If you’ve ever been in the market for some nutrition advice, you’ve probably come across many different titles and professional designations along the way.
One of the top questions I’m asked is, “What’s the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian?”.
It’s common for people to think they are the same, or that Dietitians are mainly for people who are sick (i.e. in hospital) and nutritionists are more for holistic health and wellness.
When you boil it down, the true difference lies in the depth, scope, length and type of formal education and training.
Dietitian Training and Credentials
Dietitian, Registered Dietitian and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (denoted by an RD or RDN credential) are protected titles across Canada and in the US.
To use these titles, a person must have a specific background and be registered with a dietetic regulatory body. In British Columbia, the provincial regulatory body is the College of Dietitians of BC.
In order to become a Registered Dietitian in Canada, the following requirements must be completed:
- An undergraduate (bachelor’s) degree in human nutrition and dietetics from a program that is accredited by the Partnership for Dietetic Education and Practice (PDEP) — this includes specific course work in human physiology, chemistry, biology, nutrition science, food systems management, psychology and other sciences.
- At least 1250 hours of supervised, hands-on experience in counselling, disease management, population health, and food systems.
- Successful completion of the Canadian Dietetic Registration Examination (CDRE)
- Registration with a provincial College of Dietitians
- Completion of regular and ongoing continuing education
- Masters and PhD degrees are optional, but are not a requirement
The College of Dietitians is similar to the College of Physicians and Surgeons — it is there to protect the public from unethical, unprofessional and unsound practices.
Just as doctors are held to a ‘do no harm’ code, Dietitians must practice within a similar professional code of ethics. This means they are accountable for their advice, which must be based on scientific evidence and always be in the best interest of their clients.
Nutritionist Training and Credentials
Nutritionist is not a regulated or protected title — this means that anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. Anyone. Even with no formal training, licence or certification.
Lots of nutritionists have some training, but the lack of regulation means that there may be large variances in education — ranging from nothing at all to some more formal educational training.
This means there is no guarantee that you are receiving sound, evidence-based recommendations. These individuals are not held accountable for their advice and are not considered healthcare professionals.
There are no regulatory bodies governing titles such as:
- Health Coach
- Registered Nutritionist
- Wellness Coach
- Nutrition Coach
- Nutrition Specialist
The exception to this is in certain provinces (Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia) where “Registered Nutritionist” and “Nutritionist”, along with Dietitian and Registered Dietitian are actually protected titles.
Although there are many intelligent and well-intentioned nutritionists out there — it’s best to proceed with caution.
The fact that you do not need any specific qualifications to call yourself a nutritionist means that some people may take advantage of the title and misrepresent themselves.
As nutritionists are not considered health professionals, they are most often not covered by extended healthcare benefits and are not able to work in a hospital setting.
What about a Registered Holistic Nutritionist?
You may see individuals with the title “Registered Holistic Nutritionist” or RHN, however, this is a registered trademark — not a professional designation.
The Registered Holistic Nutritionist title is used by graduates from the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition (CSNN), which is a 1 year diploma program with 50 hours of training.
Compare this to a University degree in human nutrition and 1250+ hours of training to become a Dietitian.
While RHNs must write a board exam upon completion of the program and follow a code of ethics from the CSNN, they are not monitored by a regulatory body like the College of Dietitians, and, like nutritionists, their services are most often not covered by extended healthcare benefits and they are not able to work in a hospital setting.
If someone does not put any credentials on their website or materials, or simply uses one of the terms above (like health coach or nutrition specialist), your spidey senses should be tingling.
If someone has the proper credentials, they aren’t likely to forget to put them on something as important as their website or business card.
Nutrition is not common sense — it’s a specialized science.
If there is no governing body regulating a title, there are no specific educational standards or practical experience qualifications required to use it.
If the title isn’t protected — anyone can use it, regardless of how much or how little education they have.
Not all research is ‘good’ research. Some studies are poorly done and their results are not accurate or applicable for the general public. Dietitians are trained to know the difference between well-done research that deserves attention and one-off studies that feed the media headlines.
There are more nutrition enthusiasts out there than ever before, and nutrition information (and misinformation) is both abundant and easy to find.
What works for one person may be totally inappropriate, not effective, or even dangerous for another person. This makes formal training and credentials so important.
Without adequate training, well-meaning advice can be harmful, misleading and confusing.
Before you give your trust (and your money) to any health professional, be sure you feel confident in their qualifications.
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