Certified Nutritionist vs. Registered Dietitian: Comparing Roles


While a Registered Dietitian (RD) or a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)  is a specialized role that can provide medical nutrition therapy, a Certified Nutritionist (CN) is a lower investment certification with ample opportunities in health and wellness. Each credential includes its own educational prerequisites, certification exams, job opportunities, and licensure requirements. 

This article provides a full breakdown of certified nutritionists vs. registered dietician certifications, helping you make an informed career decision. 

What is a Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)?

A registered dietitian (RD) is the same as a newer designation referred to as a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Board of Directors created the newer title as a way to further enhance opportunities for RDNs. 

Either way, the role requires specific education requirements, including a bachelor’s degree from a college or university, with coursework that typically includes food and nutrition sciences, food service systems management, business, economics, computer science, sociology, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, and chemistry. RDs and RDNs must also complete an accredited dietetic internship , or supervised practice program at a health care facility, food service corporation, or community agency. 

After all requirements are met for licensure, a number of job opportunities become available. These may include explaining nutrition to individual clients or groups, developing meal plans, promoting nutrition through public speaking, and putting together public health and community outreach programs. Some registered dietitians and registered dietitian nutritionists choose to pursue additional education in order to become researchers or professors. 

As they continue in the profession, some RDs and RDNs pursue certifications in specialized areas of practice, such as pediatric nutrition, diabetes education, or senior nutrition. Working for government agencies and private practice are also potential avenues for RDs and RDNs.

No matter which path they follow, RDs and RDNs must renew their credentials every five years and apply for certification based on their state’s laws. 

What is a Certified Nutritionist? 

Those who simply want to provide nutritional counseling may want to consider the option of becoming a Certified Nutritionist, also known as a Certified Nutrition Consultant. 

This role requires completion of a nutrition certification program or series of certification programs, usually with the prerequisite of having a high school diploma, GED, or international equivalent. This can often be done in six months or less. In this type of program, you’ll study topics like the principles of energy balance, macro and micro nutrients, the connection between nutrition and physical fitness, the use of research in creating nutritional plans, and the identification of behaviors that may affect individual clients. 

After the coursework is complete, a number of job opportunities become available— from being self-employed as a nutritional and wellness consultant to working for food supplement distributors, corporate wellness centers, weight loss centers, health food and nutrition retail stores, health and wellness publications, schools, or community programs. 

This certification allows you to give educated nutritional guidance that might include developing nutritional plans for individual clients, creating workshops on healthy eating habits that can be presented at schools or companies, and providing support to groups with specific goals like weight loss or disease management.  

Certified Nutritionists can offer, a supervised practice program, for food and nutrition intake. Certified Nutritionists are food and nutrition experts, who are much more prone to prescribe nutrition therapy, as opposed to referring patients to an MD or pharmacist for pills. Both have their place. However, nutritionists almost always want to start with nutrition as a fuel source and framework.In general, both the certified nutritionist and the registered dietician assist people with their nutrition and wellness needs. But the paths to get to those roles differ, and which one to take is a matter of personal choice. 

Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs)  Certified Nutritionists 
Educational Requirements  Completion of a bachelor’s degree program that is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, including the Didactic Program in Dietetics (DPD) 

*From January 1, 2024, the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) will require a minimum of a master’s degree to be eligible for the registration examination for dietitians. 

After completing their degree, candidates must undergo a supervised practice program or internship, which typically lasts about 1200 hours. 

Completing continuing professional education (CPE) credits on a regular basis

Varies widely, from high school diploma to bachelor’s degree

Successful completion of a certification program by an accredited organization

Continuing Education Credits every 1-2 years depending on the accrediting body

Exam  Must pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam

After passing the exam, RDNs must obtain a license to practice in their state, if their state requires licensure. Licensure requirements can vary by state.

Varies by certifying organization

Focus on fundamental nutrition knowledge, counseling skills, and ethics

Job Titles  Clinical Dietitian, Clinical Nutritionist, Community Dietitian/Nutritionist, Management Dietitian, Consultant Dietitian, etc.  Nutrition Coach, Wellness Coach, Health Educator, Nutrition Consultant, etc. 
Scope of Work  Medical nutrition therapy, diagnosis and treatment of diet-related health conditions, nutrition counseling, research Behavior change, support, education, and coaching

*Does not include diagnosis or treatment of conditions

Salary  Average of $69,090 as of October 25, 2023, but the range typically falls between $62,890 and $75,990 (salary.com) 

*Varies based on location, experience, and workplace

$44,300 as of October 25, 2023, but the salary range typically falls between $39,098 and $49,84 (salary.com). Entrepreneurship opens up more income opportunities.

*Varies based on certification level, niche, sub-specialties, experience, and setting

AFPA Certified Holistic Nutritionist Program Guide

Learn How to Become a Certified Holistic Nutritionist in Less Than 6 Months

How to Become a Dietitian: Are There Dietitian Certification Courses Online? 

