Break your leg, and you know the person setting your bones is a doctor. A real medical doctor.
But, credentials aren’t always as clear cut when it comes to nutrition. Nutritionists and dietitians might have PhDs. And medical doctors have become nutritionists.
And your doctor will talk to you about nutrition. But they might also refer you to a dietitian for a medical condition.
So, it’s not uncommon for people to wonder if a nutritionist is a doctor.
Confusing I know.
The TLDR is nutritionists are not medical doctors.
The rest of this post clears up the difference between a nutritionist, a dietitian and a doctor (and what they all do).
Let’s dive in.
What is a Nutritionist?
So, a nutritionist is not a doctor. But what are they?
The textbook definition for a nutritionist is “a health professional who specializes in the study of nutrition”.
But, I hate this term.
Because anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. So you’ve got Instagram influencers over here whose “passion” qualifies them to help you with your nutrition…
And you’ve also got people with at least bachelor’s degree in nutrition (or something related) doing real nutrition work. You can find these people at WIC clinics, in school districts feeding your kids, in or even in government agencies.
Now, some nutritionists may have doctoral degrees…
But they are not medical doctors. You would see a nutritionist for general nutrition counseling on food groups, dietary guidelines, and the role of nutrients in maintaining good health. Nutritionists promote a healthy lifestyle and positive changes in your eating habits.
They do not work with health conditions…
But speaking of that…
What is a Dietitian?
Dietitians (also called a registered dietitian nutritionist) are nutrition experts. They’re licensed as healthcare providers, so you’ll find them in hospitals–outpatient and inpatient– private practice, and long-term care facilities.
But, dietitians can work anywhere nutritionists can too, so we’re seeing more dietitians employed in food industry, food service management, and in public health organizations.
A common misconception is that dietitians can only make you meal plans and help you lose weight. But dietitians actually play big role in disease management because they extensive knowledge about how food and nutrition affect health. Insurance plans often cover visits to a dietitian depending on your condition. And they’re also the only profession that can legally make you individualized meal plans.
The main difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian is that dietitians can practice medical nutrition therapy to manage a medical condition like diabetes, IBS or kidney disease. Medical nutrition therapy is considered a treatment for your condition. It includes specific nutrition-related interventions like how many calories to eat, how much of a vitamin to get, what lifestyle changes can help, or what nutrition education you need to manage your condition.
It might feel weird weird to think of food as a medical treatment, but think of it like the difference between a massage and physiotherapy–
Physiotherapists will give you massages, sure. But they also use other techniques, exercises and treatments to help you recover from your injury. Medical nutrition therapy works the same way.
To become a dietitian, you now need a:
- bachelor’s degree from an accredited dietetics program
- graduate degree (in anything)
- 1000+ supervised practice program
- minimum score of 25 on the RD exam
Fun fact-the sheer force of effort to get through all this and then watch people get their nutrition advice from IG influencers is why a lot of dietitians don’t like to be called nutritionists.
When you consult a dietitian, they assess your nutritional status and help you manage conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and food allergies. But even if they’ve seen your condition a million times, they don’t diagnose you.
Dietitians also specialize in areas such as pediatric nutrition, diabetes education, and geriatric nutrition. And several have a doctoral degree…
But again. Nutritionists and dietitians are not medical providers. So they cannot diagnosis any conditions. That’s where doctors come in.
What is a Doctor?
Doctors are medical providers. Which means they diagnose, treat illnesses and injuries. One of those treatments could be to medical nutrition therapy. Which a dietitian will provide. But a doctor usually makes the referral to a dietitian.
Becoming a doctor has a lot more requirements and training than a nutritionist or dietitian. After completing a bachelor’s degree, doctors-to-be attend medical school to get in-depth knowledge about the human body, diseases, and treatments. Then they go through residency programs to get hands-on experience in specific medical specialties.
Doctors assess your overall health, diagnose medical conditions, and provide appropriate treatments. They have the expertise to look at your symptoms, order diagnostic tests, prescribe medications, and do medical procedures. So when you need general medical attention or you’re dealing with complex health issues, you see a doctor.
