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Dietitians & Nutritionists: Do you know the difference?

By Heather Knutson, MS, RD, CSO, LD March 6, 2024Nutrition Education Services Center Blog, PearlPoint News, Uncategorized

Dietitians & Nutritionists: Do you know the difference?

There are many nutrition claims that are made in the media, on the internet and in any space where health is being discussed—especially when it comes to discussing nutrition as it relates to cancer. It can feel like everyone is a nutrition expert and has the answers. How do we know whom to trust for nutrition advice? As an informed consumer, it is important to know where your nutrition information comes from and who is qualified to provide this information. The titles “dietitian” and “nutritionist” are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. Dietitians must complete standardized training, pass an exam and hold a degree from an accredited program. Nutritionists are not consistently held to the same standard, and depending on the state, they are not always required to have formal education or training. Let’s explore five key differences between a dietitian and a nutritionist to provide insight on where you should turn for dependable nutrition advice.


Dietitians have the option to use one of the following credentials: RD (Registered Dietitian) or RDN (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.) RD and RDN may be used interchangeably. Dietitians may earn additional credentials for specialty certifications such as a board certification specialist in oncology nutrition (CSO.) To become a CSO, dietitians must complete at least 2,000 hours working in oncology and pass an additional exam. Maintenance of the CSO credential requires successfully passing the exam every five years as the field of oncology nutrition is ever changing1.

While there are various nutritionist programs offering credentials, there are no standardized credentials available to nutritionists. It is important to ask professionals about their credentials and training.


Dietitians hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited dietetics program. Beginning January 1st 2024, candidates must earn a master’s degree to be eligible to take the registration exam for dietitians2. This includes course work in a microbiology, organic chemistry, biochemistry, clinical nutrition, public health, psychology, management, and food service3. Additionally, dietitians have completed a minimum of 1,000 hours of supervised practice4.

Nutritionists are not required to meet specific educational standards. While some colleges and universities offer nutrition degrees, the courses and experiences provided are widely varied. Such degrees are not required to use the title of nutritionist in many states.

Standards of Competency

Upon completing their education, dietitians are required to pass a registration exam5. Dietitians are also responsible to uphold high standards of ethics outlined by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Code of Ethics. This includes commitments to protecting clients and the public, using an evidence-based practice and disclosing financial interests6.

There is no standardized examination or defined knowledge base for nutritionists. Nutritionists are not necessarily held liable to ethical standards, including using evidence-based information in their practice.

Continued Education

Every five years, dietitians are required to complete at least 75 hours of continuing education, including at least one hour in ethics7. Dietitians may have additional continuing education requirements to maintain their state license8.

Nutritionists have no standardized continuing education requirement. Some states do have requirements for continuing education to maintain licensure for nutritionists. However, not all states offer licensure to nutritionists.

Scope of Practice

Dietitians are qualified to provide care for ill persons in a hospital, long-term care and rehabilitation facilities. Dietitians are also employed in postsecondary institutions, public health settings, management, health care food service, schools and in wellness and sports settings. Dietitians are licensed healthcare professionals and can provide individualized care to people living with cancer.

Nutritionists cannot provide medical nutrition therapy for specific health conditions. Some states have laws guiding the scope of care nutritionists may provide.

The Commission on Cancer (CoC) has established standards of care to assure cancer patients receive high-quality coordinated care. According to CoC guidance, patients should be referred to registered dietitians due to their unique training to address treatment-related symptom management, provide nutrition support, and address quality-of-life concerns9.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, registered dietitians are food and nutrition experts. It’s important for you to have confidence in where you receive your nutrition information. When consulting with a registered dietitian, you can be assured the nutrition information you receive is based in scientific evidence, deemed trustworthy and free of financial bias.

Some insurance will cover services provided by registered dietitians. Consider asking your doctor for a referral to see a registered dietitian. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics can help you locate registered dietitians in your area that are specialized to meet your health needs, such as cancer care. Remember to verify the coverage details within your health plan to determine if dietitian services are included.


Through LLS’s Nutrition Education Services Center patients and caregivers of all cancer types can receive a free nutrition consultation with a registered dietitian who has expertise in oncology nutrition.


Additional Resources:



  1. Commission on Dietetic Registration. (2024) Board Certified Specialist in Oncology Eligibility Application and Fee.
  2. Commission on Dietetic Registration. (2024) 2024 Graduate Degree Requirement – Registration Eligibility.
  3. Commission on Dietetic Registration. (2024) Revised 2024 Scope and Standards of Practice for the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.
  4. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2024) About Accredited Programs.
  5. Commission on Dietetic Registration. (2024) Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)* Certification.
  6. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2024) Code of Ethics for the Nutrition and Dietetics Profession.
  7. Commission on Dietetic Registration. (2024) Professional Development Portfolio Guide.
  8. Commission on Dietetic Registration. (2024) State Licensure.
  9. American College of Surgeons. (2024) Optimal Resources for Cancer Care.
Heather Knutson, MS, RD, CSO, LD

Author Heather Knutson, MS, RD, CSO, LD

Heather Knutson, MS, RD, CSO, LD, a Minnesota native, is board-certified on oncology nutrition and has enjoyed working in oncology for over a decade. Heather earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Dietetics from the University of North Dakota and her Master’s Degree from Rosalind Franklin University in Chicago. She is an advocate for personalized care and feels honored to be invited into the lives of her clients during their personal journey with cancer. In her free time, Heather enjoys spending time with her husband, two sons, her cat Kevin and her dog Russell. She is passionate about triathlons and vegan culinary delights and is always open to new adventures!

More posts by Heather Knutson, MS, RD, CSO, LD

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