Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: Which One Should You Choose for Weight Loss?

by | Jul 5, 2019 | Last updated Dec 5, 2022

  • A dietitian is qualified to create customized meal plans and help you navigate medical issues.
  • A nutritionist doesn’t have formal education requirements, but can offer weight loss guidance.
  • Both are uniquely qualified to help you reach your goals.

Trying to lose weight on your own can be really challenging, so people often seek help from a professional, like a dietitian or nutritionist. 

But what exactly do dietitians and nutritionists do? In a nutshell, a nutritionist is anyone who advises you on food, from a doctor to a certified nutritionist to someone without much training at all.

A registered dietitian is a health professional with specific nutrition training and a license.

We have dozens of dietitians and nutritionists on the team at Noom, so we’re uniquely qualified to break down the distinctions between these pros to help you find the best guidance for your goals. 

Ready to make a lasting change?

A healthier you, wherever you are.

What is a nutritionist?

Nutritionists consider themselves experts on the practice of using food and nutrition to maintain health and prevent disease.

If that sounds like a broad definition, that’s because it is. All kinds of professionals can be considered nutritionists if they advise people how to eat to maintain good health.

A nutritionist can help you lose weight by advising you on eating habits and daily living.

You’ll see nutritionists working in all kinds of settings, from hospitals to schools to community health centers.

Here are just a few of the credentialed professionals that can be nutritionists:

  • Certified Nutritionist (CN)
  • Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS)
  • Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN)
  • Certified Nutritional Consultant (CNC)
  • Registered Dietitian (RD) 
  • Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP)
  • Traditional Naturopathic Practitioner (TNP)
  • Certified Traditional Naturopath (CTN)

The broad definition of nutritionist sounds good, but there’s a downside.

There’s no law about who can call themselves a nutritionist. So pretty much anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, whether they’ve completed formal nutrition-related education or not. 

That’s why it’s important to look at a nutritionist’s specific credentials.

What is a clinical nutritionist?

Unlike the broad category of nutritionist, a clinical nutritionist has a more specific meaning—someone who has nutrition training to work with patients in a clinical setting.

A clinical nutritionist typically has a certification, like Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN).

You might find this professional working with patients in a medical setting.

However, you may also find some people calling themselves clinical nutritionists even without certifications. 

What is a registered dietitian?

A registered dietitian is a health expert with specific training in food and nutrition.

You might have noticed that we listed RD under the professionals that can be considered nutritionists. 

That’s because nutritionist is a broad category that includes all kinds of professionals. By contrast, RD is very defined. 

In fact, the term “registered dietitian” is legally protected by law. You can’t call yourself an RD unless you meet specific educational criteria to get (and keep) a professional license.

Here are the professional certifications that dietitians have:

  • Registered Dietitian (RD)
  • Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)
  • Nutrition and Dietetics Technician (NDT)
  • Nutrition and Dietetics Technician Registered (NDTR)

(Keep in mind that NDTs and NDTRs can only work under the supervision of someone with an RD credential.)

Just like other nutritionists, an RD can help you safely lose weight by talking to you about your eating habits. Or by helping you calculate your ideal calorie deficit for weight loss, and creating a meal plan uniquely tailored for you. 

In some states, an RD is the only professional who can legally prescribe certain diets.

What are the differences between a nutritionist and a dietitian?

As we pointed out, nutritionist is a broad category covering many professionals who advise people on eating to maintain health. 

And an RD is a nutrition professional with a specific license and training.

One of the key differences is that all RDs are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are RDs.

Education requirements

Education is one of the main areas where dietitians and nutritionists differ.  

Dietitians must meet specific requirements to become licensed by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, including:

  • A bachelor’s degree with an accredited nutrition science curriculum. Beginning in 2024, an advanced degree (like a master’s degree) will be required for new dietitians.
  • A registration exam.
  • Supervised training within a food service organization, community agency, or health care facility. 
  • Continuing education credits, which need to be renewed every five years.

Nutritionists, on the other hand, don’t require any formal education. 

Technically, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, whether they’ve completed formal nutrition-related education or not.

A nutritionist might be a doctor with nutrition or food expertise. Or have a CNS credential from a respected agency like the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists.

Or they might hold a lesser-known certification, like sports nutrition and holistic nutrition, which are often unregulated. They might even be self-trained.

Meal plans

Yes. While dietitians can and do make personal meal plans for weight loss, this isn’t always the case for nutritionists. 

Laws for nutritionists vary by state, according to the American Nutrition Association.

Some states allow anyone to practice nonmedical nutrition therapy. For example, offering personalized nutrition plans for people without medical conditions.

In other states, however, only registered dietitians with a license can offer personalized meal and nutrition plans. 

Should you see a dietitian or nutritionist to lose weight?

That’s a really hard question, because so much depends on the credential of the dietitian or nutritionist you’re considering.

In general, a dietitian may be the best option for your weight loss goals if you face specialized and difficult challenges:

  • You need help managing chronic diseases or health conditions like high blood pressure or cholesterol.
  • You have a history of eating disorders.
  • You have food allergies.
  • You are breastfeeding, pregnant, or planning to become pregnant,
  • Your BMI is 30 or above. Obesity is considered a medical condition that dietitians can safely help you navigate.

A nutritionist (which includes dietitians) could be a good fit for helping you lose weight if:

  • You need advice that isn’t related to a medical condition—like guidance on healthy, on-the-go foods when you don’t have time to cook.
  • You’re in good health and want to improve your overall health or lose those last few pounds. 
  • You’re seeking a coach who can motivate and support you while you lose weight.

Ready to make a lasting change?

A healthier you, wherever you are.

How often should you see a dietitian or nutritionist?

According to our in-house Registered Dietitian, Casey Park, dietitians typically see clients once per week for the first month. Then, visits switch to every other week for a few months before slowing down to once per month for maintenance. 

Nutritionists may offer similar schedules when you’re first starting out. 

But how often you see a dietitian or nutritionist ultimately depends on you and your health goals. Chat with your nutritionist or dietitian to determine the best schedule for you. 

Dietitians, nutritionists, and Noom

If you don’t have access to a dietitian or nutritionist, a program like Noom Weight can also help you lose weight.

At Noom, our curriculum is informed by nutritionists and dietitians. 

Our curriculum is also informed by psychologists, who can help break down the emotional side of weight loss, and personal trainers, who share tips for adding joyful, feel-good movement to your day. 

Weight loss is a little different for everyone—so be sure to stick with what makes sense for you, your health, and your lifestyle.