Dietitian or Nutritionist: What’s the Difference?

People ask me all the time, “Are you a Dietitian or a Nutritionist?” So I’m going to explain how these terms differ and why I choose to work as a nutritionist.

In short, dietitians can work in all areas of nutrition such as private practice, the clinical setting (hospitals) or community and public health. Nutritionists are not qualified to work in a clinical setting and this is because nutrition degrees do not put students through clinical placements over a fourth year. They are generally three-year courses with a large foundation in science, some nutrition, and no placements/experience in real-life settings. Dietitians have the added benefit of more practical experience within the last half of their degree as well as more in depth education of nutrition.

Those who work within the community or public health setting will generally be called ‘nutritionists’, even if they have graduated from a dietetics course. So a dietitian can be a nutritionist, but not vice versa.

One necessity to being a dietitian in Australia, or anywhere in the world, is that you must adhere to the national guidelines. For Australia, these guidelines are called “The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating” and may be better known as the outdated “food pyramid”. Within the guide, there are suggestions for how many serves of each food group should be eaten. In general, the guide is based on a moderate to high carbohydrate, low fat diet. As a dietitian, this is the guide that is used to create food plans for the average client. Any registered dietitian who gives dietary advice that strays from these national guidelines (e.g. low carb diet, intermittent fasting, wheat-free diet) will be removed from the Dietetics Association of Australia and be shamed nation-wide on their website. This gives you an idea of how restricted dietitians are in their advice, even if the advice is nutritionally adequate and achieves results. As a nutritionist, you are not bound by the guidelines and therefore are free to explore many different kinds of holistic approaches to health.

In my case, I am originally a dietetics student who has opted out of the clinical portion of the degree to focus on public health and social aspects of nutrition. This means that up until this point, I have been taught the skills of a dietitian, including being involved in various clinical work placements and nutrition counselling, which a ‘regular’ nutrition student would not have been able to do.  The difference is, my final year will be focussed on my own nutrition research in a topic of my interest, as a substitute for the clinical work I would have done originally.

Some people wonder why I didn’t choose to continue with the clinical year of my degree and it comes down to where I see myself working in the future. Before I applied for the dietetics degree, I admit, I didn’t know much about the job or what I would be learning. I envisioned working in my own practice, giving people advice on how to lose weight and eat right. But as I worked my way through the degree, my ideas about nutrition changed and I saw myself wanting to create a bigger difference than simply telling people how to lose weight. I didn’t know what is was called then, but I later found out that the area I saw myself working in was called “community health”. This area has a primary health care approach, that is, the nutritionists who work within this field aim to make changes on a community or large population level. Not only that, they aim to educate people to make positive changes which prevent disease rather than treat them after they are already obese or sick (this is referred to as secondary or tertiary health care, given by dietitians, nurses and doctors within a clinical setting).

For me, it is a goal to reduce the amount of people who need secondary or tertiary health care and focus on how we can increase awareness about good nutrition, therefore preventing sickness before it occurs. That’s why I opted out of the clinical portion of my degree; I wanted to focus on public health because I think primary care is what will make the most powerful difference in the future of our health rather than more energy (and money) into the treatment of disease. On top of that, I think as a nutritionist you have more freedom to explore various approaches to nutrition rather than adhering to one set of guidelines. I believe this is really important in order to keep abreast of new information, especially since nutrition and food research is constantly evolving and making new discoveries.

If you’re looking to study nutrition, hopefully this post has given you more of an insight into being employed as a dietitian or nutritionist! It’s all up to personal preference and once you get into a dietetics course, it will be easier to get an idea of what you enjoy.


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