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So, What’s a Registered Dietitian (RD)?

July 17, 2011

Unless you’ve been to a hospital, nursing home or personally know one, you may have never heard of a Registered Dietitian (RD).  But you’ve probably heard of a nutritionist.  When you hear both names, which do you think is more qualified to give you nutrition advice?  My answer is, it depends.

Let me start by saying that I am an RD…and I also consider myself a nutritionist.  However, the key rule to know is: All RD’s are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are RD’s.  Here’s the required credentialing involved for each:

Registered Dietitian: At least a 4 year Bachelor Degree in nutritional science (often with nutrition counseling included as part of the coursework) followed by a 1200+ hour (9-12 month) internship covering clinical (i.e. hospital, long-term care, etc.), community (i.e. schools, non-profit, WIC, etc.) and food service rotations followed by a commission-regulated certifying examination.  RD’s also have licensing requirements in many states and must complete 75 hours of continuing education every 5 years to maintain the RD credential.

Nutritionist: No requirements.  Often nutritionists take anywhere from weekend workshops to multi-month programs focused on holistic and wellness nutrition counseling and behavior change.  Few, if any, require continuing education.

Consider that most “alternative medicine” doctors are still doctors and are subject to many of the continuing education and certification requirements of traditional doctors.  Even nationally-certified personal trainers require continuing education to maintain their credential.  Many nutritionists may participate in continuing education of their own accord, because they are motivated to learn more to provide better service to their clients.  It’s a good idea to ask about a nutritionists continuing education habits before starting to work with them so you can rest assured that they are staying up-to-date with the latest research and progress in the nutrition, counseling and behavior change field.

This does not mean that all nutritionists are unqualified to provide nutrition advice.  The key is the type of nutrition advice provided.  Nutritionists can legally provide nutrition advice in most cases except for two areas:

1)      Providing recommendations to eat specific foods or nutrients

2)      Providing disease-related nutrition advice (i.e. heart disease, diabetes, etc.)

If a nutritionist provides advice in either of these areas, they are technically beyond the scope of their practice and can be held potentially liable for any injury caused by their advice (i.e. giving carbohydrate advice to a diabetic resulting in life-threatening hypoglycemia or advising a person to eat almonds who happens to be allergic to nuts ).  Because this advice is not in their scope of practice, nutritionists cannot purchase liability insurance to protect against such situations; however RD’s can.

Even though RD’s tend to be primarily trained in the “hard sciences” while nutritionists often focus more on “holistic” wellness and behavior change, many RD’s have chosen to include nutrition counseling as a focal point in their practice, either by taking coursework (i.e. nutrition counseling in college) or going to one of many different nutrition counseling, wellness promotion or behavior change workshops offered across the country.  This allows RD’s to have the ability to work with clients to make effective, long-lasting change while still having a solid scientific foundation to know how certain dietary recommendations can impact the body.  I encourage you to ask an RD what background they have in “nutrition counseling” before starting to work with them.

I have met a number of ineffective RD’s while I have also met, and recommended, many well-trained and experienced nutritionists.  The key to making sure you are choosing the right nutrition professional is to reach out and discuss your goals with them.  Ask them about their approach to solving nutrition-based problems/issues and how they see themselves working with you to solve your concerns and/or achieve your goals.  If their responses make you feel confident in their ability to help you reach your goals, then by all means work with them; no matter whether they are a nutritionist or RD.

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