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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 stomach problems, weight issues or a food intolerance, there’s a good chance you sought some kind of advice – maybe from a dietitian or nutritionist.

However, trying to work out the difference between the two can be tricky. They both aim to make Aussies healthier by recommending dietary improvements, right?

Well, it’s time for us to scratch beneath the surface and learn the real differences between these two professions, as well as who you should see for what.

Dietitian or nutritionist

Essentially dietitians are more regulated than nutritionists and have completed a specialist study.

The easiest way to wrap your head around the two professions 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. Dietetics is the study of how food and nutrition are used to manage or treat health problems. To complete a qualification in this area, dietitians need to have supervised experience working with clients.

So, it’s the dietetics qualification that separates a dietitian from a nutritionist. A dietitian specialises in dietetics, while a nutritionist has completed a tertiary qualification in a field like nutrition, food science or public health. Nutritionists work across a diverse range of roles, from public and population health initiatives, health promotion, and researching areas like how certain foods are grown and what people are eating.

“Dietitians can work in any of the areas that nutritionists work but, additionally, they can provide nutrition advice for the treatment of a broad range of diseases and health conditions,” Dr Catherine Milte told Deakin University’s magazine, This.

“They can work clinically with individuals who have conditions such as diabetes, food allergies and gastrointestinal disorders and they provide nutritional advice to help them manage their conditions,” she said.

When to see a dietitian

Before making an appointment, you should check that your dietitian is accredited or that they have a Bachelor or Masters in Dietetics. By current law, anyone can call themselves a dietitian or a nutritionist – there is no protection of the terms like there is for ‘doctor’.

Qualification as a dietitian takes a minimum of four years’ university study in nutrition and dietetics. Accredited Practising Dietitians (APDs) are recognised by the Dietitians’ Association of Australia. To be an APD, Dietitians must commit to continuous professional development, ensuring they continue to give up-to-date and safe advice.

APDs are recognised by Medicare. This means you may be eligible for a Medicare, Department of Veterans’ Affairs or private health fund rebate on services. At nib, we offer a number of Extras policies that pay benefits for visits to both dietitians and nutritionists. Log into Online Services to check whether you’re covered.

There are many reasons you might seek the help of a dietitian; you might want more energy, to prevent or recover from illness, to lose or gain weight, to ensure you have a healthy baby or to cope with an allergy or intolerance.

A doctor may prescribe medication, whereas a dietitian might prescribe a certain diet or eating plan. They can give you meal ideas, provide recipes and offer support and motivation when you need it. They may also be able to help with exercise prescription, counselling and diabetes management.

While dietitians can’t prescribe drugs or take blood tests, they can make suggestions that you can take to your GP for further investigation.

When to see a nutritionist

If you’re interested in booking a consult with a nutritionist, it’s a good idea to check that they’re registered with the NSA (Nutritional Society of Australia). The NSA only register nutritionists who are appropriately qualified and 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. Names of nutritionists registered with the NSA are listed on their website.

Nutritionists who are also Accredited Practising Dietitians are registered with Medicare.

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 advice or medical nutrition therapy; this is the role of dieticians.

If you are concerned about your diet, we’ve put together a range of nutritionist-approved recipes that are as tasty as they are healthy. Check out our recipes tab for more.

At nib, we 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.

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