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What Is a Nutritionist?

Not sure what a nutritionist is? Here’s everything you need to know about nutritionists and dietitians and how they can help you reach your health goals.
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Get matched with a nutritionist who can help you achieve your health and wellness objectives.

Whether you're new to personal nutrition or a seasoned pro, working with a nutritionist can benefit anyone. Maybe you've tried countless diets and still struggle to shed extra weight. Perhaps you want to learn tips for managing diabetes or how to naturally lower your blood pressure to reduce the risk of hypertension. You might seek guidance from a dietitian nutritionist for hundreds of reasons.

Identifying your health goals and concerns is one of the most critical steps in deciding whether a nutritionist is right for you. If you're looking for nutrition advice related to a specific medical condition, nutrition specialists can address everything from prenatal and postpartum health to older adult nutrition, sports nutrition, weight loss, chronic illnesses like Crohn's or diabetes, kidney disease, and gastrointestinal nutrition. To help you better understand what a nutritionist is and how they work with you, here's everything you need to know about registered dietitian nutritionists.

Understanding the role of a personal nutritionist

A nutritionist is your guide to long-term health. You meet with them for one-on-one counseling to discuss your health goals, challenges, medical history, and lifestyle. They may suggest eating plans, provide education on healthy foods, and offer constructive tips to help you work towards a healthy lifestyle. Most importantly, the right nutritionist will lead you to optimal health outcomes. Their nutrition advice does not offer a "quick fix" to weight issues or medical conditions. Instead, your nutritionist will teach you how to care for your body through good eating habits and positive lifestyle choices.

Depending on what brought you to personal nutrition counseling, you may consider seeking a nutrition expert who can help address specific health problems. Weight loss may be one of the most commonly known concerns. However, the management of chronic diseases, severe food allergies, pregnancy, and heart disease can all benefit from the help of a registered dietitian nutritionist. 

Different levels of certification exist within the world of nutrition science. Some nutritionists may be certified clinical nutritionists (CCNs). These professionals hold at least a Bachelor of Science degree and are certified by the Clinical Nutrition Certification Board. A certified clinical nutritionist is particularly helpful for providing education and recommendations on healthy eating. 

The highest level of nutrition certification is a Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). So, what makes RDs/RDNs different from nutritionists? If the professional is an RD/RDN, they are a nutritionist. However, not all nutritionists are RDs/RDNs. Nutrition professionals with the RD/RDN certification have a more thorough background in nutrition education and have attained clinical experience before receiving their license. Technically, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, but to be an RD or an RDN, you must complete specific education and professional requirements.

If you're seeking help addressing a particular health concern or hoping to receive a medical diagnosis, you must visit an RD/RDN. These are the only nutritionists who can provide qualified diagnoses and medical nutrition therapy. If you work with a network like Top Nutrition Coaching, you're guaranteed a custom-matched RD/RDN to provide you with the highest level of expertise. 

What does a nutritionist do?

A nutritionist provides education and advice on improving your health through eating habits. They may recommend grocery shopping and meal planning tips to help you incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet. You may receive counseling on managing your blood sugar levels through a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods. Depending on your lifestyle, they may suggest incorporating regular physical activity into your daily schedule or developing better sleep habits. 

Many nutritionists also specialize in specific health concerns. Diabetes nutritionists help people with diabetes learn about weight management and healthy eating tools to manage this chronic illness. Prenatal nutritionists work with expectant mothers to ensure they receive adequate nutrients for a healthy pregnancy. Perhaps the most commonly thought of in the dieting world are weight loss nutritionists, who provide safe guidance to help people stay healthy while losing weight. 

What is the difference between a nutritionist vs. a dietitian?

A nutritionist is a broad term with multiple levels of professionals. As previously mentioned, no formal credential is needed to call yourself a nutritionist. Nutrition professionals provide advice, education, and counseling on adjusting your diet to meet a goal. They advise on more general topics such as eating to feel healthier and more energized or how to lose weight. When searching for a "nutritionist near me," check their credentials and experience level since the level of expertise can vary broadly. This helps ensure that you receive the most accurate, data-driven counseling. 

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics licenses registered dietitians and registered dietitian nutritionists. These professionals hold a bachelor's degree, complete rigorous coursework through an accredited dietetics program and at least 1,200 hours of clinical internship experience, and pass a national test administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. 

Because of the high level of expertise required to become an RD/RDN, these are the only nutrition experts who can give valid medical diagnoses and treatments. For example, if you want help managing diabetes or suspect that you have the symptoms of gastrointestinal disease, it's best to seek an RD/RDN who can diagnose you. 

Interested in learning more? Find out whether you're a good candidate to work with a registered dietitian nutritionist.

What are the credentials of a nutritionist?

A registered dietitian nutritionist has the highest level of credentials in nutrition science. Here are the qualifications they're required to attain. 

Bachelor's or graduate degree in nutrition or a related field

All registered dietitians must hold a four-year bachelor's degree in a nutrition program from an accredited school. Additionally, RDs must complete coursework through an accredited Didactic Program in Dietetics or Coordinated Program Dietetics. These classes must be approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics to count towards the RD certification requirements.

