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What’s the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian?

If you’ve been deliberating about whether to add collagen to your morning coffee or ditch coffee all together in favour of celery juice, it’s likely you’ve tuned in to the proliferate hum of nutrition advice we’re exposed to daily.

We’re in a bizarre era of personal diet-sharing – you know, if you haven’t written a cookbook crammed full of health advice, are you even a model, actor or chef?

The more individuals that join the chorus of food advice, the more overwhelmed the general public becomes. And the more pivotal the need for a voice of reason to cut through the noise.

That’s where nutritionists and dietitians come in. As qualified specialists with an evidence-based approach to healthful eating they have the capacity to differentiate between fact and fad. Dr Catherine Milte, the Course Director for Postgraduate Human Nutrition and her colleague, Dr Claire Margerison, the Course Director of the Master of Dietetics both lecture within the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences.

They’re keen to help to point out the differences between nutritionists and dietitians.

What is a nutritionist?

According to Dr Milte, a career in nutrition can cover everything from how we grow the food all the way up to what people are eating and how to change behaviours. ‘You can think of nutritionists as “nutrition scientists” who either generate the science themselves or use the established evidence to implement programs or advocate for changes within the food system. A nutritionist works in roles where they use nutrition and food knowledge to promote healthy societies. They work mainly at the community, organisation and population level to provide information and advice about foods to promote health.’

Many different types of organisations, both corporate and not-for-profit, employ nutritionists. ‘You can also work in nutrition related organisations or the food industry providing advice around formulation of healthy products, food analysis or the application of food regulations and safety standards,’ she adds.

Dr Milte says the priorities for some nutritionists have shifted with our changing environment. ‘Another growing area for nutritionists is food sustainability. This means looking at how to ensure a healthy food supply that is distributed equitably across our population (and the world). The focus is reducing waste, impacting global warming and supporting the health of our farming systems and environment.’

What is a dietitian?

The clearest way to understand the difference between dietitians and nutritionists is to think of dietetics as a specialisation on top of your nutrition studies. Dietitians have the added qualifications to work one-on-one with patients in a clinical context.

Dr Milte says, ‘Dietitians can work in any of the areas that nutritionists work but, additionally, they can provide nutrition advice for treatment of a broad range of diseases and health conditions. They can work clinically with individuals who have conditions such as diabetes, food allergies, gastrointestinal disorders and they provide nutritional advice to help them manage their conditions.’

'Dietitians can work in any of the areas that nutritionists work but, additionally, they can provide nutrition advice for treatment of a broad range of diseases and health conditions.'

Dr Catherine Milte,
School of Exercise & Nutrition Science, Deakin University

‘One of the main differences in terms of training for dietitians is individual counselling,’ says Dr Margerison. ‘In the Master of Dietetics at Deakin there’s 20 weeks of full time placements in hospitals, food service and community nutrition.’ This gives dietitians the expertise to work in hospitals and in private practice, if desired. Sports dietetics is another popular field, with most major sporting clubs hiring dietitians.

Dr Margerison points out that because Dietitians require further study, you don’t need to lock in to a career straight away. ‘With the way the courses are structured at Deakin you can do your undergraduate degree in nutrition and get to the end of that and then decide if that’s enough for you or if you do want to go on and do the Masters of Dietetics.’

Evidence as a foundation

With the differences in training, it’s clear that nutritionists work primarily at the population level in broader community settings such as schools and organisations. And dietitians can work one-on-one with clients.

But to add a layer of confusion, some nutritionists may advertise that they work in private practice with clients. Dr Milte explains: ‘The terms “nutritionist” and “dietitian” are not protected, so essentially anyone can call themselves by these names. This includes those who have done a short course via a private provider or a course that extends to complementary medicine practices. The latter receive different training, using different evidence and add a range of other therapies in their practice.’

Dr Margerison agrees. ‘It’s not to say that any of the other people out there calling themselves a nutritionist or dietitian would necessarily give bad advice – not at all – it’s just a risk. There may be some out there who are not properly qualified.’

Both Dr Milte and Dr Margerison recognise that nutritionists who are registered with the Nutrition Society of Australia and dietitians who are accredited by the Dietitians Association of Australia have training and expertise that sets them apart.

Choosing an evidence-based course for your studies in nutrition is a sound starting point if you want to support individuals and communities to improve their health. Relying on science, nutritionists and dietitians work together to a happier and healthier society – which benefits us all.

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Dr Catherine Milte
Dr Catherine Milte

Course Director for Postgraduate Human Nutrition, School of Exercise and Nutrition Science, Deakin University

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Dr Claire Margerison
Dr Claire Margerison

Course Director for Master of Dietetics, School of Exercise and Nutrition Science, Deakin University

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