Key Differences Between a Nutritionist, a Dietitian and a Doctor
Education and training
Nutritionists, dietitians and doctors all have at least a bachelor’s degree.
In addition, dietitians must have a graduate degree and complete 1000+ of supervised practice. Doctors must go to medical school and complete residency programs.
Dietitians and doctors need to have a license to practice in their field. And “dietitian” and “doctor” are both a protected title. Nutritionists do not need a license. That doesn’t mean they’re all hacks, but they shouldn’t be giving individualized nutrition advice to anyone.
Scope of Practice
Nutritionists can be health professionals, Dietitians are healthcare professionals. And doctors are medical providers.
Nutritionists focus on nutrition and lifestyle factors and promote overall health and wellness. Dietitians can do the same, but you’ll also see them in traditional healthcare settings like hospitals or outpatient clinics.
Doctors have a broader scope and can look all aspects of your health, including physical, mental, and emotional well-being. They diagnose and treat medical conditions with a variety of approaches and interventions like medication or surgery.
Nutritionists or dietitians cannot diagnose or treat medical conditions! Only doctors have the legal authority and expertise to diagnosis. Dietitians do often work closely with doctors to identify nutrition-related conditions like malnutrition or nutrient-deficiencies.
Now some people think, why bother seeing a dietitian or nutritionist at all when you could see a doctor? The reality is that medical nutrition therapy isn’t in a doctor’s scope of practice. They know a lot about medical conditions and the treatmetns, but they don’t practice delivering nutrition as a therapy. Just like they don’t practice delivering physiotherapy.
In fact, a lot of doctors don’t learn much about nutrition in med school. So they refer patients to dietitians.
When to Consult a Nutritionist or a Dietitian
So when do you see a nutritionist? If you’re looking to improve your overall eating habits, manage your weight, or learn about healthy meal planning, a nutritionist can help you find the right path. Their focus is on prevention.
You can see a dietitian for the same things as well as when you have specific dietary concerns like food allergies, intolerances, or you need to manage a medical condition through your diet. Dietitians have a deep understanding of how nutrition can impact these conditions and can help you develop personalized meal patterns to help manage symptoms, prevent complications, and improve your overall health outcomes.
They look at your medical history, medications, and individual needs and preferences to make recommendations that work for you. Their focus is to provide interventions and strategies that will support a healthy eating pattern, prevent or correct any nutrient deficiencies.
When to See a Doctor
Doctors are primary healthcare providers who are trained to diagnose and treat medical conditions. It’s important to consult a doctor in several situations.
If you’re experiencing symptoms that are concerning or persistent, you should see a doctor. They have the knowledge and experience to evaluate your symptoms, order diagnostic tests if necessary, and provide a real medical diagnosis. Whether it’s a persistent cough, unexplained pain, or unusual changes in your body, a doctor can help identify the underlying cause and recommend appropriate treatments.
Doctors also play a crucial role in managing chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, or autoimmune disorders. They develop comprehensive treatment plans, prescribe medications, make referrals, and monitor your condition over time. If you have a complex medical history or multiple health concerns, a doctor is best equipped to provide comprehensive care and coordinate with other specialists as needed.
In emergency situations or when immediate medical attention is required like for severe injuries or sudden onset of severe symptoms, you’d want to get medical care from a doctor right away.
Understanding the differences between nutritionists, dietitians, and doctors is important to make informed decisions about your health. Because you want to go to the right provider for your needs.
So while nutritionists and dietitians specialize in nutrition and dietary guidance, and may have a doctoral degree, they are not medical doctors. That means if you have a medical condition, you should see a doctor first.
Doctors have a broader role in diagnosing and treating medical conditions. After you have a diagnosis and you need medical nutrition therapy, your doctor might refer you to a dietitian. And then they can help you manage your condition through your nutrition and lifestyle choices.
Now , if you’re just looking for general nutrition counseling for best practices in nutrition, you can see either a nutritionist or a dietitian.