When you want to fix your teeth, you see a dentist, and when you want your eyes looked at, you visit the optometrist. So, when you need help improving your personal nutrition, it stands to reason that you would pay a visit to a professional who is knowledgeable and experienced in the ways of nutrition — but is that a dietician or a nutritionist?

Both dieticians and nutritionists devote their careers to helping people better understand their nutrition needs, but there are notable differences in how and where dieticians and nutritionists operate and what kind of services each type of professional can provide. There are pros and cons to seeing dieticians and nutritionists, so read on to learn which professional is right for you.

What Is a Dietician?

In the United States, a dietician is a nutrition specialist who has received a certification from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Often, dieticians receive extensive training prior to entering the field. To gain their certification, dieticians must obtain at least a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as clinical nutrition, dietetics or food service systems management. Additionally, certification requires a year-long internship program consisting of 1200 hours of practice supervised by a licensed and registered dietician as well as a passing grade on a written exam administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. All this is to ensure that dieticians are experienced and capable of providing accurate and beneficial nutrition advice to their clients.

Most often, dieticians specialize in treating certain health conditions. For example, dieticians often assist those suffering from eating disorders, like anorexia or binge eating disorder, which have broad health ramifications. Sometimes, dieticians work with other health care providers to ensure their patients have access to various medical treatments to achieve holistic health.

Confusingly, dieticians often work under the title of registered dietician nutritionist or RDN. Many RDNs provide medical nutrition therapy in hospital settings or in other health care facilities like clinics and nursing homes. However, some dieticians do open their own private practices, where they meet with patients just like other health care professionals do.

What Is a Nutritionist?

In contrast, a nutritionist does not necessarily have a certification or specific training, at least in the U.S. There are some organizations that offer certifications to nutritionists, but different organizations have differing requirements for obtaining these certifications, so they aren’t always helpful in indicating that a nutritionist is qualified to dispense advice. Some states do impose strict requirements on the level of training nutritionists must obtain, so you can check with your state’s licensing board to better understand what the term “nutritionist” means in your area.

There are two primary certifications that the most qualified nutritionists pursue: CCN and CNS.

Certified clinical nutritionist (CCN). Certified by the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board, CCNs are trained to provide personalized recommendations for diet, exercise and supplements to help clients achieve lifestyle and health goals. CCNs must have at least one degree in nutrition or an advanced professional degree in another licensed health care field. The level of their degree determines the amount of training a CCN requires.

Certified nutrition specialist (CNS). Certified by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists, CNSs must have a minimum of a master degree in nutrition or a related field from an accredited institution. Additionally, CNSs must complete at least 1,000 hours of supervised practice, a written exam and continuing education every five years. Often, CNSs organize public health programs and teach about healthy dietary choices instead of working with clients one-on-one.

Whom Should You Visit?

If you are interested in pursuing a career in nutrition, you need to learn the fundamental differences between nutritionists and dieticians to make informed decisions regarding your path. Short online courses on nutrition science provide a baseline of knowledge that can get you started in your field today.

If you are merely interested in receiving nutrition help from a professional, you should consider what kind of advice and aid you require. In most circumstances, a certified nutritionist will provide the desired care, treatment and guidance to help clients achieve their health and wellness goals. However, if you have a unique health situation that requires more specialized nutrition help, you might seek a referral for a dietician from your primary care provider.

The differences between dieticians and nutritionists might seem inconsequential to you, but they are significant in terms of the services a nutrition professional can provide. Whether you need to see a nutrition expert or want to become one, now you know a bit more about this field of care.