggests you see a dietitian. It sounds like a simple search, but when you check for nutrition experts in your area, you get bombarded with a number of different terms: nutritionist, dietitian, registered dietitian, diet coach—yikes.
Let’s focus on the two biggies: nutritionist and registered dietitian. To put it simply, all registered dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians.
Registered dietitians (or RDs) are certified specialists that have met the criteria set forth by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics. That criteria includes:
Earning a four-year degree from an accredited nutrition program
Practicing in a supervised program at a healthcare facility
Passing a registration exam
And completing continuing ongoing professional education.
Registered dietitians are all formally trained to assist with diet-related issues, whether that’s basic meal planning, or more complex concerns such as managing blood sugar, dealing with food allergies, or eating well during pregnancy.
Additionally, over half of RDs hold advanced degrees, and many are certified in specialized subtopics of nutrition, such as managing diabetes or pediatric nutrition.
Nutritionists are people who study nutrition or consider themselves an expert in nutrition. It’s a more general term, compared to the formal title of registered dietitian. Technically, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist: There aren’t specific requirements, coursework, or exams to complete to earn the title.
A nutritionist could be highly knowledgeable, but it’s hard to know their credibility since there’s no standard accreditation process (although there are various certification programs nutritionists can take).
Whether a nutritionist or registered dietitian, once you find the right expert for you, here are things to expect at your first session with a dietitian.
10 reasons to visit an RDN. Chicago, IL: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2017. (Accessed on May 29, 2019 at https://www.eatright.org/food/resources/learn-more-about-rdns/10-reasons-to-visit-an-rdn.)
Qualifications of a registered dietitian nutritionist. Chicago, IL: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2017. (Accessed on May 29, 2019 at https://www.eatright.org/food/resources/learn-more-about-rdns/qualifications-of-a-registered-dietitian-nutritionist.)