How To Tell If Your "Nutritionist" Is Legit

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Whether your lunch of choice is sushi from around the corner or a Sad Desk Salad, it seems like everyone's got an opinion about it. But just because your cousin has started calling herself a "nutritionist" and "wellness consultant" on Instagram doesn't mean you should let her diss your perfectly prepped grain bowl. Here's how to find someone whose advice you can really trust.
The type of nutrition experts you're most likely to work with are registered dietitians (RDs) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDNs). The requirements for RDs are exactly the same for RDNs, and it's up to the individual practitioner to decide which one best fits their personal practice (for the sake of simplicity, we'll just say "RDN" going forward). So what's the difference between a nutritionist and an RDN? As the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explains, all RDNs are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are RDNs.
To become an RDN, you have to receive a bachelor's degree (not necessarily in nutrition, but that helps), complete a six-to-12-month-long supervised training program (likely in a healthcare setting), and pass a national exam. You're also required to keep up with continuing education requirements to keep your registration valid.
In some states, you can also become a "certified nutritionist" or "licensed nutritionist" (CDN, CN, or LDN depending on the state) by meeting the requirements set by each individual state, which are different from those needed for the RDN designation. In New York state, for instance, you have to complete an accredited program in dietetics and nutrition as well as 800 hours of work experience. You can become a CN without first becoming an RDN. But, because most medical settings (e.g. hospitals or clinics) require the RDN title, it's not uncommon for providers to end up with both designations if their state offers the CN option.
When it comes to learning about food to prevent or help treat an illness (such as diabetes), an RDN should be your first stop. The national exam ensures that they're able to practice anywhere in the U.S., and the continuing education requirement keeps them up to date with current ideas about nutrition. But those with a CN degree are also qualified to assess your nutritional needs, help you plan your meals for the activities you're doing, and give nutritional counseling. The biggest difference between the two is the hands-on training requirement: RDNs need to log at least 1200 hours, but CNs usually require much less time.
However, in states without specific nutritionist-related laws, there's virtually no regulation of who can and can't call themselves a "nutritionist," "nutrition expert," "nutrition coach," and the like. People who simply call themselves "nutritionists" often rely on alternative medicine and practices that aren't necessarily backed by accepted science. So, although they might give you delicious recipe ideas, you don't want to rely on them for health advice. Even certified personal trainers shouldn't be giving you meal plans or in-depth nutrition advice unless they also have an RDN or CN certification.
That means your cousin's internet research (consisting entirely of Goop and texting someone she met at a gym one time) may be all the training she needs to add "nutrition expert" to her Twitter bio. But that doesn't mean you should take her advice on "superfoods."

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