Nutrition, Dietetics…Which is Better to Study?

dietitian taking notes on a chart

Going into nutrition, one is faced with the choice: dietetics or nutrition. For me the choice was simple, I opted for Dietetics so I can become a registered dietitian.

Both nutritionists and dietitians work with nutrition, and people interchange these terms often. Actually “nutritionist” is likely used more than dietitian. Despite working in the same field, there are some key differences between the two. 

What is the difference between Dietetics and Nutrition?

I see the difference a bit like the distinction between a life coach and a therapist. Both can bring something to your life, but you would choose to work with a therapist to address specific and likely more significant issues. Same goes for a psychologist and psychiatrist; you don’t want your psychologist prescribing medicine to you, but their counseling is still valuable. 

Dietetics are able to advise on food and diets from the perspective of managing or mitigating health problems whereas a nutritionist would target food behaviors. For example, if someone has a health condition that requires them to adhere to certain dietary practices, a dietitian would be the person to see. Or if someone is pregnant and wants to ensure they are getting the appropriate nutritional intake, they would likely want to work with a dietitian over a nutritionist. A nutritionist on the other hand might work with athletes as a health coach, in education programs or food management roles in locations such as restaurants. 

If you get a degree in Nutritional Science Degree, do you become a Dietitian or a Nutritionist?

Educational programs will differ according to the university someone studies with; however, my university offers two tracks within the degree of Nutritional Science: dietetics and nutrition.

While the name of the degree for both is Nutritional Science, the tracks specialize in different aspects of nutritional science. For one on the dietetics path, the speciality is in nutrition as it relates to people’s diets and the end goal is likely to be a registered dietitian or registered dietitian nutritionist. And within this specialization, one might focus on community health, clinical practice, even sports’ nutrition. 

If someone is on the nutrition track, they are probably using it as a foundation for another health related profession, like nursing, or management in the food industry; however, they aren’t advising on diets to address health issues as an end goal.

What about Certificate Programs in Nutrition? 

There are a lot of certificates related to nutrition that one can obtain out there. And while someone with a certificate could be a well-qualified individual in the field, this isn’t guaranteed. There are nutrition-related organizations, but the practice of a nutritionist does not have regulated standards nor does someone need to pass any standardized exams to call themselves a nutritionist.This situation is more related to the term “nutritionist” not being a protected term; however, due to this, the certificate options are plenty and there is no guarantee that everyone getting a nutrition certificate is learning the same curriculum. 

There are a few organizations offering accreditation to nutrition programs, but again, “nutritionist” isn’t a protected term, so these organizations can make their own standards. 

Who becomes a Nutritionist? 

So anyone can be a nutritionist; your gym instructor or neighbor might be a “nutritionist”. And I’m sure we’ve all met that person who claims to be a nutritionist and their “advice” makes us think twice about the entire profession being legitimate.

But your GP doctor could also be a nutritionist. Or someone working in the public health sector.

Anyone looking to present themselves with credibility and authority will likely disclose their educational background, but it is important to have a look at that background. Was their nutrition program a well-rounded, science-based program with a supervised practice, or did they complete some 3 month program online that has no practicum component? 

This is actually an issue I have faced as an ESL teacher. I have a masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages with teaching experience and I have often been considered as qualified as someone who has an online 120-hour certificate. Luckily this has changed in the industry, but previously, our qualifications were treated almost equally. And to add insult to injury, sometimes those “teachers” would be considered better because they were “more fun”, “always let students play games” or “more attractive”; anything that wasn’t even remotely related to actually being a good teacher.

Nutritionists do get a bad rep, mostly due to a loud, vocal bunch, which is unfortunate. Looking at education background as well and educating oneself on the scope of a nutritionist’s role is necessary.

Who becomes a Registered Dietitian?

In order to become a registered dietitian in the US, you must complete a 4 year bachelor’s degree (a B.S not B.A), an internship and pass a national exam. If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you can take just the necessary coursework without getting an entirely new degree, but the internship and exam are still required.

Only they can you call yourself a registered dietitian or registered dietitian nutritionist. 

Anyone interested and able to meet these standards becomes a registered dietitian. But, just because someone is qualified doesn’t mean they are good at what they do. Think of all those teachers you’ve ever had and wondered why they are qualified to teach.

Going back to my ESL example, I am qualified to teach adults, but not in a K-12 setting. But, I have been working and specializing in the ESL industry for about 9 years. Just because I don’t have a state license to teach English in a K-12 setting, does that make me any less knowledgeable about teaching English? No. The point is that just having a license doesn’t make someone great at their job. But to call oneself a dietitian, one does need to meet an established minimum criteria.

Who is better to work with, a Dietitian or a Nutritionist?

The answer to this really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re looking to manage a health problem or make major dietary changes, a dietitian would likely be more appropriate since this is your health we’re talking about.  

If you want someone to offer health coaching in a generalized way, a nutritionist would be fine.

On that note though, a dietitian can do the work of a nutritionist, but a nutritionist cannot do the work of a registered dietitian. 

Why see a Registered Dietitian instead of a doctor?

Even if someone is a health care professional, their specialty may not be in nutrition. You wouldn’t go to a cardiologist for a skin problem, so while a health care provider can offer general advice, a dietitian specializes in nutrition.

Why I chose to become a Registered Dietitian instead of a Nutritionist

I don’t have an issue with nutritionists personally. I want to be able to advise on health and nutrition in the context of managing health conditions and perhaps branch out into sustainable nutrition in relation to changing climate. So, that goal of mine means I need to do this the right way.

As someone who has been a teacher and educator for about 6 years, I am of the belief that people can really learn anything on their own outside of school, but there needs to be standards. 

It doesn’t matter if someone learns how to speak English on their own or from school, what matters is what they can demonstrate. 

When health is at stake, needing to meet standards is important in my opinion. My doctor can’t just call herself a doctor until she has proven that she has the knowledge and skills to be a doctor. So when I visit her, I feel confident that whatever she tells me is reliable information. 

With that line of thinking, I want people to feel the same about me when I am qualified to offer nutrition advice.

To become a registered dietitian, I have had to go back to school and get an entirely new bachelor’s degree and I know I’ll need to undertake a supervised internship and pass an exam to qualify as a registered dietitian. 

I already have a BA and an MA, so the thought of going back to school for basically a new degree wasn’t super appealing. I am still working in ESL, so I will be doing this program over a few years, but I care about being a reputable source of information.

I could earn a certificate in nutrition in a few months and start my transition work-wise, but I want to be able to have the knowledge and qualifications to advise on nutrition specifically as it relates to health conditions. So by undertaking dietetics, I can leave my education with the confidence and knowledge that I will be offering people quality information that impacts their life so intimately.


Choosing between nutrition and dietetics is a choice one can only make based on what they want to do in the field of health and nutrition. One isn’t necessary better than the other as they both are resources for health, and it is important to understand the distinction between the two so that as an individual, we can use these resources wisely. Textbooks are great tools, but I wouldn’t use a German textbook to learn English, and that logic applies to nutrition and health as well. With so much information about health and food out there, it is hard to know what information to trust. Knowing how to identify a reputable source of information is a good first step and knowing what dietitians and nutritionists specialize in is a good second step. I am currently learning how to sift through this information myself in the maze that is nutrition.