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Nutritionist vs. Doctor: Are they the same?

Ever wondered about the difference between a nutritionist and a doctor in the vast world of healthcare? While they are both crucial in our health and wellness journey, their responsibilities may differ strikingly.

In this article, we dive into the sea of information to answer a simple question: Is a nutritionist a doctor?

What is a nutritionist?

Nutritionists are healthcare individuals who guide people about the impact of food on health and wellness and provide diet plans to their patients to remain healthy and combat major chronic diseases.

Nutritionists do not only create healthy diets but also look into their clients’ dietary patterns, sleep cycles, stress levels, exercise routines, career paths, and physical health. After collecting all the data required, they start with nutritional counseling and end with helping patients meet their required health goals. 

To specialize in nutrition, one requires specific qualifications, certifications, licenses, and expertise depending on where they work, while in some, their degree is enough as understanding the scientific basis of nutrition is essential for nutritionists.

Among nutrition, we have registered associate nutritionists who only require an honors degree to work in the field. Then we have registered nutritionists who need additional professional experience to work with patients in their specific area. They work with patients with chronic and acute diseases and provide them with nutritional management.

Where do nutritionists work?     

Nutritionists work in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, community centers, medical offices, schools, etc.

Hospital:

In hospitals, nutritionists work alongside other healthcare professionals doctors, nurses, and physiotherapists to ensure patients meet their required dietary needs.

Nursing facilities:

Nutritionists in these settings work with patients with chronic diseases and help them with the best dietary needs for their condition.

Mental health hospitals:

In mental health hospitals, nutritionists tend to focus on patients with compromised mental health including eating disorders to help rebuild their relationship with healthy food.

Medical offices:

In medical offices and private offices, nutritionists specialize in a specific field and care for the patients.

Resorts and hotels:

Resorts and hotels often hire nutritionists to tend to travelers for their dietary needs.

Food companies:

At food companies, it’s the nutritionist’s job to overview and ensure the food products meet the nutritional requirements.

Areas of specialty: 

Nutritionists have many fields in which they can specialize. Some of them are as discussed below:

Integrative nutritionist:

Integrative nutritionists help patients understand how the food they eat contains the nutrients that impact their bodies and help them choose the right foods.

Sports nutritionist:

Sports nutritionists work with athletes to prepare them meals that help repair their energy, build muscles, and increase their focus along with fitness training.

Pediatric nutritionist:

These nutritionists work with the families of healthy and vulnerable children to fulfill their dietary needs since children have different requirements than adults.

Weight management nutritionist:

Weight loss is everyone’s favorite topic; nutritionists do not only work with weight loss but also with weight gain. The nutritionists work with their clients to help people achieve their goals by providing them with healthy and calorie-balanced meals.

Clinical nutritionists:

Clinical nutritionists provide patients with specialized meals to cater to their medical requirements.

What is a doctor?

Coming towards the second part of this article, let’s discuss doctors and their responsibilities. The doctor is a medical professional who completes the required degree and training to interact, diagnose, treat, and prevent people from diseases. Doctors also prescribe medicines, perform surgeries, carry out research, and educate patients for the best possible health outcomes for the public.

Being a doctor compels you to stay updated with discoveries and treatment options so they attend conferences, study literature, conduct research, and engage in medical education programs.

Doctors are roughly divided into three major categories:

Primary care physicians:

Physicians are doctors the patients contact first to seek medical care. They are usually responsible for examining, diagnosing, and treating common illnesses and injuries. Physicians include family doctors, pediatricians, internists, dermatologists, geriatricians, and so on.

Specialist:

Specialists are the doctors who receive specialist education and training in a specific area. Physicians often refer patients to these doctors when they need some specialized treatment.

Surgeon:

Surgeons, as the name suggests, are experts who perform surgeries and provide post-operative care to treat critical medical conditions.

