Dietitians vs. Nutritionists

As a Registered Holistic Nutritionist (RHN), I’m increasingly being asked what the difference is between RHN’s and other Nutrition professionals like Registered Dietitians (RDs). I, like many, have searched the Internet high and low with no detailed answer. The overall consensus seems to be that RD’s are legally registered while RHN’s are not. But is there more to the story?

I have been fortunate enough to gain insight into both worlds, having completed my Bachelor of Science in Nutrition, as well as my RHN diploma. Many people are interested to hear my answer to the above question once they find out I’ve walked both paths.

I am happy to share my opinion on the matter, but first – some facts!

(*To clarify, I have the same university education as an RD, I just chose not to pursue the RD route further after graduation (i.e. do the dietetic internship) and instead I chose to seek out additional education towards becoming an RHN.)

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The first thing to understand is that there are several definitions of the term “Nutritionist.”

  1. Because the term “Nutritionist” is not legally regulated in Canada, literally anyone can call themselves a Nutritionist. This means your neighbour, local garbage man, or even your doctor could all be “Nutritionists.” I think this is the main reason why people are wary of any titles involving “Nutritionist,” and rightfully so. However, there ARE legitimate Nutritionists, which leads me to #2:
  2. Some Nutritionists, like myself, have studied a Holistic Nutrition program at a federally regulated school, like the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition (CSNN).These graduates earn a professional title such as a Registered Holistic Nutritionist (RHNs), and have studied a wide variety of core courses related to nutrition and health.
  3. The third use of the “Nutritionist” title is by Registered Dietitians. Some provinces use the term “Nutritionist” synonymously with “Dietitian” (see here for more info).

If you are searching for a Holistic Nutritionist, it is best to find out exactly what designates them as a “Nutritionist.” Just as you would go to a dentist for teeth problems, you want to seek out someone who is legitimately qualified in the Nutrition field.

Now let’s compare the finer details of Nutritionists:

  Registered Dietitians Registered Holistic Nutritionists Other Nutritionists
Education 4-year Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition and Dietetics

One year un-paid hands-on internship

Qualifying exam with Dietitians of Canada

1-2 year Holistic Nutrition program

Qualifying exam

Unknown
Courses studied at school Basic Chemistry, Biology, Biochemistry, Anatomy & Physiology, Basic Nutrition, Nutrition Research, Nutrition Through the Lifecycle, Nutrition & Disease, Organic Chemistry, Psychology, Statistics, Microbiology, Community Nutrition, Nutrition Education, Communication, Sensory Evaluation of Food, Advanced Human Nutrition, Nutritional Assessment Basic Chemistry, Biology, Biochemistry, Anatomy & Physiology, Fundamentals of Nutrition, Nutrition Research, Pediatric Nutrition, Sports Nutrition, Nutrition & Aging, Pathology, Fundamentals of Business, Symptomatology, Preventive Nutrition, Body Mind & Spirit, Eco-Nutrition, Allergies, Alternative Diets No mandatory courses
Legal Regulation Dietitians of Canada None None
Legal Title Registered Dietitian (*some variations between provinces) Registered Holistic Nutritionist (RHN) (*also some variations between provinces) None
Professional Associations It is mandatory to be part of your provincial College of Dietitians in order to legally practice in Canada. Most RDs are also members of Dietitians of Canada. There are several associations for Holistic Nutrition professionals, but none are mandatory for practice. Associations include:

Canadian School of Natural Nutrition Alumni Association (CSNNAA)

Canadian Association of Holistic Nutrition Practitioner (CAHNP)

Canadian Association of Natural Nutrition Practitioners (CANNP)

None
Employment Work primarily in government institutions like hospitals, long-term care homes, public health units, etc. Work primarily in alternative health centres or as private nutritional consultants Unknown

As you can see, two of the three titles require a professional education with similar courses, as well as a professional exam. So where do the differences lie?

The three main differences I explain to people are:

  1. Dietitians are regulated by the government, whereas RHN’s are self-regulated, which means they’re often not covered under insurance. However, I have heard that insurance companies are increasingly offering coverage for nutritionists now.
  2. Because they are regulated by the government, the basis of a dietitian’s practice is to closely follow Canada’s Food Guide, which is based on science and suggests the same nutritional needs for everyone. As Registered Holistic Nutritionists, we believe that everyone has different needs (biochemical individuality) and what works for one person doesn’t always work for everyone.
  3. I also like to mention the “wholistic” approach Holistic Nutritionists take and how we consider ALL factors that may affect a person’s health, whereas dietitians mostly just seem to look at food intake and weight (from my experience anyways).

A Dietitian’s Perspective

I know a wonderful dietitian and recently had a great discussion with her regarding the entire Nutrition profession. When asked how she would describe her job to someone, she said “Dietitians work to provide optimal nutrition to people according to their medical conditions.”

I then asked her about Canada’s Food Guide and how closely she follows it in her practice, if it all. She said she views it as a great guideline, but tries to be realistic and says even she can’t eat all of the recommended servings for some foods. She says she finds the realism of it difficult, especially in today’s “generation of restrictions.” We also discussed the evolution of Canada’s Food Guide and how heavily it is influenced by the dairy, grain and meat farmers. We agreed it is a big stretch from the original Food Rules, which were created during WWII to help ration food. She said this is also partially why she views Canada’s Food Guide as just a guideline. Overall, she said she finds it more realistic to just focus on variety in the diet and junk food in moderation.

She did mention that the “dairy-free” phenomenon worries her due to lack of calcium in the diet. She also noted recognition problems with the term “Nutritionist,” even for Dietitians who use the title synonymously with RD.

