Dietitian vs. Nutritionist - what's the difference?

So many people are confused by the difference between the terms Dietitian and nutritionist. However, the terms are quite different with regards to the working roles and also competencies, here’s why:

A Registered Dietitian can only legally refer to themselves as a Dietitian when post-graduate training and registration with the Dietitian’s Board of New Zealand has been completed (about five and a half years total time). This time includes a three year Bachelor of Science majoring in human nutrition (and often a minor in food service management) followed by a two year Master of Dietetics. The Masters course includes placement in various hospitals and healthcare settings as well as writing a theses. After the theses is completed and registration is put through, the individual can formally refer to themselves a Registered Dietitian.

A nutritionist can have variations in the name, for example, clinical or holistic nutritionist. Do not be fooled, the additional words in front of 'nutritionist' do not make the individual any more knowledgeable or qualified. In fact, as the term nutritionist is not a legally protected title, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist without having any form of education or training in the field of nutrition. In terms of ‘nutritionists’ the only version of the title you should trust for nutrition advice is from a Registered Nutritionist. There are plenty of amazing Registered Nutritionists in New Zealand!

Definition of a Dietitian: an expert in dietetics; that is, human nutrition and the religion of diet. A dietitian alters their patients nutrition based upon their medical condition and individual needs. Dietitian's are regulated healthcare professionals licensed to assess, diagnose, and treat nutritional problems.

Definition of a nutritionist: the qualification of a nutritionist can be very different than that of a Registered Dietitian. Registered nutritionists have done an undergraduate degree in human nutrition as a minimum with some also doing post graduate studies. Through their qualifications, they can then apply through the nutrition society of NZ to gain the title of a Registered Nutritionist.The general term ‘nutritionist’ is not a legally protected title, it does not specify education, experience, or ongoing training.

Some ‘health gurus’ or self proclaimed ‘nutritionists’ are only out there to make money off product endorsements on Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat. Dietitian's can NEVER advertise or endorse products under our code of ethics and registration, so you can always trust we are not financially invested to certain food brands, and that our nutrition advice is solidly based on the latest evidence. If you are listening to someone on a video saying that this nutrition supplement helped cure acne and they have a 20% discount code for you..ALARM BELLS should be ringing! Do not trust. It’s all about them and the brand making money, often with no care for your health or nutrition.

To work in most settings, Registered Dietitian’s require an annual practicing certificate (ACP). This has to be renewed yearly and several specific competencies have to be met to prove continual enhancement of practice and competency as a health professional. This includes ongoing learning, staying updated with research, prescribing, cultural involvement, peer reviews, projects, case studies, and presentations. Registered Dietitian’s can work in many settings such as hospitals, clinics and GP practices, public health organisations, food companies, food service management (hospital kitchens, rest homes etc.), nutrition marketing, media, governmental organisations, and alongside elite athletes to name a few. Registered Nutritionists are not qualified to work in clinical settings, such as hospitals. Only Registered Dietitian’s have had the specific and intensive training to work as part of the medical team. For example, Dietitian’s can set up tube feeds, total parenteral nutrition, or write prescriptions for specific items whereas this is not even part of training for a Registered Nutritionist. This is specific to being a Dietitian, and the medicine-based training and education is what is covered in the two year Master of Dietetics course. Nutritionists commonly work in public and community settings, such as gyms, or certain clinics and can help people achieve their health goals with advice and guiding them with food choices. I know of some truly amazing Registered nutritionists out there in New Zealand doing some pretty awesome work, just be sure to check their qualifications!

Dietitian's who work in hospitals often have a good general knowledge of medicine too, as every day there are patients with a wide variety of conditions. You have to understand what implications different surgeries, drugs, and treatments will have as they all affect someones nutrition in vastly different ways. Dietitian’s can also be very specialised in certain fields, for example, some may only work with people suffering from diabetes, or kidney failure, or maybe they predominantly work alongside paediatric patients, elite athletes, or patients with gastrointestinal diseases. I think personally, what I love as a dietitian, is the huge variety of settings we can work in and still have such a solid base of expertise, regardless of the ‘specialty’ we may have. I love that we are the experts in terms of food, health and nutrition, and are the most trusted and qualified nutrition experts that the public can seek advice from.

Moral of the story, be wise who you seek nutrition and health advice from. You wouldn’t go to someone's garage to get a tooth extracted who has no qualifications, you would go to your dentist. You wouldn’t get a friend to do a C-section for you, your obstetrician would do that for you. So why on earth would you seek nutritional advice from someone who paid $300 for a two hour online nutrition course, or someone who is a self-proclaimed nutrition expert because of their 'weight loss journey' Instagram page with tens of thousands of followers? You would (or should!) seek advice from a Registered Dietitian or Registered nutritionist. Just a friendly reminder that just because someone has hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram doesn’t mean their health advice is valid or that they are an expert or have qualifications and the relevant training. Their ‘anecdotal’ advice of what works for them does NOT mean it’s OK for them to start advocating it to all their loyal followers - you need be wise and be careful. Unfortunately, as Dietitians, social media is saturated with self-proclaimed nutrition experts, health gurus, and fitness fanatics and they are one of our biggest frustrations and struggles with trying to educate the public on the CORRECT nutrition advice.

ALWAYS seek advice from a Registered Dietitian or Registered nutritionist.


Education & Professional Groups

Bachelor of Science in Human Nutrition

Master of Dietetics

Accredited ISAK level 1

Member of Dietitians NZ

Associate member of Sports Dietitians Australia

© Last updated 2020 by Cushla Holdaway.