Beyond Google research, when it comes to achieving health goals there are a variety of professionals to help you sort through the seemingly endless amounts of information. Between registered dietitians, nutritionists, health coaches and social media influencers posting on Instagram about their favorite matcha drink, it can be overwhelming to know what they do and who your best resource is. Here’s a breakdown:
Registered dietitians are food and nutrition experts. While all registered dietitians are nutritionists (and may go by the term RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist), not all nutritionists are registered dietitians.
Registered dietitians hold a four-year diploma from an accredited university or college (taking courses such as anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, nutrition science, medical nutrition therapy); complete a 1,200-hour internship and pass a comprehensive national board exam to earn the title registered dietitian. Beyond that, RDs must complete ongoing continuing education every five years and adhere to a code of ethics.
RDs work in a variety of settings — from hospitals to universities, with professional sports team and in gyms and private practice. In addition, some RDs specialize in specific health areas as well, like pediatrics, diabetes, renal and cardiac rehab, and addiction and eating disorders.
The 411: If you have a chronic health condition (diabetes, hypertension, etc.), food allergies, intolerances, or you’re looking for sport-specific advice, you’ll want to make an appointment with a registered dietitian. As the nutrition experts, RDs translate what’s happening in the body into personalized food and lifestyle plans for you.
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Nutritionist is a broader term than registered dietitian and is not a protected title — meaning anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. Because no formal education or training is required, nutritionists should not diagnose or treat diseases. Some nutritionists may have studied nutrition (but chose not to pursue an RD certification), while others may not have a nutrition background whatsoever.
Nutritionists can take courses to become certified nutrition specialists (CNS), a protected title. CNS are bound by specific coursework, an internship and a board examination.
The 411: If you’re looking for general nutrition knowledge, you may consider a nutritionist to help improve health habits. Nutritionists work in public health, fitness, research or education settings. While some nutritionists have no background or credentials in nutrition, others may provide guidance toward health goals that don’t require medical supervision, treatment or diagnosis.
Health and wellness coaches are focused on achieving overall health and behavioral changes. The Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) — one of the largest organizations for health coaching — defines a health coach as a “wellness authority and supportive mentor who works with clients through food and lifestyle changes.” According to the IIN, health coaches take a holistic approach to wellness, behavior and lifestyle changes, but typically do not have the clinical training RDs have received.
The 411: Looking for general motivation, stress-management or someone to help with behavior change? Consider a health coach. Keep in mind that, like nutritionists, they’re not qualified to diagnose or treat disease, so save your clinical questions for a credentialed provider.
SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCERS
What about your friend who takes pretty pictures on Instagram and rambles on about the benefits of matcha powder? She may share anecdotal evidence that worked for her, but that’s not necessarily tailored to your needs.
The 411: Unless they have a more formal degree, social influencers don’t have any credentials other than an impressive social following; however, they do provide entertainment and inspiration, both of which are important for staying motivated and on track. Just keep in mind: If you’re looking for personal health advice, you should seek out a credentialed provider who understands your personal needs and health background.
Remember: There’s no blanket approach to nutrition, and much of it is individualized to you. While nutrition enthusiasts claim to be experts, nutrition is a specialized science. Knowing the credentials of who you want to work with — and how their personality might sync with yours — is crucial, so be informed and don’t be afraid to ask questions.