The training and eligibility to become a registered dietitian nutritionist  in the US is as follows:  

  • Complete a bachelor’s degree in nutrition or a related field from an accredited college or university. 
  • Complete an Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) accredited dietetics program, which includes coursework in food and nutrition sciences, medical nutrition therapy, foodservice systems management, and community nutrition. 
  • Complete a supervised practice program, which includes a minimum of 1200 hours of supervised practice in areas such as clinical nutrition, community nutrition, and foodservice management. 
  • Pass the national registration examination for dietitians administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). 
  • Obtain any state-specific licenses or certifications required to practice as a dietitian in the state where you plan to work. 

It’s important to note that the specific requirements for becoming a dietitian may vary depending on the state where you plan to practice, so it’s a good idea to research the requirements before beginning your education and training. Additionally, it may be helpful to seek guidance from a professional organization for dietitians, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to ensure that you are following the appropriate steps to become a registered dietitian. 

How to Become a Certified Nutrition Specialist: Online Nutrition Courses 

 AFPA has numerous nutrition certifications for various areas of specialty, which can all be completed online and in your own time.  

One of our most popular courses is the Holistic Nutritionist Certification. This course contains information about everything from food and nutrition science to coaching methodologies. AFPA also offers the following certifications:  

You can check out all of AFPA’s courses here. 

Dietitian vs. Certified Nutritionist: Degree and Careers Comparison 

Dietitians and certified nutritionists are both professionals who work in the field of nutrition and wellness, but there are some key differences between the two in terms of education, training, and career paths. Here is a comparison of dietitians and certified nutritionists: 

Education and Training: 

  • Dietitians typically hold a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, nutrition, or a related field, and must complete an accredited dietetics program, a supervised practice program, and pass a national registration exam in order to become a registered dietitian. 
  • Certified nutritionists might hold a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, dietetics, or a related field, but certification requirements vary by state. Some states may require certification through a state licensing board or other organization, while others may not require certification at all. 

Scope of Practice: 

  • Dietitians are trained to work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, schools, and long-term care facilities, and are qualified to provide medical nutrition therapy to patients with complex medical conditions. 
  • Certified nutritionists may provide nutrition counseling and education to clients, but their scope of practice is more limited than that of a registered dietitian. 

Career Opportunities: 

  • Dietitians may work in a variety of roles, including working as clinical dietitians, food service managers, community nutritionists, and research dietitians. 
  • Certified nutritionists may work as nutrition consultants, wellness coaches, or nutrition educators, among other roles. 

In summary, while both dietitians and certified nutritionists work in the field of nutrition and wellness, dietitians typically have more extensive education and training and a broader scope of practice. On the other hand, certified nutritionists have ample opportunity to either start a business or work for a wide range of health and wellness organizations.  

What Does a Certified Nutritionist Do? 

A certified nutritionist is a healthcare professional who specializes in the study of nutrition, diet, and the relationship between food and health. Some programs include applied health behavior change theory in order to be able to provide additional coaching services. Coaches work with individuals or groups to help them make better food choices, develop healthy eating habits, and achieve specific health goals. 

Here are some of the specific tasks that a nutritionist might perform: 

  • Assessing nutritional needs: A nutritionist might conduct a detailed analysis of an individual’s diet and lifestyle to determine their nutritional needs and identify any areas where they may be lacking important nutrients. Note that nutrition coaches and certified nutritionists cannot diagnose or treat conditions, and in many states, they cannot recommend supplements or medical dietary treatment of conditions.  
  • Providing nutrition education and coaching: Nutritionists educate individuals about the role of various nutrients in the body, how to read food labels, and how to make healthy choices when dining out. They can also use behavior change methods to support clients in adopting a healthy relationship with food.  
  • Research: Nutritionists may also conduct research to better understand the relationship between diet and health, and to develop new approaches to improving nutrition and health outcomes. 
  • Collaborating with other healthcare professionals: Nutritionists often work as part of a healthcare team, collaborating with physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to provide comprehensive care to patients. 

The specific tasks that a nutritionist performs may vary depending on their area of specialization and the type of clients they work with. Some nutritionists work with individuals with specific health conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, while others may focus on working with athletes to optimize their performance through nutrition. 

What’s the Difference Between a Licensed Nutritionist and a Certified Nutritionist? 

The terms “licensed nutritionist” and “certified nutritionist” can vary in meaning depending on the state or country in which the individual is practicing. However, in general, here are the key differences between the two: 

Licensing 

In some states, the term “licensed nutritionist” is used to refer to an individual who has met specific educational and training requirements and is licensed to practice nutrition. Licensing requirements vary by state but typically involve completing a degree in nutrition or a related field, completing a certain number of supervised practice hours, and passing an exam. In these states, only licensed nutritionists are legally allowed to provide nutrition counseling services. 

