When an aging adult needs help with dietary management, which is better: a dietitian or a nutritionist? Learn the differences among Registered Dietitians, Certified Nutrition Specialists, and nutritionists and how each can elevate senior well-being.

An overhead image of a dietitian working at her desk. She has a laptop computer, a meal plan scheduler, and healthy foods on her desk.

Many older adults can improve their health by eating right but don’t know where to start when it comes to making healthier choices at mealtime. Registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) and certified nutrition specialists (CNSs) are trained individuals who can support seniors on the path to vital health. Both roles provide education and reinforcement to expedite wellness through the foods you eat. But which one is best suited for your particular needs? Learn the differences between these professionals and how they can help you or your senior loved one.

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)

A registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) may refer to themself as a dietitian. This professional has a bachelor’s degree in their field (a master’s degree will be required starting in 2024.) They must also work a 1200-hour internship under another licensed dietitian and pass a national standardized test. 

Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) vs. Nutritionist

A certified nutrition specialist (CNS) may refer to themself as a CNS or sometimes a nutritionist for short. This professional receives certification from an oversight board. They must have a master’s or doctoral degree in nutrition or a related field, have 1000 supervised hours of hands-on experience, and numerous case study reports. Practice restrictions vary from state to state.

Though a CNS may call themself a nutritionist for short, know that a person can also become a non-CNS nutritionist through various schooling that is not board certified or standardized. Schooling can vary from online coursework to an actual college degree in nutrition. Their knowledge can still be helpful, but if you are looking for a professional with board-certified licensure, look for the CNS title on their website or business card and ask the professional more about their credentials.

What RDNs, CNSs, and nutritionists do

Medical settings, like hospitals, overwhelmingly hire RDNs. RDNs and CNSs work in senior living facilities and other places like schools and on sports teams.

You’ll find RDNs and CNSs working hand in hand with doctors and other practitioners, discussing a patient’s detailed medical history. RDNs are well-versed in the diseases of aging based on their robust education. This means they assist in preventing, diagnosing, and treating medical issues through nutrition. 

Nutritionists are restricted to making wellness plans based on common meal planning and lifestyle choices. They do not have access to the detailed health information in a patient’s chart and are not in a position to make medical judgments.  

Insurance companies are more likely to reimburse RDN services but not a nutritionist’s efforts.

Using food as medicine

Using food to nourish the body and optimize health is not new. It is well known that many chronic health conditions of modern humans can stem from poor food and lifestyle choices. 

Proper eating may also aid in avoiding infectious diseases. That’s where a nutritional practitioner comes in. Enlisting the approaches of an RDN or a CNS can boost senior health and wellness. 

Getting the nutritional advice you need

Just remember, an RDN is a medical specialist, and a CNS is a generalist by training and law — a food coach if you will. So, which one is right for you? Here are some useful scenarios.

For example, if you want to lose unwanted weight, either professional can help. 

Here are the differences: 

A CNS can only make general suggestions of proven weight loss strategies for seniors, like calorie counting, weighing food portions, and making good choices at the grocery store.

An RDN can include the above and move beyond by integrating your medical chart with a specific diet to make a profiled action plan. They approach your therapeutic weight loss mapping based on current diseases you may have, like kidney or heart disease.

Prediabetic? A CNS can be a good choice to tackle basic meal planning. They have the training to understand the basics of the diabetes-nutrition connection.

If you are already contending with diabetes management, an RDN may be a good choice. They look at your daily blood sugar logs, body weight history, and co-morbidities that affect the medical complexities of blood sugar management. They may even keep you out of the hospital, saving money and preventing complications related to a health condition. 

What to look for in a nutrition expert

When vetting an RDN or a CNS, ask

  • your primary care provider if a nutrition consultation suits you. They may have a referral.
  • other seniors in your community if they work with an RDN or CNS to find a practitioner already known by a trusted individual.
  • about the practitioner’s credentialing institute and what was required to attain them.
  • if they have solid experience in assisting older adults specifically. 
  • about any additional certifications like diabetic education or gerontology certification. 
  • if they take Medicare or other insurance. 
  • which doctors they currently work with. 

When it’s time to look at the foods you eat, visiting a trained nutritional consultant is a solid step toward wellness. Whether an RDN or a CNS, learning from these savvy practitioners can lead to lasting changes and living your best life.