Responsibilities of a doctor:

Doctors play a pivotal role in ensuring adequate health care for their patients. Some of their duties and responsibilities are:

Examination and diagnoses:

The doctor must thoroughly examine the patients and diagnose their condition by asking about their symptoms and illness history, taking physical examinations and diagnostic tests such as blood tests, X-rays, MRIs, etc.

Treatment:

The physicians come up with the personalized treatment plan for their patients based on symptoms, age, lifestyle factors, and illness history. The treatment includes prescribing medicines, lifestyle changes, and referring to medical specialists and surgeons if the illness is critical.

Follow up:

The doctors assess the patient’s follow-up to assess their recovery and examine their treatment to eliminate any complications arising.

Communication:

Doctors should be able to communicate complex medical terminologies, diagnoses, and treatment plans in easy-to-understand language to patients and their families. They address their patient’s queries to ensure they understand their condition and the treatment thoroughly.

Ethical considerations:

Doctors must keep ethical guidelines in mind and keep patient autonomy, take their consent, respect their decision, and ensure confidentiality.

Education and research:

To stay informed about new information in the medical field, doctors attend conferences and seminars, conduct research, and study literature to include evidence-based information in their treatment.

Is a nutritionist a doctor and vice versa?

A nutritionist is a health care professional who deals with food that impacts health, while a doctor is a medical professional who gets a medical degree and a license.

But a doctor is not a nutritionist and a nutritionist is not a doctor.

A doctor can advise their patient on their dietary habits; however, a nutritionist cannot diagnose, prescribe medicines, and treat a patient. Similarly, doctors have less nutrition education as per a study conducted, which concluded that they receive only 25 hours of nutrition training on average which makes them less qualified in this area than the nutritionists. Another study concluded that the nutrition education that medical students receive is focused more on nutrition education rather than working directly with patients in nutritional counseling. 

Nutrition science requires a customized meal plan to guide an individual into what foods and drinks to consume, that might not work for other people. Doctors in this regard might not have the required education, training time, and patience to give to each patient, while nutritionists and dietitians have been trained for this exact work. They pursue a 4 years nutrition honors degree and a 2 years master’s degree to be able to develop the competency to customize diet plans for their clients. Doctors have reported a lack of confidence and knowledge in this regard (1).

While a nutritionist cannot become a doctor unless they acquire a medical degree, a doctor can become a nutritionist by earning a nutrition certificate.

Courses that both doctors and nutritionists take:

Some of the courses and subjects that doctors and nutritionists both take in their schools that may help them relate to each other are:

  • Microbiology
  • Chemistry
  • Physiology
  • Anatomy
  • Biochemistry
  • Organic chemistry
  • Nutritional biochemistry
  • Basics of nutrition

Courses for nutritionists that doctors may take:

As discussed earlier, a doctor can become a nutritionist after he earns a nutrition certificate. The Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists issues certificates to Medical doctors (MO) and doctors of osteopathic medicine (DO), however, the board has criteria, which include:

  • Having a MO and DO degree
  • Having a license to practice medicine in the U.S.
  • Completion of course work of 35 credits hours in
  • Graduate nutrition science degree
  • Biochemistry courses
  • Graduate or undergraduate anatomy, physiology
  • Clinical or life sciences
  • 1000 hours of clinical nutrition practice experience
  • Finally, pass the examination for certification as a nutrition specialist.
  • After passing, you may call yourself a Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN) 

Is a nutritionist an alternative to seeing a doctor?

No, a nutritionist is not an alternative to seeing a doctor; they do not have the required degree, training, license, and experience to be called a doctor. 

All in all, doctors and nutritionists have their responsibilities assigned to them as per their education. A doctor is someone who diagnoses and treats patients with medicines, while a nutritionist helps patients choose the right and healthy food. So, the correct way is that both healthcare professionals should come together, and perform their duties efficiently for the betterment of the patients and the public.

References:

  1. https://doi.org/10.1111/nbu.12320
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