When you decide it’s time to make nutrition your career, school is your next step.
But you face the degree crossroad.
Nutrition or dietetics…
Which is better to study if you want to work in nutrition?
Nutrition is a broad field. You can do a ton of things. And your qualifications will help you do whatever work in nutrition you want to do..if you choose the right one.
This post goes over the difference between studying nutrition vs dietetics and what you can do with your nutrition degree.
What can you do in nutrition?
Nutrition is a broad field. Basically if you an think of it, you can do it in nutrition. For example, you can do:
- Health coach
- Personal training
- Public health
- Food service management
- Culinary or catering
- Nutrition communication
- Food industry
- Food regulation
- Functional medicine
Now, if you’ve into jobs…
You might have noticed some positions asking for RDs (registered dietitians).
You don’t need to be a registered dietitian to every nutrition job. But you do need to be a dietitian to do some nutrition jobs (or it will make getting a job a lot easier).
That’s why you want to make sure you study the right thing.
Otherwise you’re in for some…pandamonium (I’m not sorry).
What is the difference between Nutrition and Dietetics?
Like I said, nutrition is a broad field. Nutrition is anything related to food and how it affects the body. So you can come into nutrition from a lot of angles. Making food, marketing food, talking about food, coaching…you get the picture.
Dietetics is one path you can take within nutrition. It’s a field of science that focuses on the interaction between nutrition and health. And you find it in healthcare settings.
You can hold many titles, but nutritionist and registered dietitian are two common ones. Especially if you’re looking at the difference between studying nutrition and dietetics.
What is a Nutritionist?
“Nutritionist” is the most confusing term in nutrition. Because you can call anyone– and I mean anyone— a nutritionist.
Cue the pandamonium.
Again, not sorry
Here is who you can call a nutritionist:
- The Instagram guru whose qualifications are expensive yoga pants and “healing” their gut with overpriced smoothies
- The doctor-turned-nutritionist who got an average of 11 hours in nutrition training in med school
- The WIC nutritionist with a 4-year degree in nutritional science
- The ICU dietitian writing tube feed orders
- Nutrition experts writing public health policy
Not all nutritions are the same. Clearly.
And the public seems to have the same respect for nutritionists as they do life coaches (not too much).
So that’s why some professionals *ahem dietitians* hate when you lump them into the same category as the instagram quacks.
If you spend any time around the dietetics circle, you’ll hear or see registered dietitians compare their qualifications to a nutritionist’s..
The low key message is that dietitians are better. And here’s why…
What is a Dietitian?
Registered dietitians–also called registered dietitian nutritionists– are nutrition experts. They are the only people qualified to deliver medical nutrition therapy and give individualized nutrition advice.
They have RD, RDN, LD, or LDN credentials. Only people with these credentials can legally call themselves registered/licensed dietitians.
And those credentials are why some dietitians hate when you call them nutritionists.
How to Become A Dietitian
- a BS degree from from an accredited dietetics program
- a master’s degree (in anything for now)
- at least 1,000 hours of supervised practice (aka an internship)
- To pass the CDR’s registration exam for registered dietitians
Then you need to meet any requirements in your state.
THEN complete continuing education credits for as long as you have your license.
This really means 6 years of science education (hello student loans, organic chemistry, and biochem).
Several courses that require “volunteering” outside of class (goodbye free time).
And about a year of unpaid supervised practice (scheduled at 40 hours a week. Good luck working through that). Unless you get a VA internship. Then it’s free and they give you a stipend.
For most interns, it’s a lot of work, time and financial stress.
Things are changing. A lot of master’s programs and internships are combined, so you can at least take out loans for supervised practice.
And some non-VA internships are now paying interns.
But back to the point—if you spent 6 years of your life trekking through hard science classes, surviving off ramen through your internship, and taking a hard licensing exam…you’d be mad too if someone called you “just a nutritionist”.
Especially when they tell you about some detox hack they saw on Instagram, but think you’re the one that doesn’t know what you’re talking about.
I personally don’t care if someone calls me a nutritionist (unless they mean it as an insult). But I get where dietitians are coming from. It comes down to lack of acknowledgement and respect after working so hard for the RD credentials.
Where Do Dietitians Work?
Dietitians can work anywhere in nutrition, but the most “traditional” role is in a clinical setting. Like in a hospital for acute care or outpatient care.
But dietitians are not doctors. They are allied health professionals. Like physiotherapists, speech pathologists, or physician assistants–dietitians support the medical provider (aka doctor) to deliver the patient care.
And when you think about the leading causes of death in America–like type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and liver disease–and how nutrition and lifestyle can help prevent them, dietitians should be valued in the healthcare system.
I won’t lie to you though. That’s not always the case. If you scroll through the dietetics subreddit, you’ll see plenty of posts talking about low pay, lack of respect, and staffing shortages that mean too much work.
Don’t let all the “is it worth it?” posts get you down though.
First off, only you know what “worth it” means to you. Second…
Dietitians are getting into private practice, media appearance, and a lot non-traditional roles. Which means some are making bank, setting their own hours, and creating the jobs they love.
Which degree is best for nutrition?
- Nutritional science
- Dietetics and nutrition
- Nutrition and health
- Food and nutrition
- food science (especially if you want to work in food science)
Check the curriculum and make sure there are courses for your specific interest.
And if you do plan to become a registered dietitians, make sure the program is ACEND accredited. I’ve known people who were about to graduate and realized their program wasn’t ACEND accredited. It sucks. Because you have to do an ACEND accredited program to get into an internship. And you can’t sit the exam without the right degree and internship.
If you get a degree in Nutritional Science Degree, do you become a Dietitian or a Nutritionist?
It depends on you and your university. I did my degree with the University of Arizona, and they offered 2 tracks for their Nutritional Science degree: Nutrition and Dietetics.
Anyone who wants to be a dietitian takes the dietetics track. Anyone interested in other areas of nutrition can take the nutrition track. There is a lot of overlap in courses, but nutrition-track students don’t have to take medical nutrition therapy. And that’s core to the dietetics track.
If you have no idea what you want to do, just remember that dietitians can work in any role (and a lot more companies want to hire dietitians). So it doesn’t hurt to do a dietetics degree. If you figure out that you don’t want to be a dietitian, your education won’t go to waste, and you can skip the internship part.
What about Certificate Programs in Nutrition?
There are many nutrition certificates out there. A lot of fitness instructors get these because nutrition and exercise are so close.
The most reputable nutrition certificates are from:
- Precision Nutrition
There is nothing wrong with getting a nutrition certificate. In fact, it’s a good way to test out whether you like nutrition or not. But nutrition certificates are better when they supplement something else, like fitness coaching.
If you want nutrition to be your career focus, it’s easier to go get a degree…
Or if you’re feeling cheeky, skip the education. Become an influential Youtuber, Tik Toker, or IGer and talk about nutrition hacks, fad diets or “clean eating” without doing real research.
If you’re thinking about a career in nutrition, your big decision is: nutrition or dietetics. Nutrition field is broad, so any reputable nutrition degree will help you work in the field. But, some roles want a registered dietitian. And getting that RD title means completing an ACEND-accredited program, an internship, and the credential exam. These RD credentials are earned. But don’t anyone without them is a quack. Many nutritionists know their stuff if they have legit jobs. As for what you should study, choose whichever degree you think matches your career goals best. If you’re not sure, you can’t go wrong with dietetics for your bachelor’s.