What is a dietitian?

I am often asked what is a dietitian, and how is a dietitian different to a nutritionist? Nutritionist and dietitian are non-registered professions in Australia, so anyone can call himself or herself a nutritionist or dietitian whether they have qualifications or not. In Australia some health practitioner groups are registered. Unlike nutritionists, qualified dietitians are regulated through an accreditation program. So how do you choose?

Dietitians provide nutrition and lifestyle advice

Accredited Practising Dietitian

An Accredited Practicing Dietitian (APD) completes at least four to five years of university training, is a member of the Dietitians Association of Australia and maintains up to date standards of practice. APDs base their advice on scientific evidence, which they translate into practical guidance suited to your individual needs. They consider:

  • Your overall health and lifestyle goals
  • Your attitudes to food and eating
  • Any barriers you may have to introducing new food choices
  • Your nutrition and food knowledge and skills e.g. reading food labels and cooking
  • Interactions between your current medications and supplements
  • Advice provided by your other health practitioners

APDs work with individuals to promote health and prevent and manage diseases such as diabetes. Some specialise in certain areas e.g. sports nutrition or cancer. If their specialisation has been accredited these dietitians are recognised as Advanced APDs. Most dietitians are generalists, which means they cover all nutrition related conditions. This is similar to General Practitioners (GPs) who are qualified in general medicine.

APDs also work in public health programs that aim to improve the health of communities through the food supply, for example in school canteens or in remote indigenous communities. Another role that APDs have is in assisting menu development for hospitals, nursing homes and other organisations. Industry APDs help design processed food products such as breakfast cereals and sports drinks. APDs also have teaching and research roles within universities.


A nutritionist may or may not have qualifications or training.

The quality of advice from a non-trained nutritionist is unreliable and could be harmful.

If you are seeking advice from a nutritionist I suggest that you ask them about their philosophy and training background.

Other Western trained registered and self-regulated health practitioners may call themselves a nutritionist. Whilst you can check their primary qualification e.g. doctor or exercise physiologist it can be difficult to assess the level of their nutrition training and knowledge. Most health practitioners receive basic nutrition education as part of their training, but it doesn’t cover dietary assessment, nutrition therapy for preventing and managing disease, changing eating habits, practical nutrition advice and nutrient interactions with medication and supplements. The APD credential provides the best reassurance. Some health practitioners undertake further nutrition studies, which I will discuss next week.

Complementary and traditionally trained health practitioners have nutrition as a core component of their philosophy. These groups of practitioners includes naturopaths, homeopaths, Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners. There is recognised training for naturopaths, homeopaths and TCM practitioners in Australia and TCM practitioners are registered. The approach of these different practices vary, but they have similarities to western nutrition advice, as outlined in my comparison of western and eastern nutrition. An integrative approach allows you to have the benefits of both science and complementary or traditional practices.

The answers to these frequent, seemingly simple questions are not as straightforward as you might have thought. I believe that it is important for you understand the difference between sources of nutrition advice. Next week I will introduce integrative nutrition and medicine to expand upon this discussion. Please send through any questions and comments on this topic. I look forward to hearing from you.


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