Now here’s what the Dietitians of Canada website has to say about other Nutrition professionals:

Dietitians of Canada Website

My Thoughts

“To be sure you are accessing the most qualified nutrition professional, look for the initials RD or PDt (DtP in French) after the health professional’s name”

“Seeing a provincially regulated professional is one way you can be assured the advice and information you are receiving is sound.”

Even though RHN’s aren’t regulated, I think these letters still hold a lot of credibility. Just as you may read reviews on a tropical resorts you’re considering for vacation, it’s in your best interest to educate yourself on different Nutrition professionals and seek out those you feel are most credible.
“A dietitian would not just hand you a diet or a list of foods not to eat and send you on your way, or promote or sell you unnecessary food or supplements.” As an RHN I can assure you that I don’t promote anything that’s unnecessary.
“The advice and information they provide is tailored to you and your needs.” Ditto for RHN’s!
“Just like all regulated health professionals, dietitians are required to practice ethically and to complete annual professional development to make sure their skills are up to date. They adhere to Principles of Professional Practice.” Just because RHN’s aren’t legally regulated does NOT mean they don’t practice ethically. We have our own scope of practice and code of ethics that we follow in all aspects of our work.
“Titles like Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Certified Nutritional Practitioner, RONP, RNCP, ROHP, RHN, CNP are used by those who have completed training programs that vary in length and rigor and are privately owned. Such training programs are not delivered or accredited by a recognized institution.”

“You cannot become a dietitian or a recognized health professional in food or nutrition through an online program or a one or two-year program.”

This is not all true – CSNN is a federally recognized institution! (Directly from the CSNN website: “CSNN is the most established Canadian holistic school, offering classroom instruction at provincially-regulated locations coast-to-coast.”)

My Perspective

I can truthfully say that between the two programs, I found CSNN much more enjoyable and informative. I believe this is because:

  • The university degree is a Bachelor of Science and thus quite heavy in the sciences – something that I felt was impractical in the grand scheme of clinical Nutrition practice.
  • CSNN seemed to focus more on prevention, which aligned much more with my beliefs compared to university, which seemed to focus more on disease management
    • Directly from CSNN website: “…CSNN Graduates are educators in wellness and prevention
    • Directly from Dietitians of Canada website: “Dietitians translate complex scientific evidence into practical solutions to promote health and help clients manage special health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, food allergies and obesity.”

That doesn’t mean I think the university degree was useless or a waste of time. I learned many things there, just as I did at CSNN! I also strongly believe there is value in the Dietitian profession because I know that without the dietetic internship, I am not comfortable enough to deal with some of the things RD’s do, like tube feeds, failure to thrive clients, and nutrition for cancer care.

Which education path is better?

It completely depends on what you’re looking for and how much you want to invest in yourself. A BSc in Nutrition will take you four years of school, plus a one year un-paid internship, which can take up to three years to get due to competition. A diploma in Holistic Nutrition will take you 1-2 years, depending on whether you attend full-time or part-time.

If you’re searching for more of the science behind food, then I’d choose the BSc. If you’re looking for more of an overall nutrition/wellness education, then I’d stick to Holistic Nutrition. If you’re looking for more recognition in the legal world, I would go the RD route. Those two letters after your name offer people a lot of reassurance when they’re looking for a health professional. Most people are also going to go the cheapest route, which would be an RD given their services are usually covered under insurance.

How do you decide whether to see a Registered Dietitian or a Registered Holistic Nutritionist?

Again, it depends on what you’re looking for overall and what aspects of their services you value most. If you’re looking for some nutritional guidance but feel like it may be financially overwhelming, you might consider seeing a Dietitian, as their services are generally covered under insurance. If you’re looking for help with food allergies, alternative diets or a more comprehensive approach to health, a Holistic Nutritionist may be the way to go. If you are looking for help with weight loss, either professional would be a good choice.

My Answer

Now that I’ve shared the factual differences, my personal, insider opinion on the difference between a Registered Holistic Nutritionist (RHN) and a Registered Dietitian (RD) is as follows: 

Registered Dietitians seem to spend most of their time helping people survive with their current medical conditions.

From what I have experienced, Registered Holistic Nutritionists spend most of their time trying to help people thrive by preventing disease.

Overall

I’m not saying one professional is better educated than the other. I’m not saying one professional is more important than the other. I’m simply just sharing the facts, as well as the opinion of someone who has walked the walk.

In good health,

Mary-Margaret LeClair, BScNutr, RHN, CNE, NM

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If you’re looking for another perspective on the topic, Shawna Barker also wrote a great post on her experience with both programs. Other related articles include this one from Trish, and Cassie’s experience as a former Dietitian. 

6 thoughts

  1. Fantastic summary! Most comprehensive answer I’ve ever seen to a nagging question that many of us have probably wondered about but have never asked or taken the time to look into, thanks!

  2. Nicely done breakdown! Dietitians do provide individualized plans as well, based on a person’s anthropomentrics, biochemistry, clinical signs and symptoms, and dietary/lifestyle/medical history. There are public health dietitians, clinical dietitians, food service managers and private nutritional consultants. It’s so true that the general public get very confused about the term “nutritionist”. And it’s so nice that you made the clarifications readily available for the public!!

  3. Loved this post. Boy can I relate. I took my daughter to an RD years ago to help her manage her weight problem. We went equipped with a 2 week food log. Out comes Canada’s Food Guide. Your daughter’s not getting enough of this and that. So her diet was changed to accommodate the recommendations of Canada’s Food Guide. Did it work. NO! The increased dairy for example caused her stomach issues. To make a long story short, we (the family) now follow the recommendations of an RHN. I am please to report that under her guidance we are thriving and Canada’s Food Guide has been tossed aside.

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