Certification 

“Certified nutritionist” is a term that is often used to refer to individuals who have completed a certification program in nutrition. Certification programs vary in their requirements but often involve completing a certain number of nutrition-related courses and passing an exam. Certification is generally not required in order to practice as a nutritionist but can be a way for individuals to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise in the field. 

So… 

It’s important to note that the terms “licensed nutritionist” and “certified nutritionist” are not standardized and may be used differently depending on the specific state or country in which the individual is practicing. It’s always a good idea to research the specific qualifications and credentials of a nutritionist before seeking their services. 

What Can a Dietitian Do That a Nutritionist Cannot? 

Registered dietitian nutritionists and nutritionists share many similarities in their work, as both are trained in the study of nutrition and can provide nutrition counseling to individuals or groups. However, there are a few key differences between the two professions in terms of their training, scope of practice, and legal requirements. Here are a few things that a dietitian can do that a nutritionist cannot: 

  • Provide medical nutrition therapy: Dietitians are trained to provide medical nutrition therapy, which involves developing and implementing personalized nutrition plans for individuals with specific medical conditions. This may include developing specialized diets for individuals with conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or kidney disease, as well as providing nutrition support for individuals receiving medical treatments such as chemotherapy. 
  • Work in clinical settings: Dietitians are often employed in clinical settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, and long-term care facilities, where they work as part of a healthcare team to provide nutrition care for patients. 
  • Supervise food service operations: Dietitians may work in foodservice settings such as schools, hospitals, and restaurants, where they may be responsible for developing menus, overseeing food preparation, and ensuring that food is prepared in accordance with nutrition and safety standards. 
  • May require licensure: In many states, dietitians are required to be licensed in order to practice. This typically involves completing specific educational and training requirements, passing an exam, and meeting ongoing continuing education requirements. 

It’s worth noting that the general term “nutritionist” is not a legally protected term in many states, which means that there are no specific educational or training requirements for individuals who use this title. As a result, the qualifications and scope of practice of nutritionists may vary widely, and it’s important for individuals seeking nutrition counseling to carefully evaluate the credentials and qualifications of the individual they are working with. 

Dietitian vs. Certified Nutritionist Career and Salary Outlook 

Dietitians and nutritionists both work in the field of nutrition, but their job duties, educational requirements, and salaries can differ. 

Dietitians work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, schools, government agencies, and private practices. They provide medical nutrition therapy to manage and prevent conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases. The job outlook for dietitians is positive, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projecting an 8% job growth rate for the profession from 2020 to 2030. The median annual salary for dietitians in the US was $63,090 as of May 2020. 

Certified nutritionists can also work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, schools, and private practices, and they may provide nutrition advice and counseling to clients. Unfortunately, the BLS does not differentiate the salary of certified nutritionists from that of licensed nutritionists or dietitians. It is safe to say, however, that the salary for certified nutritionists or coaches can vary significantly within the field. This is because many certified nutritionists work in a private practice which provides high potential for growth.  

What Jobs Am I Eligible for After Completing an Online Nutrition Certification?  

The types of jobs you may be eligible for after completing an online nutrition certification can vary depending on the specific certification and your previous education and experience. 

Completing an online nutrition certification may help you gain knowledge and skills related to nutrition and wellness, but it may not be sufficient to qualify you for certain jobs in the nutrition field.  

That being said, some jobs you may be eligible for after completing an online nutrition certification include: 

  • Health coach: As a health coach, you may provide guidance and support to clients to help them achieve their health goals. This may include offering advice on nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle habits. 
  • Nutrition educator: In this role, you may teach others about the importance of nutrition and how to make healthy food choices. You may work in a variety of settings, including schools, community centers, and healthcare facilities. 
  • Wellness consultant: As a wellness consultant, you may provide advice and recommendations to individuals or organizations on how to improve their overall health and wellbeing. This may include offering guidance on nutrition, stress management, and exercise. 

It’s important to note that the job opportunities available to you may depend on your specific certification, level of education, and experience.  

Main Takeaways 

In this article, we discussed the education and training required to become a dietitian and certified nutritionist, as well as the difference between a registered dietitian nutritionist, a licensed nutritionist, and a certified nutritionist. 

We also discussed the job outlook and median salaries for dietitians and nutritionists, as well as the types of jobs that may be available after completing an online nutrition certification. 

Each career path has its benefits. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which nutrition career aligns with your goals.

We encourage you to explore the possibility of obtaining your nutrition certification with AFPA, where you have the potential to catapult your professional career forward while supporting others’ health.  

Become an AFPA Certified Holistic NutritionistBecome an AFPA Certified Holistic Nutritionist

References: 

  1. https://www.cdrnet.org/  
  2. https://www.eatright.org/become-an-rdn-or-ndtr  
  3. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/  

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