Dieticians versus nutritionists

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Dieticians and nutritionists have fairly similar job descriptions: both provide professional guidance about what to eat. But don't go calling a dietician a nutritionist, or vice versa. These two occupations, while related, have some important differences.   

To wit, this stunt, from Connie Diekman, former president of the American Dietetic Association (now called the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics): To drive home her point that registered dieticians have more reliable credentials than nutritionists, a few years ago she photographed her dog, Eddie, next to a certificate honoring his membership in the American Association of Nutritional Consultants, or AANC.

The AANC is real, and does offer a credential, the certified nutrition consultant, to members of the organization who have a high school diploma or GED and pass a self-administered, open-book test. Those are very low standards, according to Dr. Stephen Barrett, who has tracked the AANC for the website Quackwatch.

However, it would be a mistake to think that all people calling themselves nutritionists are quacks. Other organizations train nutritionists, some of which have much more stringent requirements. For example, many accredited universities offer undergraduate or graduate degrees in nutrition.

A number of organizations offer accreditation as well. For example, the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board offers the Certified Clinical Nutritionist credential to candidates who have completed (at minimum) a bachelor's of science degree including core requirements in science and nutrition, a training program and a written exam.

But probably the most widely recognized route to becoming a food and nutrition expert is to become a registered dietician, or RD. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the professional organization for RDs, most of them work in medical settings, using their knowledge of food and nutrition to treat and prevent disease. They also work in other areas such as the food industry, sports nutrition, or meal planning for schools and other institutions.

Becoming a registered dietician means first getting a bachelor's degree, with college-level coursework that emphasizes food and nutrition. RD candidates also have to complete a six- to 12-month practice program supervised and by the Accreditation Council for Education in Dietetics and Nutrition. These programs take place in hospitals, public health facilities, sports medicine clinics and other organizations. RDs also must pass an exam, which is administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, or CDR. And continuing education is required.

Besides the RD credential, there's also a second, similar professional credential called the Dietetic Technician, Registered. They usually work alongside RDs, and often as nutrition counselors in schools, clinics and other settings. The education requirements are somewhat lighter (for example, an associate degree can suffice in place of a bachelor's degree). However, these workers also must complete practice programs and pass a CDR exam, and do continuing education throughout their careers.

For nutritionists and dieticians (and the clients they serve), these professional distinctions are important. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal agency that tracks employment data, classifies dieticians and nutritionists together.  There were some 64,400 dieticians and nutritionists in 2010, and that number is expected to grow 20 percent by 2020, to 77,100 -- faster than the roughly 14 percent average for all occupations combined. Driving the growth will be an increased interest in food and its relation to wellness, as well as an aging population that will need the services of dieticians and nutritionists in nursing homes.

Last Updated: 01/06/2012 - 3:30 PM

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