The Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN): Explained

One of the things I come across most as a student in dietetics is the confusion people have regarding the title “registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN)”. I’ll do my best to explain that here-it is an important distinction we should make!

While considering my career change from marketing into the field of nutrition and wellness, I did a whole lot of research into what it would mean to be a “nutritionist”. I read blogs and books and talked to professionals about the various paths I could take in order to make my dream a reality. Honestly, it was pretty confusing. I didn’t understand the differences between a “certified nutritionist”, a “food coach”, or an “RDN”. It took me about half a year until I fully understood the directions I could take in the field and why I would or would not choose one over the other. I learned that the two words are similar in that they both deal with food and diet, but they are not interchangeable. It makes sense, then, why it can be so confusing to someone who knows little about the world of nutrition to try to find help when they need it. Here is a summary of what I (eventually) learned regarding the profession:


  • a healthcare professional.
  • someone who has or has not taken classes, may have received a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nutrition, or may have a PhD in nutrition from an accredited college.
  • a person who may or may not have gone through a formal certification program.
  • anyone who has a passion for food and wellness and wants to help others reach their food and diet goals.


  1. a person who has received (at minimum) a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from an accredited university.
  2. a person who has gone through a supervised, hands-on, 1,200-hour dietetic internship.
  3. a person who has passed the dietetic comprehensive exam.
  4. a healthcare professional who completes yearly continuing education requirements in order to keep their credentials.
  5. a healthcare worker who adheres to a professional code of ethics.

If you’ll notice, I used the words “can be” for a nutritionist and “is” for a dietitian. I did this because a nutritionist can indeed be many things. It is a broad term that can be defined more by the individual than by an overseeing professional organization. I used the word “is” for an RDN because a person cannot become one if he or she does not go through the steps outlined above. Basically, the main difference lies in the scope of formal education and training. Anyone who has taken a class or two in nutrition, or just feels passionately about food and wellness can practice as a nutritionist. The term is not protected. But if you want to practice as an RDN, you have to go through the accreditation process.

If you are looking for help with nutrition counsel or advice, it is extremely important to insure that the professional specializes in your needs and has the credentials and educational background to back it up. Just as you wouldn’t see a random person you found online for help with fixing your broken femur, you shouldn’t see the person with a fancy website but no credentials for help with your Celiac’s disease. Many people feel like nutrition is common sense, which is why there are tons of unqualified people giving out nutrition advice, but it is actually a specialized science needing constant attentiveness and continuing education.

And while it is true that you may get great advice from a non-RDN nutritionist, there is also a higher chance you will get harmful advice from that person compared to someone with specific qualifications. That goes for MD’s as well. Most med-school students take one class in nutrition. And while MD’s have a wealth of knowledge regarding the human body and are probably better equipped to answer nutrition questions than the general population, you still have a higher chance of getting incorrect information from that MD than from an RDN. Registered dietitians are not the end-all be-all for correct food and nutrition advice (and make incorrect assumptions and mistakes just like anyone else), but there is a greater chance you will get correct information from them than from any other professional.

(That is not to say that a non-RDN nutritionist wouldn’t be the right person for your specific needs. They could definitely have the right educational background to help you with your individual issue and if they do, by all means use them! But it is crucial to make sure the person does indeed have the right training to help you with what you need. Otherwise you could do yourself much more harm than good. )

I hope this post has been informative regarding the differences in nutrition-related healthcare professionals. The ultimate conclusion I hope you have taken from this is that it is necessary to understand and trust that the background and training the person has obtained will fit your specific needs. Only then can you insure you will get the best care.


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