Differences Between A Nutritionist And A Dietitian, And Why It Matters To Your Clients

Posted on Apr 14, 2020 By Sarah Appleford Sarah Appleford

It’s common for people to use the terms “Nutritionist” and “Dietitian” interchangeably. While the professions are very closely related there are key distinctive differences between the two qualifications and their philosophies.

If you’re considering a career in the industry or what to expand your current service, understanding these differences will enable you to better help your clients.

What is a dietitian?

A registered Dietitian with the title ‘Accredited Practising Dietitian’ uses their knowledge in food science to develop guidelines and protocols to manage and treat health conditions such as food allergies, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer. This may include providing advice on food preparation, meal planning and diets.

The Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) defines Dietitian professionals as “scientists with a special focus on nutrition and dietetics”.

Often Dietitians work one-on-one with clients in private practice, hospitals, nursing homes or community settings. They may also work with industry or school groups to provide nutrition education around healthy eating and nutrition advice to help prevent or manage disease and illness.

Dieticians can also be found employed within the food industry in an advisory role for product development and promotion.

What is a nutritionist?

Just like Dietitians, a Nutritionist provides evidence-based diet and health advice to individuals, groups and communities. However, they draw upon substantially different philosophies recognising disease is complex and that an individually tailored and holistic approach is required.

Nutritionists may be found working in private practice, often seeing clients at a preventative level or in the very early stages of health issues. They also work with clients to provide secondary care for acute health conditions that require some level of intervention.

Increasingly, Nutritionists are extending from professional practice to working within the community and public health sectors alongside or independently from Dietitians and other health professionals.

As with Dietitians, you may find nutrition professionals working in the food industry, schools, corporate environments and the media.

The distinct differences between a nutritionist and a dietitian

The title

In Australia, the term “Dietitian” is a legally protected title. This means you can’t call yourself a Dietitian and be eligible to join the Dietitians Association of Australia unless you have completed a university-level dietetics program. Typically this would mean you would need to complete a 4-year dietetics degree with accreditation or a 3-year degree that would allow you to enter an accredited master’s degree.

One of the main differences between a Dietitian and a Nutritionist is that the term “Nutritionist” is unregulated. That means anyone can call themselves a Nutritionist. Scroll through Instagram and you’ll find Nutritionists, wellness coaches, personal trainers and nutrition experts who happily give nutrition advice even though they have no formal nutrition training such as a Bachelor’s degree.

There are, however, professional bodies such as the Australian Natural Therapies Association (ANTA) and Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS) who will only accept members from recognised courses like a Health Science degree. These bodies exist to help distinguish the credentials of Nutritionists between the trained and untrained professionals.

The philosophy

Nutritionists and Dieticians both practice in a professional capacity using evidence-based medicine to achieve the same goal – improved health, healthy eating habits and optimal wellbeing.

As health professionals, both aim to look beyond the trending diets, whether that’s Keto, Intermittent Fasting or the Sirtfood Diet and use nutrition science to inform an appropriate treatment plan for the individual.

However, Nutritionists and Dieticians draw upon very different philosophies.

Dieticians are trained to provide dietary advice centred around nutrition science to treat a range of conditions. Using evidence-based dietary information, they formulate a diet plan for their clients to address their health needs. You’ll often find Dieticians promoting Government health initiatives that are designed to improve the health of groups and the wider population.

Nutritionists, on the other hand, take a holistic approach acknowledging that healing a client needs to take into account the entire person. This includes their mind, body, spirit and environment.

Rather than a standardised protocol or treatment plan, Nutritionists believe that holistic, individualised care is vital for treating the complexity of a disease. Being unregulated (not necessarily unqualified) Nutritionists don’t need to comply with a governing health message, and instead can formulate their own views and approaches for the individual.

What does that mean for the services I provided?

If you are considering a career in nutrition or wanting to extend your services to provide dietary advice to your clients, what do the differences between the two health professionals mean to you?

Firstly, it depends on what you want to do with your career and the setting you want to work in.

If you’re a personal trainer, for example, and want to provide individually tailored nutrition advice to your clients without stepping outside your scope, a Diploma of Nutrition may suffice. A short course or diploma may also be beneficial if you’re looking to dip your toes into the industry and unsure whether you want to be a Nutritionist or Dietician.

If you are looking to practice clinical nutrition and offer private consultations to clients, becoming a registered Nutritionist with a Bachelor qualification such as a Health Science degree would be required. While anyone can call themselves a Nutritionist, without formal training you won’t be able to join an accredited nutrition body and you may struggle to get adequate insurance to practice.

For those who are interested in working in a hospital, healthcare facility or nursing home setting, a degree in dietetics with accreditation would be more suitable.

Dietitians are incredibly protective of their title (and rightly so) and there will always be somewhat heated arguments as to who is more qualified and what the difference is between the professions.

As a qualified Nutritionist (with a Bachelor of Health Science – Nutrition & Dietetic Medicine), I believe both professions can add immense value to an individual’s life. And just like in any other industry, there are practitioners who have little knowledge or are unqualified that you need to be wary of. Do your research before overhauling your diet, buying supplements or embarking on a treatment plan created by an Instagram Wellness Warrior!

Sarah Appleford
Sarah Appleford
Sarah Appleford is a registered clinical nutritionist who believes achieving optimal health and wellbeing relies on living with intention.

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