When we consider a nutritionist vs doctor, there is no question that a doctor wins on a lot of fronts. But what about diet? Interestingly, our society has sort of decided that doctors (MD’s) know everything. At least about the human body. For example, every bottle of every supplement must contain a statement suggesting you should talk to your doctor about it.1 If you did, would he be able to give you any useful guidance? Is a doctor even trained to give nutritional advice? After so much schooling and practical experience, it would be silly to suggest that physicians don’t know anything about nutrition. They certainly know something, but do they really know much more than anyone else?
Nutritionist vs Doctor ????
Despite our natural tendency to assume doctors must know everything about nutrition, most don’t. Certainly, the vast amount of chemistry, biology, physiology and other human body – related subjects they have studied alone gives them insight beyond the average bear. But the truth is, dietitians and nutritionists spend their entire degree studying nutrition while doctors spend theirs learning to diagnose, treat and prescribe. This is not an insult, just the truth.
Consider that a doctor is not a pharmacist. Neither is he a physical therapist. Nor is he a nurse. Certainly, he knows something about these professions, but by no means could he effectively perform these jobs without proper training. OF course, this is not to say that their advice is not relevant or that you should not consult your doctor regarding nutritional issues, but if a more in-depth knowledge is required, a dietician or nutritionist is usually a better bet.
What Do Doctors Actually Study in School?
Very few medical programs include nutrition. Of course, there is much implied in the course of their various studies into biology, chemistry, physiology and so forth. But rarely is an actual nutrition class part of their studies. In fact, even at Harvard Medical School, there is not one nutrition class in the world-class medical education students receive there. The word nutrition does not even exist on the entire webpage outlining the course of study! CLICK HERE to see for yourself.
Is There Research on This Or Am I Just Tooting My Nutrition Horn?
I try very hard to stick to the facts and the research does indeed bear out what I have been saying. For example, one study surveyed a bunch of doctors about some basic nutrition and its relationship to diet. Even many of the cardiologists didn’t know the right answers!2 They did not understand for instance that fat in the blood increases, generally, as a result of a low-fat diet. Perhaps you did not know that either, but you aren’t a doctor, a dietitian or a nutritionist. You would likely not be able to find a nutrition professional that did not know this. Most also failed to correctly answer other very basic questions.
Other studies have also shown that physicians’ nutrition knowledge improves when a professional in that field is present. Naturally, this implies that they didn’t already know it. Not only did their knowledge increase, but their practices also changed. Rather than just diagnose and prescribe drugs, they implemented more nutrition education with their patients. The patients become more aware of nutrition and its relationship to their health as physicians discussed it more often with their patients. Dietary recommendations became much more prevalent as well as doctors sought to help patients make better overall health choices.3
What do Dietitians Study?
Much like a physician, dieticians learn a lot about the human body, but particularly how it relates to nutrition. Both take courses in chemistry, biology, anatomy, physiology and microbiology to name a few. But unlike doctors, dietitians also take many classes on nutrition. In fact, many have the word nutrition in the actual name. CLICK HERE for an example curriculum from the University of Illinois.
Keep in mind also, that dietitians only go to school for four years. Doctors do four years of college, four years of medical school and at least two years as a resident. Yet few know much about nutrition, although one could become a dietitian and then a doctor, but not many do. Rather, they can choose any course of study as long as they meet the minimum requirements for entry into medical school.
What do Nutritionists Study?
As you might expect, the requirements of a nutritionist are different from state to state. A dietitian is always a 4-year educated individual, but a nutritionist is different. Some states allow anyone to call themselves a nutritionist, like mine. However, there are specific requirements to become a certified nutritionist. In my state, any dietitian can become a certified nutritionist. The other route is to receive a master’s degree in nutrition or a related field. In either case the certification is the same.
Nutritionist vs Doctor – Conclusion
In short, physicians usually don’t know that much about nutrition. Why we expect them to I’m not sure. Of course, some do know what they are talking about, but only because they choose to educate themselves on the subject. But if your needs are nutritional in nature, it is usually best to consult a nutrition professional. Dietitians are OK, but usually you’ll get much more with someone that has a master’s degree or higher.
- Questions and Answers on Dietary Supplements. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/information-consumers-using-dietary-supplements/questions-and-answers-dietary-supplements. Published 2019. Accessed June 15, 2019.
- Flynn M, Sciamanna C, Vigilante K. Inadequate physician knowledge of the effects of diet on blood lipids and lipoproteins. Nutr J. 2003;2:19.
- Lazarus K, Weinsier RL, Boker JR. Nutrition knowledge and practices of physicians in a family-practice residency program: the effect of an education program provided by a physician nutrition specialist. Am J Clin Nutr. 1993;58(3):319-25.