Depending on where you live, a Registered Dietitian and a Nutritionist are not the same. For example, I live in California. In California there are no regulations related to using the title “Nutritionist.” However, the title “Registered Dietitian” is protected. That title can only be used if you’ve met the requirements to become a Registered Dietitian.
A Registered Dietitian, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, RD, or RDN all mean the same thing. This is a credential that someone has earned. Similar to an MD or an RN- you can only call yourself those things if you’ve done the work required. To become a Registered Dietitian involves completing extensive education and supervised training prior to passing a national exam.
The education includes biology, anatomy and physiology, chemistry, biochemistry and more. After completing at minimum a Bachelor’s Degree (soon Master’s Degree minimum), you then apply to participate in an internship program, of which many are unpaid. The competition is fierce, just like trying to apply to Nursing School. There are more applicants than there are internships. Many of us completed our internships unpaid- a sort of labor of tough love.
Now that you’ve completed your internship program, required to be at least 1200 hours consisting of supervised clinical, community, and food service rotations, you may be eligible to take the registration exam.
The registration exam is conducted at an official test site to maintain the integrity of the exam. You’ll likely want to pass the first time if possible because it’s not free. Once your internship is verified and you are deemed eligible to sit for the exam, you pay a fee when you select your exam date. No phones, no personal electronics, nothing can go into that room with you. I had the privilege of later completing my Certified Nutrition Support Clinician (CNSC) exam with a broken foot. More on that some other time…
Congratulations, you’ve passed the exam! Tears, there will be tears. So many tears of joy. You are notified before you leave after exam completion whether or not you’ve passed. If you didn’t pass, you can re-take the exam at another scheduled date and time.
California doesn’t have licensure for RDs and therefore the path to becoming a Dietitian concludes once you pass the registration exam. Dietitians are required to complete at least 75 units of continuing education every 5 years to maintain their credential, including at least 1 unit of ethics. You create an online learning profile with the governing body and log your education as you complete it. That means every RD you meet has continued to learn throughout his/her career. Dietitians are dedicated to staying up to date to ensure that they are providing the best nutrition care possible with the most current scientific evidence. We are a profession of lifetime learners. Many Dietitians will choose to complete additional certifications and/or credentials to become more specialized in specific areas of practice.
As I mentioned before, this may vary depending on your geographic location. The information provided here is specific to California, USA. There may be other regions where being a Nutritionist involves specific criteria, but here you’ll want to work with a Registered Dietitian to ensure that you’re receiving evidence-based information and not just someone’s opinion.