Navigating the terminology in the fields of nutrition and dietetics can make anyone’s head spin. If you’re anything like I was when I decided to go back to school to pursue nutrition, you may feel overwhelmed by terms like ‘board certified’, ‘registered’ and ‘licensed’, and even more so about which path is right for you. If you’re finding the decision between nutrition and dietetics a difficult one to make, you’re not alone.
Formal education in any subject is a huge investment of time, money, and energy. The decision to become a registered dietitian, nutrition therapist, or pursue any path in between is entirely personal. As one student of Nutrition Therapy Institute puts it, “I interviewed registered dietitians, public health professionals, worked with a nutritionist from Bastyr University, and went through a 2-year application process for a graduate program in dietetics (including taking all pre-requisites). Ultimately, I listened to my intuition and decided to come to NTI. But, if I would have decided to pursue dietetics, that decision would have been great, too. Honestly, I feel like this is just the beginning of a life-long learning experience in holistic health.”
In this blog post, I hope to shine some light on the murky logistics and regulations of working in the field of nutrition. We all have our biases – and full disclosure, I am a graduate of Nutrition Therapy Institute and had a wonderful experience there – but by asking the right questions, having an open mind, and working inclusively with other practitioners, we can find the place that best suits our unique goals and desires.
When I advise students on whether they should attend a university program or the certification program at NTI I start by asking some questions. Consider these as you investigate various academic programs.
What are your professional goals?
Who is your ideal client?
In what professional setting do you see yourself working?
In what state do you plan to practice?
How much freedom do you want with your career?
In what type of environment do you learn best?
What are your personal beliefs and priorities around food and health?
One conversation I had when I was finishing my first year at NTI helped me understand how tricky the discussion can get when comparing holistic and conventional medicine practices. During the first week of my yoga teacher training program, a fellow trainee was talking in the locker room about her ongoing job search in the Boulder area. She was a registered dietitian (RD) from Atlanta, and she wasn’t having the luck she expected. Regarding one job prospect she said, “They told me they already have an onsite nutritionist who works for them. A nutritionist? What does that even mean? That’s not a thing.”
I tried to respond as delicately as I could, despite the fact that my body temperature had suddenly spiked. I shared my experience at NTI, and how I had been taught to take a truly holistic approach to health and nutrition, starting from voting with my dollars and being a conscious consumer to viewing overall health as a harmony of body-mind-spirit.
As I found myself trying to explain the difference between a Master Nutrition Therapist (MNT) and an RD, I realized how blurry the information is for the average consumer. What is the difference between a certified nutritionist and registered dietitian? What role does NTI play in all this? And perhaps most importantly, how as nutrition therapists can we learn to work with conventional practitioners, form alliances versus rifts, and work as a part of clients’ health teams to provide them with the tools and education they need to heal holistically?
Though there are many levels of nutrition training, and each has its own merit, this article focuses on just two: Dietetics versus NTI’s Nutrition Therapy programs.
Let’s begin with definitions and explanations.
A person who has studied nutrition science and has fulfilled all of the educational and examination requirements of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for recognition as a qualified nutrition specialist. RDs are regulated healthcare professionals who are licensed to assess, diagnose, and treat nutritional problems. RDs are qualified to apply nutrition therapy in all states.
A person who has studied nutrition science and uses a therapeutic approach to address the health of the whole body with specified diet and supplementation recommendations. A nutrition therapist’s role is to educate and provide resources. Nutrition therapists are able to practice based on state laws only. They cannot use their education or expertise to prescribe, diagnose, prevent, or cure any malady or disease, nor can they use that terminology when working with clients.
Graduates of NTI complete one or two programs: either the Certified Nutrition Therapy Practitioners program (CNTP) or the Master Nutrition Therapy Program (MNT). MNT graduates are able to sit for the National Association of Nutrition Practitioners (NANP) board exam if they seek to become board certified. The emphasis of the NTI curriculum “Is placed on teaching nutritional concepts in depth, while providing students with a working familiarity with a wide range of reference and resource material. Throughout the program, serious emphasis is placed on the development of each student's personal health. Our philosophy emphasizes the idea that [CNTPs] and [MNTs] cannot effectively counsel clients to change diet and lifestyle in order to achieve health goals unless they themselves have experienced a similar process.”
To become an RD, most states require licensure or certification to practice. The Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) offers national certification and testing which earns dietitians the title Registered Dietitian (RD). They must complete the following: a bachelor’s or master’s degree at a school accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education (CADE), six to 12 months of work in a CADE-accredited practice program, pass the CDR test, and maintain their certification through continuing education.
When it comes to career paths, RDs are more likely to work in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, universities, and clinics. They are qualified to diagnose and treat people with eating disorders and plan meals for specific health problems within a clinical or private practice. With their licenses, they are also qualified to work in any state.
Nutrition therapists, especially graduates from NTI, have a higher rate of owning businesses and private practices. Many MNTs work with other practitioners in holistic or alternative health clinics, focusing their efforts on educating clients about pathology and supporting them with resources like dietary recommendations, meal planning, and supplementation. MNTs may also work as consultants for health food stores and alternative pharmacies, restaurants and meal delivery services, schools, gyms and exercise facilities. MNTs are limited by state laws and can legally only practice with a certification in a certain number of states. Visit the Center for Nutrition Advocacy for more information.
Historically, the perspectives of reductionism and holism have been the delineating factors between dietitians and nutritionists. Reductionism in healthcare encourages practitioners to treat the symptoms of their patients to bring them comfort, while often failing to address the causative factor. Holism is the practice of finding and addressing the cause of the symptom as well as providing temporary relief of the symptom itself when possible. Holistic health tends not to provide a quick-fix solution, but more of a total health overhaul, with complete balance of mind, body, and spirit as the ultimate goal. While the traditional roles of dietitians and nutritionists differ, the world of nutrition is constantly changing. According to Alex McKee, founder of Nourishing Roots PNW, true health means ”Physically treating your body right with food, movement, rest, etc. but also mentally creating space for healing and emotionally finding ways to feed your soul daily.” McKee is a graduate from the Masters of Science in Nutrition - Didactic Program in Dietetics program from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She is currently completing a year-long internship at Texas State University as she pursues her goal of becoming an RD.
As an RD candidate with holistic training, McKee’s perspective is evidence that our roles as nutrition therapists and dietitians are shifting. No longer is it relevant to keep conventional and holistic practitioners so separate that we’re unwilling to work with one another. We each, with our unique backgrounds, can serve the other – and more importantly, our clients – to ultimately elevate the collective wellbeing.
As nutrition science is continuously turning over, it is our job to continue learning, researching, attending seminars and furthering our own understanding of the human body. As we say at NTI, “Movement is life.” As soon as we become stagnant, we start to decay.
Even though RDs and MNTs may disagree on some key health points, we are each lucky enough to be in a field that is on the cutting edge of new information. We each have the tools to meet our clients wherever they are in their health journey, and to improve the planet as a whole, one client at a time. We can choose how we work, how we live, and how our values of health and wellbeing can impact those around us for the better. For me, working as an MNT isn’t so much about what I do, but how I do it, and I’m proud to know that my health is in my hands.
Please visit Nourishing Roots PNW for more information on Alex Mckee’s practice. To learn more about Anneliese Pyatt, whose practice focuses on inflammation and digestive health, visit Wildflower Family Wellness.