Outside of people within the profession, it is confusing what the differences are between nutritionists, dietitians, and sports dietitians.
Halfway through my university degree that was focused on providing the qualification of becoming an accredited practising dietitian, we got asked what the difference was from one of our lecturers. Nobody in the room had a good answer. That is pretty crazy when you think about it.
And regarding becoming a sports dietitian, I did not know the full requirements until near graduation, or maybe even slightly after.
If I did not know these aspects while being immersed in the community to a certain degree, I can imagine that a lot of people are unaware of the specific differences.
As somebody who has undertaken the full journey to become an accredited sports dietitian, I will break down the differences below.
Nutritionist is probably the most confusing to understand. For starters, all dietitians can be nutritionists, but not all nutritionists can be dietitians.
The reason why nutritionist is the most confusing is that there are a variety of ways to become a nutritionist. There are no technical requirements that you must meet to call yourself a nutritionist. I have seen online courses as short as 3-weeks promoted as a means to achieve a qualification as an internationally recognised nutritionist.
Even though there is no specific regulation, it appears as though the majority of nutritionists do go through more formal training and register with a governing body of some kind.
In Australia, the most common route I see is that nutritionists are often registered with The Nutrition Society of Australia. This registration requires a minimum three-year tertiary degree, or relevant years of work experience, to gain the title Registered Nutritionist (RNutr).
It also requires meeting certain standards to maintain that title.
Nutritionists typically have completed study pertaining to community and public health, food science and food policy. They are qualified to offer broad health advice, however, are not qualified to deliver individualised medical nutrition therapy.
The scope of practice for a nutritionist is smaller than what it is for a dietitian or sports dietitian, although there are still many ways they can make a positive impact.
Another option in this space is to become qualified through Sports Nutrition Australia. Even with a three-year degree and qualification as a registered nutritionist, it is still considered outside of the scope of practice to provide specific meal plans to people looking to improve their body composition or performance. Insurance will not fully cover that aspect for a variety of reasons.
Completing a course through Sports Nutrition Australia qualifies you and allows you to get insurance coverage for this aspect. It is possible to complete their certificate in applied sports nutrition without prior qualifications and it is a relatively comprehensive short course that takes anywhere from 12-17 weeks.
There is also a requirement for further study after that. This involves either completing their graduate diploma in sports nutrition and/or completing a relevant tertiary degree.
Becoming a dietitian requires a minimum of three-year University education in Nutrition & Dietetics. The quickest route is a four-year undergraduate degree. There is also an option to do a relevant three-year undergraduate degree that is followed up by a Masters degree in Nutrition and Dietetics. Either of these options must be through a course that has been accredited by Dietitians Australia.
Dietitians are qualified to provide individualised, evidence-based nutrition advice and practice medical nutrition therapy. This means that any time a medical condition is involved, a dietitian is likely the best-qualified person to see.
Each year dietitians must meet at least a minimum standard of professional development, while also meeting other requirements to remain accredited.
Accredited Practising Dietitians (APDs) are also the only credential for nutrition recognised by Medicare, The Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) and many private health insurers. This means that patients/clients may be eligible for rebates or potentially even completely covered for their service.
To be eligible for this, dietitians MUST be registered with Dietitians Australia., while it is voluntary for nutritionists to register with The Nutrition Society of Australia.
When it comes to medical nutrition therapy and a broad scope of practice within the nutrition space, dietitians are typically considered the gold standard.
A sports dietitian is a dietitian who has gone on to complete further study and meet further requirements to become a sports dietitian.
All accredited sports dietitians are also accredited practising dietitians. Not all dietitians are sports dietitians.
Typically, sports dietitians require a minimum of one year of experience in the field post-graduation before they are allowed to undertake the sports nutrition course through Sports Dietitians Australia. There are exceptions to this under specific circumstances such as when dietitian has been a high-level athlete themselves, or they have completed an extensive amount of work experience in the sports nutrition space.
The sports nutrition course is an intensive 4-day course, but it also requires quite a lot of pre-education prior to attending the course. The completion of this course results in somebody becoming a provisional sports dietitian.
Then there are continuing professional development points that need to be acquired before somebody can transition to becoming a fully accredited sports dietitian. There is also a minimum 2-year requirement of experience post-graduation that is required to achieve this.
Therefore, becoming an accredited sports dietitian requires a minimum of 6 years if everything has completed as quickly as possible, but it often takes longer. To maintain this status, there are rigorous continuing professional development requirements that also involve an auditing process.
Sports dietitians are the experts when it comes to on optimising body composition and improving athletic performance through food.
What is the Difference Between a Nutritionist, Dietitian and Sports Dietitian?
In terms of scope of practice, the order goes sports dietitian -> dietitian -> nutritionist.
Sports dietitians are also dietitians and nutritionists. Dietitians are also nutritionists. But nutritionists do not have to be also dietitians and sports dietitians.
While the scope of practice may be larger, this does not always mean that the sports dietitians and dietitians are always better practitioners than nutritionists. In every profession, there are great practitioners and some who are poorer practitioners.
The requirements to be met often increase the minimum quality of practitioners, but at the top level, there are great dietitians, sports dietitians, and nutritionists.
If you are choosing to work with somebody, it is worthwhile not only considering what their scope of practice should be but also what the quality of the practitioner is.