Nutritionist, Nutrition Coach, Dietitian: What’s the Difference?

Nutrition coach

Many people use these terms interchangeably as they  are undoubtedly related, however they each maintain distinctive qualities. Understanding these differences is important when you are looking to entrust your time, energy, and money into an individual to best help you with your personal goals.

Dietitian

A dietitian is commonly referred to as a Registered Dietitian. 

101: To become an RD, dietitians must: complete a baccalaureate degree from an ACEND-approved program; complete an ACEND-approved supervised clinical program; successfully pass the CDR registration examination; complete continuing professional education credits needed to maintain registration. You’ll find many registered dietitians running their own practice or in a clinical setting such as a hospital where they are accessible via various health insurance plans. 

Pros: Highly trained in medical nutrition therapy to provide clinical care for conditions such as diabetes, pre-diabetes, metabolic diseases, or outpatient care which require the highest level of training and care plan. Think of an RD an incredible resource for “treatment” for various diseases using laser-focused nutrition advise.

Cons: Even though RD’s can help individuals with general weight loss goals, highly clinically trained dietitians commonly are not highly trained in mentoring or coaching which is a critical component to not just losing weight, but healing your relationship with food and body. Coaching supports a person at every level in becoming who they want to be and builds awareness, empowers, builds choices, and leads to change. Coaching is about helping clients learn rather than just teaching them facts. This explains why interaction with a dietitian often times is linear and clinical: Nutrition education, meal plans, food tracking, eat this don’t eat that – which the clients I work with have been down that path 1000 times without success. 

The traditional practitioner patient setup also limits patients to only a few sessions with a dietitian due to health insurance coverage and includes no in-between communication, support, coaching, or accountability which are critical to helping patients achieve big goals. 

My Take: We need dietitians! But in my world and expertise in binge eating, emotional eating, food obsessions, you need to “de-fact” on the nutrition front (I’m sure you already know a ton about nutrition) and focus on what you’re NOT being taught: how your life, emotions, and personal world influence why and how you do food. Prior to finding me, many of my clients have worked with talented dietitians, even in outpatient care, but it didn’t go deep enough to get to their root issues. I even had RDs on my team before but they just didn’t know how to coach and deeply connect with clients. In my opinion, you could be the smartest RD in the world, but if you cannot connect, build trust, LEAD, or empower clients, long-term success will be unattainable because in the end your MINDSET is the biggest player in your outcomes.

Nutritionist

101: A “nutritionist” is probably the loosest term of them all. A “nutritionist” is a person who advises on matters of food and nutrition impact on health. Unlike dietitians, the nutritionist profession is much less protected under the law. In fact, nutritionists that do not intend to use the titles of “dietitian” or “registered dietitian” are often free from government regulation. Some states however require nutritionists to obtain an occupational license from a Board of Nutrition, while other states allow individuals to practice as nutritionists without any education requirements, training or work experience. 

Dietitians can call themselves nutritionists (they usually stick with “dietitian” or “RD” title), but nutritionists, unless properly licensed, cannot call themselves dietitians. 

Pros: Has passion and experience in one or multiple fields of nutrition.

Cons: May have passion and experience in the field of nutrition, but may or may not have professional educational background in nutrition which can become a liability for them and a risky situation you for you and your well-being. They also may have general nutrition knowledge but lack professional skills and skill sets of coaching. 

My Take: I’ve known some kick-ass “nutritionists”. They love what they do, they just want to help people and have an impact, however they are usually not equipped to help with big problems due to lack of professional education and skillset. Then I’ve known others that really spend a lot of time educating themselves on nutrition but not enough in the realm of coaching and behavioral change which is the secret sauce to their success! So you want to do your due diligence surrounding their extra certifications, otherwise, their approach and belief systems on what works for an individual will be limited to their own personal experiences which is completely irresponsible, lacks merit, and limits your success rate. 

Nutrition Coach

101: A nutrition coach is a nutritionist or dietitian PLUS coach, counselor, mentor and motivator. They emphasize nutrition AND coaching. They are professionals from diverse backgrounds and education who work with individuals and groups in a client-centered process to facilitate and empower clients to achieve self-determined goals related to health and wellness. Nutrition coaches apply clearly defined knowledge and skills so clients mobilize internal strengths and external resources for sustainable change, thus taking responsibility for their own health.

Nutrition coaches also recognize that being healthy involves more than just proper diet. As such, a nutrition coach also focuses on non-dietary aspects of a person’s life, in order to improve clients’ overall, holistic wellbeing such as their relationship with food, body, people, mindset, and more, helping them create a balanced, healthy lifestyle while juggling the distractions of real life.

There are no state or national laws preventing nutrition coaching unless individuals trickle into more dietetic care and medical nutrition therapy to which they would be held to state laws and licensing requirements. Since a nutrition coach includes professionals from diverse backgrounds, not all nutrition and/or health coaches are licensed RD’s, yet in the same token, not all RD’s are coaches that provide well-rounded solutions for individuals.

Pros: Uses a holistic, dietary and non-dietary approaches to food and body struggles, along with coaching, support, and education to help with successful application.

Cons: May not be licensed to clinically provide medical nutrition therapy or acute nutritional care if needed and would need to be referred out when applicable.  

My Take: Obviously I favor nutrition coaching as I have been doing it since 2007! When you combine nutrition + coaching you have the best chance of positive, long-term success. To what depth of coaching a nutrition coach can do however will vary. What nutrition problems they solve will also vary. Look for credentials and experience. What problems are YOU out to solve? Does this individual or program have indisputable proof they can help you? 

Compared to most nutrition coaches, I go way deeper than just weight loss and a little occasional overeating. I solve BIG problems. And I can do this because of all of my professional education and experience. I am successful not only because of “what I know” intellectually, but also because I am also able to connect and coach people on a level that most cannot. Most nutrition coaches or dietitians can do what I do, this is my speciality.  I take great pride in the impact I have in people’s lives and feel so blessed to have the opportunity to do so.  At the same token I cannot do what some dietitians can do because they Medical Nutrition Therapy is their specialty, which I do not offer nor do I want to personally or professionally pursue. That is not my passion. We both have our own superpowers and awesomeness, but in the end it comes down to your goals and who is the best person to help you reach those goals. 

In Conclusion:

It’s important you know what you need to reach your goals, whether it is a more well-rounded approach, in depth individualize care for your health and medical needs, or both, so you can find the perfect fit for you! Do your due diligence, ask questions, request to speak to your practitioner of interest prior to committing to any program or services if possible. Do their approaches align with your beliefs? Do you connect with this individual? Do they provide enough support for what you need? It’s your health and life, make sure your gut says “YES!”