Nutrition Coach vs Nutritionist vs Health Coach vs RDN: Finding the Right Nutrition Expert for You

As many of us know, the buddy system shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s not that we don’t know what to do (though sometimes we don’t), it’s that actually doing it 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 dietician and more — how are you supposed to know which type of nutrition expert to choose? What, exactly, is the difference between a nutrition coach and a health coach, or a dietician and a nutritionist? We broke it down for you.

When Should You See a Nutrition Expert?

There’s SO much information out there about nutrition, and most of us don’t have the time to read through it all, let alone separate the real, science-based facts from the fluffy fads or even dangerous trends. On top of that, even if you could digest (sorry, couldn’t resist a bad pun!) all the nutrition news and knowledge floating around, it takes an extra level of skill and understanding to know which pieces apply to you — after all, everyone’s nutritional needs are different, and they change throughout the course of our lives.
That said, there are a number of specific instances in which seeing a nutrition expert would be particularly beneficial, or even necessary. Instances like:
  • If you’re trying — and failing — to lose weight. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you know how hard it is. A nutrition expert will not only help you create a meal plan and feel confident choosing what to eat, but also provide you with the necessary support and accountability to follow through on your dietary changes. 
  • If you’re trying to identify the source of a health issue. Maybe you’re tired all the time, keep getting low-grade headaches, have been experiencing digestive trouble, or some other mysterious ailment that’s interfering with your ability to feel healthy and live your best life. In these cases, food is often the source of the issue. A nutrition expert can help you implement strategies (such as an elimination diet or other protocol) to identify the root cause, whether it’s a sensitivity to something like dairy, soy, or nightshades; Celiac disease; inflammation; or something else.
  • If you’re dealing with a health problem that could benefit from dietary adjustments. Let’s be real: basically every health problem could benefit from dietary adjustments! But sometimes diet is a more crucial component of healing. Things like high cholesterol, diabetes, thyroid conditions like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other conditions often cannot be healed without dietary changes. A nutrition expert can help guide you in adjusting what you eat to reduce or completely get rid of your symptoms, or maybe even reverse the condition entirely.
  • If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or at another life stage where nutrition matters a lot. Our nutritional needs change throughout the course of our lives. Sometimes, your new needs are crystal clear, but other times, they’re more murky. If you want clarity on what to eat during a time in your life when nutrition is extra important (like when you’re growing a human inside you, or training for a marathon), or after you’ve gone through a transition that impacts what you need to eat, a nutrition expert can help. 
  • If you’re dealing with an eating disorder. Treating an eating disorder often requires a number of different professionals, including a medical doctor and a psychologist or mental health counselor. But a nutrition expert is a crucial part of the treatment team. They can help you create a meal plan that not only includes what to eat, but also provides you with strategies for ensuring that you follow through.

Understanding the Terminology: Nutrition Coach vs Nutritionist vs Health Coach vs Dietician

So if you’ve decided that you want to work with a nutrition expert, your next step is to figure out what type of nutrition expert you need. If you search online, you’ll likely find a bunch of different options — though terminology abounds, the most common titles you’ll find are nutrition coach, nutritionist, health coach, and dietician/registered dietician.
All of these seemingly interchangeable names can make the already difficult task of making dietary changes even more confusing. It becomes still 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. Here’s a rundown on each type:
Nutritionist or Nutrition Coach
Neither of these terms have one set definition. 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.” “Nutrition coach” has a particularly loose definition, without any associated certification, while “nutritionist” can often be associated with particular certifications or trainings, but they vary depending on where you live (you can see state-by-state requirements here). Note that because registered dieticians can also be called registered dietician nutritionists, some RDN’s refer to themselves as nutritionists — which makes the whole thing even more confusing! 
Because there’s no set definition for this type of nutrition expert, the price range is also highly variable, but you can probably expect to pay between $50 and $150 for a one-hour session (insurance will generally not cover a nutrition coach or nutritionist, unless it is actually an RDN).
Despite the fact that there’s no formal training or certification required to call yourself a nutrition coach or nutritionist, many of these professionals still have a lot of expertise (after all, they chose to pursue a career in nutrition!) and can be a big help. 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?
A nutritionist or nutrition coach is the right choice for someone who needs support and guidance in losing weight, or if you’re at a place in your life where your nutritional needs have changed (ie, pregnant, breastfeeding, training for an athletic event, changing from an active job to a sedentary job, etc).
Health Coach
Health coaches must complete certain training and certification programs in order to earn the title. There are a number of 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.
In 2017, a new national standard for health coaches was established, the National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC). The credentials exam is regulated by the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) and the International Consortium for Health & Wellness Coaching (ICHWC). ICHWC’s list of approved health coach training programs includes:
Unlike RDN’s (Registered Dietician Nutritionists), 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).
A health coach is the right choice for someone who is looking to make holistic changes to their life or address or identify the source of a chronic issue. Health coaches will often work with you on all areas of your health, not just nutrition — including things like sleep, exercise, and stress reduction — which can be a great resource for those who want to make big changes. They often have connections to or experience working with functional medicine doctors, which also makes them a good choice if you’re trying to identify a food sensitivity or other issue, as they’re usually familiar with elimination diets and autoimmune or chronic health conditions.
Registered Dietician Nutritionist (RDN)
This type of nutrition expert meets the most consistent and strict standards. A registered dietician nutritionist is a food and nutrition expert who has met specific academic and professional requirements. Note that an RDN is exactly the same as an RD — all registered dieticians are nutritionists as well, though not all nutritionists are registered dieticians (sort of like how all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares — yay middle school math!).
The professional and academic requirements for becoming a registered dietician nutritionist include:
  • Earning a bachelor’s degree approved by the accrediting agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)
  • Completing an accredited, supervised internship
  • Passing a national exam by the credentialing agency for the AND
  • Gaining state licensure, if applicable
  • Completing continuing professional ed requirements
An hour-long session with an RDN will usually cost between $100 and $200, and is sometimes covered by insurance, usually depending on whether or not you have a diagnosis that requires nutritional counseling.
A registered dietician is the right choice for someone who wants a more conventional medical, science-based approach to their diet. For things like heart issues (high cholesterol or high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, etc) or eating disorders (which can lead to serious health issues or death if left untreated), a registered dietician is often necessary, at least at first. 

A Bit of Controversy in the RDN World

Recently, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the governing body that creates the registered dietician’s curriculum) has come under fire for its ties to the food industry. Coca-Cola gave them $1.7 million before ending its sponsorship in 2015, and junk food brands regularly sponsor booths at their annual conference. Yikes! Because of this, some believe that the nutritional information taught to RDN’s is outdated and influenced by the food industry.
In response to this backlash, and to combat the disturbing influence of the food industry, a group of concerned RDN’s founded the Dieticians for Professional Integrity in 2013. Their mission is to advocate for “responsible and ethical sponsorship within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,” and their core beliefs include the notion that they should always prioritize public health over multinational food companies. As such, their mission is to push the AND to sever all problematic ties to the food industry. While this was a good step, it still reminds us to remain skeptical and do our research, no matter what credentials come after an expert’s name.

Conclusion: Should You See a Nutrition Coach, a Dietician, a Health Coach — or No One?

Whether you decide to seek a nutrition expert, and which type you hire, completely depends on your goals, your particular challenges and health issues, and the kind 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.”
Have you ever worked with a nutrition expert? What kind did you choose, and why? Let us know in the comments below!

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