Nutrition is a rich and diverse field of study, the importance of which cannot be understated in society. Broadly speaking, there are two career options when you begin studying nutrition: dietitian and nutritionist. Each of these has a similar scope of work, but there are important distinctions that separate the professions.

To start off, the titles cannot be used interchangeably, as ‘dietitian’ is a medically protected term, whilst ‘nutritionist’ is not. Their career paths can diverge significantly once they have completed their degree, making it all the more important to know what goes into each.

So, let’s explore each of these professions thoroughly and learn which career path to choose when pursuing a degree in dietetics.

The Career Path Of A Registered Dietitian

The career path of a registered dietician or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) involves a lengthy list of prerequisites. Firstly, the prospective dietitian must have a bachelor’s degree (or higher) in nutrition or a related field from an ACEND-accredited institution. This is followed by obtaining a verification statement from a Didactic Program in Dietetics- an important step that is included in a degree in dietetics.

Secondly, the candidate must have at least 1200 hours of supervised practice in ACEND-accredited programs. The experience accrued during this practice is deemed a necessary step for the prospective dietitian to qualify for the registration exam.

Thirdly, the candidate must sit for the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam and successfully clear it to receive proper certifications. This, in turn, will make them eligible to begin a practice in the setting of their choice.

And lastly, receiving additional certifications will add to the candidate’s credibility in the chosen area of practice. This is especially true for credentials given by the CDR since every state accepts them for state licensure purposes.

A prospective dietitian can choose to specialize in any of the following areas, each of which require different skills and expertise to practice.

  • Clinical dietitian practicing in medical institutions
  • Community dietitian providing services in public health clinics
  • Corporate dietitian overseeing nutritional content in commercially produced food
  • Management dietitian overseeing meal plans in large facilities like schools
  • Consultant dietitian catering to private clients

The Career Path Of A Nutritionist

The career path of a nutritionist is less complex than that of a registered dietitian. Students need only a degree in nutrition to begin practicing as nutritionists, no matter the education level. This means that the candidate can have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nutrition or a Master of Public Health degree with a specialization in nutrition.

Naturally, each level of education requires differing periods to complete, with the shortest being a bachelor’s degree in nutrition. That said, the different levels of education also determine the prestige of the title, such as Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) or Clinical Nutritionist (CN).

For instance, to be eligible for the title of a Certified Nutrition Specialist, you are required to have the following:

  • A master’s degree in nutrition or a related program
  • A minimum of 35 hours of coursework pertaining to personalized nutrition practice
  • At least 1000 hours of experience under supervision
  • Five BCNS study reports on personalized nutrition

Drawing The Distinction Between A Registered Dietitian And A Nutritionist

  1. Regulations

The largest distinction between the two professions is that a nutritionist is less strictly regulated than a registered dietitian. All one needs to begin practice as a nutritionist in an organization is a degree in nutrition, no matter the level.

On the other hand, a registered dietitian has to put in a lot of effort to reach their eventual career destination. That said, this does result in a more prestigious career and a diverse working area.

  1. Employment Opportunities

The long and arduous journey to become a registered dietitian is compulsory, but this opens companies and organizations to hiring them. Acknowledgment from accredited institutions and additional credentials are feathers in a dietitian’s cap that further increases the employment perks once they have completed their education. Being hired is not an ordeal for a registered dietitian.

On the other hand, nutritionists may not require a degree at all to practice online, even though most employers look for one in a candidate. The less educated a nutritionist is, the fewer employment opportunities they find open to them.

  1. Scope Of Work

A nutritionist is limited in the duties they can perform, depending on the credentials and experience they hold. Thus, some nutritionists may not be qualified to perform medical diagnoses or give professional counsel to patients about their nutrition.

Registered dietitians encounter no such issues and require no additional license to practice in most states. When you consult a registered dietitian, you can rest assured that they have all the experience and information needed to counsel you. Moreover, the path for research is open to a registered dietitian if the candidate wishes to partake in it.

  1. Pay Scale

Though it depends largely on the location, level of education, and experience, there is a slight gap between the annual pay of both professions. A nutritionist with comparable credentials to a registered dietitian earns slightly less, but the difference is marginal at best.


The field of nutrition is increasing at a rate that is much faster than most occupations. So, when you’re looking at the future of this industry, a career as a nutritionist or a dietitian is a completely valid option.

If you commit to being a dietitian, you must be prepared for all the hard work that comes with its educational courses. But all of that effort pays off, as registered dietitians are paid some of the highest compensations in the field.

The path of a nutritionist requires much less work, but the payoff is similarly scaled down. Though there are fewer hoops to jump through during the course of their education, nutritionists do need to complete additional steps to begin their practice.

No matter which career program you choose, the field of nutrition is a prestigious and well-respected one. And at the end of the day, the choice rests in your hands.