Registered Dietitian or Nutritionist: What’s the Difference?

When grappling with cancer and nutrition, it is essential to have the most accurate, science-based information to inform your decisions. There is a lot of misinformation on the best foods to consume when a person has cancer or is looking for ways to prevent cancer or a cancer recurrence. For food and nutrition advice or information, the best, most reliable source is a registered dietitian (RD). This article describes the differences between an RD and a nutritionist, and what to look for when seeking care for cancer.

What is the difference between an RD and a nutritionist?

People often think the terms nutritionist and dietitian are interchangeable. However, this is not the case. Dietitians may refer to themselves as nutritionists, but not all nutritionists can call themselves dietitians. This is because training to be an RD is much more extensive and regulated.

RDs have received extra training and certification. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, RDs must have completed a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and, starting in 2024, will be required to hold a master’s degree. These degrees include academic coursework in diverse subject areas such as microbiology, biochemistry, research methods, nutrition and assessment therapy, and medical nutrition therapy.

RDs complete a hands-on dietetic internship, where they work in a variety of nutrition settings, including community, clinical (both inpatient and outpatient settings), and food service management. Upon completing their internship, they can sit for the registration exam for registered dietitians. Once credentialed, RDs are required to meet continuous education requirements by attending conferences and lectures, presenting and publishing research studies, and participating in certificate training programs to maintain RD credentials.

RDs provide medical nutrition therapy, where they apply a science-based approach (based on substantial scientific research) to treat and help patients manage medical conditions through diet and nutrition. RDs are the only nutritional professionals allowed to work with patients in a hospital setting.

To become a nutritionist, education and training requirements vary from state to state, which is why “nutritionist” is not a nationally-recognized credential. Some states don’t require any license, which means a person could refer to themselves as a nutritionist without education or training in the field under specific state laws. This same is true for terms such as a nutritional coach or nutritional therapist.

RDs in the Cancer Setting

The Commission on Cancer (CoC) is an organization that sets professional standards for cancer care. The CoC’s rule is that cancer patients can be referred only to RDs (not nutritionists) for medical nutrition therapy.

RDs that work with cancer patients often have additional education and training to become a board-certified specialist in oncology (cancer) nutrition, also known as a CSO. To become a CSO, a registered dietitian must complete a minimum of two years of clinical practice with 2,000 hours of documented experience in cancer care, in addition to passing a national board certification exam. This professional credential is earned through the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), credentialing agency of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

When seeking care for a recent cancer diagnosis or looking for the most up-to-date science-based recommendations regarding diet and lifestyle factors related to cancer, working with a CSO-certified RD in your community is ideal.

Ask your doctor to refer you to an RD or find a dietitian in your area by visiting the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics at eatright.org >>


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