Students participating in a graduate program approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics are also eligible for their registered dietitian certification. If an RD/RDN candidate has a degree from an accredited graduate nutrition program, they only need 1,000 hours of supervised clinical supervision and a passing score on the CDR exam to earn their qualification. 

At least 1,200 hours of clinical experience

Your registered dietitian must complete at least 1,200 hours of supervised experience. This requirement prepares nutritionists with the hands-on expertise and coaching needed to address a range of on-the-job scenarios. All internships must be approved through an Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics internship program to ensure the experience is sufficiently relevant and challenging. 

Pass the national exam

An RD/RDN must pass the nationally-administered Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam. After passing the exam, RDs and RDNs must participate in continuing education requirements to keep their credentials current and valid.

Obtain a state license, if applicable

Depending on the state you live in, registered dietitians must have a state-specific license in addition to a national credential. Check out the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' state-specific licensure policies to determine whether your state requires an additional certification for an RD/RDN.

What are the benefits of working with a nutritionist?

Working with a nutritionist is helpful when embarking on your health journey. Here are some of the key benefits you can expect from nutrition counseling. 

  • Get a personalized eating and health plan that sets you up for long-lasting success: Your nutritionist will consider your medical history, food allergies, stress levels, sleep routine, and more to develop a nutrition plan that is completely customized to you and sets the groundwork for long-term success.
  • Build an approachable diet plan tailored to your body and lifestyle: Nutrition counseling involves regular one-on-one sessions to identify which factors in your diet and lifestyle could be adjusted to promote optimal wellness.
  • Receive evidence-based advice on health and nutrition: A registered dietitian is up-to-date on the most recent research, so you'll always have access to an expert in the nutrition field. Your nutritionist can clear up any misconceptions and explain how to find reliable sources for health information. 
  • Learn how to manage chronic health challenges: Common chronic health conditions like arthritis, asthma, Crohn's disease, celiac disease, high blood pressure, and heart disease can be managed more efficiently with weight control and a balanced, nutrient-rich diet.
  • Support throughout every stage of your health journey: A personal nutritionist provides support to ensure you develop a safe and healthy relationship with food as you work through different health challenges. Additionally, they give scientifically-grounded advice, feedback, and insights that your family and friends could not provide if you decided to navigate nutrition alone.

Am I a good candidate to work with a nutritionist?

You're not alone if you're uncertain whether a nutritionist could help you meet your health goals. Here are some situations where personal nutrition counseling could help people achieve their health goals. 

Build an approachable diet plan

If you've tried one diet plan after another without success, a weight loss dietitian may be the answer. An estimated 95% of highly restrictive or fad diet plans fail between one to five years after ending them. Cutting out major food groups or going on a very low-calorie regime is not sustainable over a long period. More importantly, these fad diets can cause severe damage to your health and metabolism. 

By contrast, a weight loss dietitian offers a healthy and sustainable approach to weight loss. Using information about your health goals and concerns, medical history, lifestyle, stress levels, and sleep patterns, a registered dietitian will work with you to create a nutrition program that is effective in the short and long term. They will equip you with the education and tools to form healthy eating and lifestyle habits for years to come. 

Get tools for managing diabetes

Whether you've been managing diabetes for years or recently have received a diagnosis, navigating type I or II diabetes can be challenging. One of the most crucial aspects of diabetes management is staying at a healthy weight. Reducing your body weight by as little as 2% can improve your blood sugar, and losing 5% can decrease your risk of heart disease. 

A diabetes nutritionist can step in to help you meet your weight reduction goals and ensure that your eating and exercise plan will help you feel your best. They can also address your unique health challenges, concerns, and motivations in one-on-one counseling sessions to help you manage diabetes and follow a healthier lifestyle. 

Reduce your risk of heart disease

A healthy diet is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of heart disease, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Experts recommend eating a diet based on whole foods (around the 2,000 calories per day range) and getting 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity. A heart health nutritionist understands how to put these recommendations into practice. Through regular nutrition counseling, they can help you find easy and approachable ways to make adjustments to your lifestyle. You may learn meal planning tips or how anti-inflammatory foods can help prevent symptoms of hypertension or other cardiac problems. 

Seeking help from a cardiac nutritionist also ensures that your health is monitored by a professional. If you have any unexpected weight irregularities or new health concerns arise, your nutritionist will be well-versed in your heart health history to help you manage the problem. 

Support a healthy pregnancy

Your body's nutritional needs change drastically during pregnancy. Experts estimate that pregnant women's dietary needs will increase by 300 to 500 additional calories per day. A prenatal nutritionist can help track your diet and ensure you get the appropriate caloric intake.

Whether you're struggling with nausea and acid reflux in the early stages of pregnancy or getting enough nutrients for breastfeeding during the postpartum period, nutrition counseling gives you personalized attention for all your pregnancy-related health concerns. Your dietitian can recommend minerals and vitamin supplements to proactively care for your body and prevent the onset of more severe health concerns during pregnancy. 

Still not sure? Read more about what a nutritionist does here. 

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About the author

Nicolette Star Maggiolo, RD, LDN
I'm a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist with education from Boston University and clinical training from both Brigham & Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. I specialize in helping the military and non-military individuals embrace nutrition as a partner in both their mental and physical health.

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