As many of us know, the buddy system shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s not that we don’t know what to do, it’s that actually doing it that proves to be difficult — and this is especially true when it comes to what we eat.After all, food is tied up with so many emotions, habits, and social norms. What’s more, though many of us think we know what’s “healthy,” nutrition can be a lot more complex than you might think. That’s where the help of a nutrition expert can be invaluable: they not only help you determine just what to eat, but also support you in doing so. But with all the terminology out there — nutrition coach vs nutritionist vs health coach vs dietitian and more — how are you supposed to know which expert to choose? We broke it down for you.
Understanding the Terminology: Nutrition Coach vs Nutritionist vs Health Coach vs Dietitian
All of these seemingly interchangeable names can make the already difficult task of eating better even more confusing. It becomes even more muddled when you realize that some common terms don’t even have firm definitions. Luckily, there are some clear-cut distinctions that can help you understand the different nutrition experts available and who is best for you.
Nutritionist or Nutrition Coach
Neither of these terms have a defined meaning. They’re both used loosely and generally to refer to all sorts of different nutrition professionals, from health coaches to RDNs to self-trained “experts.” No formal training or certification is associated with either term.
However, that doesn’t mean that someone who calls themselves a nutritionist can’t help you. If you choose to work with a nutritionist, be sure to ask the following questions to assess their qualifications and whether they’re right for you:
Where is your degree from?
What is your degree in?
How long was your program?
How specialized is your training?
Unlike nutritionists, health coaches must complete a certification in order to earn the title. There are a couple different options for certification. For instance, healthcare professionals can become certified health coaches (CHCs) through the National Society of Health Coaches, while healthcare and fitness professionals can study with the American Council on Exercise (ACE) to become ACE Health Coaches. Health coaches go through training (the length varies) that usually covers holistic lifestyle approaches and different diets.
Unlike RDN’s, health coaches don’t diagnose, but rather assess overall well-being. Health coaches can be found through working with functional or integrative doctors or through program directories. A session usually lasts between 45 and 60 minutes and costs anywhere from $50 to $200 (health coaches generally aren’t covered by insurance).
This type of nutrition expert meets the most consistent and strict standards. A registered dietitian nurse (RDN) is a food and nutrition expert who has met specific academic and professional requirements. These include:
Earning a bachelor’s degree approved by accrediting agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)
Completing an accredited, supervised internship
Passing a national exam by the credentialing agency for AND
Gaining state licensure, if applicable
Completing continuing professional ed requirements
An hourlong session with an RDN (which, by the way, is exactly the same as an RD) will usually cost between $100 and $200, and is sometimes covered by insurance, usually depending on whether or not you have a diagnosis.
In response to this backlash, and to combat the disturbing influence of the food industry, a group of concerned RDN’s founded the Dietitians for Professional Integrity in 2013. This was a good step, but it reminds us to remain skeptical and do our research, no matter what fancy credentials come after an expert’s name.
So…Should I See a Nutritionist, a Dietitian, a Health Coach — or No One?
Whether you decide to seek a nutrition expert completely depends on your goals, your particular challenges and health issues, and the type of support you’re looking for. But in general, it’s never a bad idea to learn more about what’s going on with (and into) your body. As Holistic Health Coach and chronic disease warrior Amie Valpone says, “I think everyone can benefit from taking a look at what they’re putting into their body and getting tested for inflammatory markers in blood work. Yearly check-ups from a basic Western MD aren’t enough these days.”
At WellBe, we tend to seek out practitioners who use a holistic focus, which means that we’re most likely to use a health coach who takes into account factors like lifestyle, career, relationships, exercise, and stress, rather than diet alone. But ultimately, it’s all about who will best serve your needs and finding an individual you feel comfortable with.
And remember, you don’t have to limit yourself to just one practitioner; oftentimes, a nutrition expert will work best in conjunction with an MD or other specialist. Says Valpone, “You need a team to heal you. I learned that going through my 12 years of chronic illness.”