Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Who is Your Nutritionist?


Adelle Davis

Adelle Davis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Sally J. Feltner, PhD, RDN

What is a Nutritionist? 

The term “nutritionist” is loosely defined. The story of Adelle Davis best describes how far this definition can lead to the spread of diet advice gone wrong. Ms. Davis, although formally trained in the 1930’s in biochemistry became America’s most celebrated “nutritionist.” By 1969, the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health, the panel on deception and misinformation agreed that she was probably the most damaging single source of false nutrition information in the country. She believed that most diseases could be prevented by regular drinking of her “Pep-up” concoction of egg yolks, oil, lecithin, calcium salts, magnesium oxide, yogurt, granular kelp, milk, yeast, wheat germ and soy flour, blended without cooking. She wrote in her book Let’s Get Well, “I have yet to know of a single adult to develop cancer who has habitually consumed a quart of milk a day”. She died of cancer (multiple myeloma) in 1974. So much for the milk theory!

While we have come far since those days of nutrition quackery, we still have some individuals that use bogus credentials to feign expertise. Many use invalid methods of health or nutritional assessment practices. Many of these people sell supplements that promise the hope of health in a bottle. Nutrition advice is all over the Internet. These days, almost anyone is a self-prescribed “nutritionist” of some kind and it is difficult to sort out the advice that is based on science.

It starts with Accreditation

Every school, college, or university claims some kind of accreditation. In other words, does the nutrition education of the “nutritionist” come from a legitimate college or university? There are diploma mills defined as organizations that sell degrees that declare recipients to be “nutritionists” or “nutritional consultants” without requiring them to meet educational standards established by reputable institutions. Many have created their own accrediting agency and proclaim themselves as “accredited.” Some of these institutions offer credentials or a certificate if you attend only a weekend seminar.

To find out whether a college or university is accredited, you may consult the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a private agency that accredits the accreditation agencies (

What are the credentials of Nutrition Professionals?

RD or RDN – Registered Dietitian or Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist

  • They need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree; many have graduate degrees.
  • Complete an internship (typically 6-12 months in length)
  • Pass a national exam
  • Complete continuing education hours as required by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR)

DTR – Dietetic technicians, registered

  • Minimum of an associate’s degree
  • Complete an approved program, including 450 hours of supervised practice experience
  • Pass a national exam
  • Complete continuing education hours, as required by CDR

CDM, CFPP – Certified dietary manager, certified food production professional

  • Take the certification exam of the Certifying Board for Dietary Managers, part of the Association of Food and Nutrition Professionals (AFNP
  • Completion of continuing education hours, as required by AFNP

CNSD, CNSC – Certified nutrition support dietitian, certified nutrition support clinician

  • RD/RDN status with CDR
  • Minimum 2 years experience in specialized nutrition support
  • Pass a national exam every 5 years

CDE – Certified diabetes educator

  • RD/RDN status
  • 2 years of RD working experience
  • Minimum of 1000 hours of diabetes self-management experience
  • Minimum of 15 clock hours of continuing education activities
  • Pass a national exam


  • Board certified specialist in gerontology nutrition, sports dietetics, pediatric nutrition, renal nutrition, oncology nutrition, respectively
  • RD/RDN status
  • Documentation of 2000 hours in area of concentration with the past 5 years.
  • Pass a national exam

LD, LN, CD – Licensed dietitian, licensed nutritionist, certified dietitian, respectively

State issued.  Currently 46 states have licensing laws that regulate the use of the term dietitian or nutritionist, practicing medical nutrition therapy or nutrition counseling to the public. Some of these laws, however, are weak and fail to enforce the laws they have enacted. The states differ in who is eligible for licensing – e.g. those with an an RD/RDN status, have  an advanced degree or a legitimate medical or nutrition credential such as a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) from a fully accredited institution can apply.

What Can Happen when Licensing Laws Are Ignored?

Some people often purchase degrees or credentials for their pets for fun to prove the illegitimacy of a selected diploma mill, licensing board or “academic” institution for a court case or other reasons.

Here are some of the “graduates”:

Henrietta Goldacre, a cat, became a “certified nutritionist” (CN) when her owner, Dr. Ben Goldacre, a British psychiatrist, was researching the credentials of Gillian McKeith, a British nutrition author. He found that she had obtained her doctorate from an unaccredited American school and had purchased a nutrition diploma from the American Association of Nutritional Consultants. In testing this practice, he obtained the same degrees for his cat, Henrietta.

Sassafrass Herbert, a female poodle and Charlie Herbert, a cat, both owned by a New York physician, Dr. Victor Herbert. He purchased their diploma certifications as a CN for $ 50.00 from the same organization as Goldacre; each received stunning documents suitable for framing

Other animals have received degrees from diploma mills in other fields of study:

  • A bird with an aviation doctorate
  • A bulldog named Maxwell Sniffingwell who was awarded a medical degree (MD)
  • Several cats with high school diplomas
  • A cat as a Certified Real Estate Agent
  • A dog with a MBA
  • A dog with a BS in Criminal Justice

Bottom Line

Use Your Common Sense! If you cannot get adequate information about the educational background of your nutritionist, stay clear of them. They may only be interested in your money and may give you false information or flood you with supplements you really do not need. And worse case scenario – “Adelle Davis” may still be living out there somewhere. It is also important to realize the many “nutritionists” have good intentions even though they have been scammed by the various organizations that promised them legitimacy. All buyers beware!








2 thoughts on “Who is Your Nutritionist?

  1. I fully understand your viewpoint and thank you for your Comment. The intent of the article was to discuss the education and certification issues in this wide-open field. When I visit any health care practitioner, I look for those who are certified or licensed. I do not know your background, but in my state, licensing includes individuals with advanced degrees in nutrition or a related field without RD status. I am certainly not an elitist, but do respect the RD profession especially when it involves Medical Nutrition Therapy. These specialties certainly require more education and requirements than those who do not possess these credentials. The consumer certainly has the right to know what qualifications a nutritionist has when seeking nutritional care or advice.


  2. I knew this was going to be one of those articles. The field of Nutrition is so elisitest especially amongst dietitians, people who decide to have a career change and do a postgraduate course are criticised because it is not a bachelor. Let me tell you something, just because you’re accredited it doesn’t make you a good Dietician or Nutritionist from my own personal experience every Dietician I’ve seen are so robotic. They are all about science but most of them lack empathy. This is yet again another load of rubbish.


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