Many people, including athletes, often don’t know where to turn for nutrition advice. A study conducted in Ontario recently found that responses to a survey released in 2018 indicated that 72.9% of respondents either did not know there was a difference between Registered Dietitians (RDs) and “nutritionists,” were not sure if there was a difference, or knew there was a difference but couldn’t identify what it was (1). When asked where they sought nutrition advice, the majority of respondents stated sources that were not Registered Dietitians (1).
As public interest in both nutrition and complementary and alternative medicine grows, it is important that people are aware of the differences between Registered Dietitians, nutritionists, and holistic nutritionists, as well as what titles are protected in their province. For example, in Alberta, Quebec, and Nova Scotia, the title of Nutritionist is protected and provincially regulated, and the titles Dietitian and Nutritionist may be used interchangeably (2, 3). This does not apply to other provinces and territories.
As a disclaimer, this blog post is not claiming that one profession is superior to the other. Every person is unique and should choose a practitioner that aligns with their values and is accessible to them.
Let’s start with some common misconceptions:
1. Dietitians want to put me on a diet and cut out all the foods I enjoy eating.
FALSE! The best ‘diet’ is one that works for you and makes you feel your best! Most dietitians do not subscribe to diet culture and do not endorse restricting entire food groups (unless medically necessary).
2. A Dietitian will just tell me to lose weight.
FALSE! Weight loss and health do not always go hand-in-hand. Dietitians learn about many different ways to assess and improve your health that have nothing to do with your weight!
3. Dietitians don’t have a holistic approach to health and eating.
FALSE! As with any profession, there are exceptions, but most Dietitians know that food is just part of the equation and there are many factors that contribute to a patient’s health.
4. Dietitians only work in private practice
FALSE! Dietitians work in hospitals to develop menus and deliver enteral or parenteral nutrition to patients who are unable to eat. They also work with grocery stores, restaurants, and food companies. Dietitians are integral in long-term care homes and can also be found working with sports teams and in policy development or education!
In order to become a Registered Dietitian, one must complete a 4-year undergraduate degree in Nutrition and Dietetics and earn a spot in a post-degree program and a practicum. While this route is expensive, time-consuming, and not accessible to everyone, it does prepare students for a variety of jobs. All undergraduate and graduate programs must be accredited by both Dietitians of Canada and the Partnership for Dietetic Education and Practice (PDEP). Accredited programs undergo self and peer evaluation to assess the delivery of their services against national standards (4).
Some courses that Dietetics students complete include chemistry and biology, clinical nutrition, community nutrition, food management, and food science as well as specialized electives. After completing academic and practicum requirements, each province’s regulatory body will assess applicants to ensure they are eligible and allow them to use the titles that are protected in their province. Many provinces also require the Canadian Dietetic Registration Examination.
In order to become a Registered Holistic Nutritionist or Certified Nutritional Practitioner, you must take a course that will license you when you complete it. It is important to note however that these courses and terms are not regulated, and therefore anyone can call themselves one regardless of how much training they have. Holistic Nutrition programs are privately owned and vary in length and course content. Some may have a hands-on or clinical portion, but not all.
Qualifications and regulations:
Registered Dietitians are accredited healthcare professionals and are regulated by Dietitians of Canada (DC) and their respective provincial regulatory bodies. This includes an entrance exam (the CDRE) and exams every few years while practicing. They follow the guidelines and regulations set by DC and their provincial regulatory body (2).
Registered Dietitians also make recommendations using evidence-based research, and engage in continuous learning to ensure that the information they give patients is up to date and backed up by peer-reviewed articles.
Nutritionists are not always provincially regulated. The title of Nutritionist is protected in Alberta, Quebec, and Nova Scotia, but not other provinces. Other titles to look out for that are not regulated include RONP, RNCP, ROHP, RHN, and CNP (2). Holistic nutrition is a self-regulated profession, and each training program is different. They vary in length and content, so there is no guarantee that each holistic nutritionist will have the same knowledge base (5).
How Registered Dietitians can help:
Registered Dietitians are accredited healthcare professionals and experts in the field of nutrition and can help you unlock a key part to your health and wellbeing – food! For athletes, fuelling your body and talking with a Registered Dietitian is just as important as going to physiotherapy or personal training. If you were injured, chances are you wouldn’t turn to your friend or the internet for advice – you would go see a professional. Eating habits and food choices can be treated the same way.
Each person is unique and has a different situation. At the end of the day, what works for one person may not work for you. Before seeing a Registered Dietitian or Nutritionist, do your own research and decide what fits your life and values best. Hopefully, this post has given you some insight into the differences between the two professions.
2) Dietitians of Canada [Internet]. Toronto, Ontario: Dietitians of Canada; c2021 [cited Feb 14, 2021]. The difference between a dietitian and nutritionist. Available from: https://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Find-A-Dietitian/Difference-Between-Dietitian-and-Nutritionist.aspx
5) Pacific Rim College [Internet]. Victoria, British Columbia; c2021 [cited Feb 16, 2021]. How to become a holistic nutritionist in Canada. Available from: https://www.pacificrimcollege.com/2019/10/how-to-become-a-certified-holistic-nutritionist-in-canada/