Dietitians and nutritionists do similar work, but because of their more extensive training, dietitians are health professionals who can help diagnose and treat nutrition-related ailments. Nutritionists require little to no licensing, depending on the state, so in most cases they handle preventative care instead of managing illness. Because of the wide variance in education and licensing for these two professions, it's important to know the difference if you want to pursue one of these career paths.
A dietitian is a medical professional with at least four years of college education. To be a dietitian, you must have a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics, or an undergraduate science degree along with a Master of Nutrition and Dietetics. Some dietitians choose to get a Ph.D. as well. Nutritionists, because of their federally unregulated status, do not have widely recognized educational guidelines, but many nutritionists obtain degrees in food science, human nutrition, food and nutrition or food technology. Some states have no requirements for nutritionists, but some require licenses that have their own education guidelines.
In order to be licensed as a Registered Dietitian in the U.S., you must complete 1200 hours of supervised internship or practical training and take an exam administered by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. After you are registered as a dietitian, you must also continue your education over time to remain licensed. All but three states (Arizona, New Jersey and Colorado) also have their own licensing regulations, so you will need to check your local laws. For nutritionists, the qualifications for licensure, if there is a license to be had, vary by state. Some states forbid nutrition counseling by anyone other than a registered dietitian, so in those cases the same licensing rules that apply to dietitians also apply to nutritionists.
Type of Work
As a dietitian you will usually work in the medical field, diagnosing and treating dietary illnesses and allergies and helping formulate preventative care diet plans. Dietitians also do a lot of community outreach and education, teaching both the general public and other health professionals about nutrition . Nutritionists who have undergraduate degrees often work for food manufacturers or research facilities and are also known as food scientists. Those who practice individually sometimes call themselves holistic nutritionists and provide preventative medical advice to their clients in the states where this is legal.
The overall difference in salary between dietitians and nutritionists is not known, as the two occupations are similar enough that their salaries are reported together. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for dietitians and nutritionists was $57,440 in May 2014, but registered dietitians can earn $60,000 and more. Top-paying states are California, Maryland, Nevada, Connecticut and New Jersey. Although the BLS does not report wage data for nutritionists alone, those numbers suggest that dietitians likely make slightly more.