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Dietitian and nutritionist: What’s the difference?

5 minute read
Family at home cooking with the help of a dietitian

If you’ve ever had health problems, weight issues or a food intolerance, you may have considered seeing a dietitian or nutritionist to help you make changes to your diet. But what’s the difference between the two, and why is their advice likely to be better than what you can find online?

Nutritionist vs dietitian

The easiest way to wrap your head around the difference between a dietitian vs a nutritionist is to think of dietetics as a specialisation on top of nutrition studies, much like a heart surgeon is a specialisation on top of a medical degree.

To complete a qualification in this area, a dietitian needs to have tertiary qualifications from an accredited university program and must have completed a course of study that makes them eligible for membership of Dietitians Australia as an Accredited Practising Dietitian. To be an Accredited Practising Dietitian, dietitians must also commit to continuous professional development, ensuring they continue to give up-to-date and safe advice.

University of Newcastle Laureate Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics, Clare Collins, warns that the term ‘nutritionist’ isn’t regulated.

When you consult a nutritionist or dietitian, she advises making sure they are a registered member of at least one of the following: Dietitians Australia and/or The Nutrition Society of Australia (NSA). Both have searchable databases to check if the health professional you’re thinking about seeing is registered.

What is a dietitian and what do they do?

According to Dietitians Australia, a nutritionist is a tertiary-qualified nutrition professional with the expertise to provide a range of evidence-based nutrition services related to nutrition, public health nutrition, policy and research as well as community health.

Dietitians have qualifications that mean they can work in any of the areas nutritionists work, but they are also permitted to provide medical nutrition therapy for a broad range of diseases and health problems to help people manage their conditions – whether it’s diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, food allergies or cancer.

Dietitians can work with you to personalise specific diets or eating plans to meet your health and wellbeing needs. They can offer support and motivation when you need it, and provide additional resources to help you implement the recommendations as meal ideas.

While dietitians can’t prescribe drugs or take blood tests, they can offer advice about tracking your diet-related health that you can take to your GP to discuss.

Related: Healthy ways to reach your daily energy requirements

Main reasons you’d see a dietitian

Dietitians help with a range of health goals, including people who are:

  • wanting to feel more energetic
  • needing help to prevent or recover from illness
  • wanting to lose or gain weight
  • seeking help with disordered eating, or
  • needing advice on how to manage a food allergy.

Related: How improving your gut health can help support your immune system

Those who’ll benefit from seeing an Accredited Practising Dietitian also include:

1. People with a food intolerance or health condition

“If there’s something you can’t eat due to an intolerance, food allergy or health condition, you’ll definitely benefit from seeing an Accredited Practising Dietitian to make sure you’re on the right track in terms of eating patterns that meet your nutrient needs,” Professor Clare says.

Along with any medical condition requiring you to change the way you eat, seeing a dietitian is wise if you’ve been diagnosed with an inflammatory bowel condition, celiac disease, diabetes or heart disease.

“These are some of the common nutrition-related conditions that people don’t tend to think about but would really benefit from getting a personalised nutrition plan to manage,” Professor Clare says.

2. People who are pregnant or planning to fall pregnant

Pregnancy and pre-pregnancy are key life stages where nutrient needs can change the most dramatically.

Despite the overwhelming number of well-meaning apps and websites dedicated to pregnancy and nutrition, few offer evidence-based advice, Professor Clare warns.

An Accredited Practising Dietitian can cut through the reams of advice available online and consider your individual needs to provide personalised advice and support you can trust.

3. Older adults

Older adults can also benefit from seeing a dietitian, but they don’t usually do so until they are admitted to hospital or an aged care facility, Professor Clare says.

“As you age, your total energy expenditure goes down in line with lower muscle mass; you don’t move as much so you don’t need as much food,” she explains. “Your appetite changes too, but the challenge is that your nutrient requirements stay the same or increase.”

Your protein requirements become higher in old age, for example, so you need to be proactive about preserving your muscles.

Related: Why strength training is essential after 50

Dietitians can work with you to personalise specific diets or eating plans to meet your health and wellbeing needs

What is a nutritionist and what do they do?

A nutritionist is a person who provides advice on matters relating to food. Their work may involve designing, implementing and evaluating a range of population health interventions to improve health and wellbeing through food and nutrition.

Nutritionists may also work in a variety of other occupations including research, as nutrition consultants, in public health or as food technologists. However, they are not qualified to provide medical nutrition therapy advice; this is the role of dietitians.

If you’re interested in consulting a nutritionist (remembering that dietitians are also qualified nutritionists), it’s a good idea to check that they’re registered with the NSA.

The NSA only registers nutritionists who are appropriately qualified. Their members can include nutrition scientists, food scientists, nutritionists in public health or private practice, as well as some dietitians and complementary therapists in private practice.

Full registration requires a degree or postgraduate degree in nutrition as well as three years’ experience working as a nutritionist. Nutritionists who are also Accredited Practising Dietitians are registered with Medicare.

Interested in seeing a dietitian or nutritionist?

At nib, we offer a number of Extras cover options to help with the costs that come with keeping you and your family healthy, with some options paying benefits for visits to dietitians and nutritionists. If you’re not an nib member but are interested in exploring our full list of Extras covers, the inclusions and costs, head to our get a quote page.

If you’re a current nib member, log into Online Services to check whether you’re covered for dietary advice. It’s also important to make sure the health professional you’ll be seeing is a recognised provider. To check, simply ask your provider if you can claim for their services as an nib member.

For free nutrition advice, No Money No Time, supported by nib foundation, gives you the recipes, tools and credible nutrition information that makes healthy eating achievable for those who are time-poor and on a tight budget. No Money No Time’s healthy eating quiz, developed by The University of Newcastle, gives you instant results and guidance on how to improve your eating habits.

At nib, we also offer The COACH Program© to eligible nib members at no additional cost1 who’ve been diagnosed with or are at risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes or respiratory disease. This program is great for those who struggle to keep motivated and need some extra support.

The program can help you to better understand the National Health guidelines for your health condition, more about your medications, blood tests, and nutrition and lifestyle factors. Visit our Health Management Programs page for more information.

1Available to eligible nib members who’ve held Hospital Cover for 12 months and served their relevant waiting periods. Additional criteria vary according to each program.

About Professor Clare Collins

Clare Collins is a Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics in the School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Health and Medicine at the University of Newcastle. Passionate about creating healthy communities, Clare is focused on developing innovative new technologies to evaluate nutrition and dietary intake including The Healthy Eating Quiz and the Australian Eating Survey.

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