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What to Look for in a Nutritionist, According to a Registered Dietitian

Don’t fall for scams. Here’s how to choose an expert nutritionist.

You might be looking for a nutritionist or dietitian for dozens of reasons. Whether it's to get advice on weight gain, heart disease, managing diabetes, or a chronic health concern, there is no wrong reason for seeking personal nutrition counseling. 

Unlike generic diet plans or social media trends, nutritionists offer personalized medical nutrition therapy that factors your medical history and unique goals, but how do you find the right expert? 

In this guide, we'll share tips to help you choose a suitable nutritionist, ensuring a better understanding of their credentials and areas of expertise. With their knowledge, you can confidently manage your short-term and long-term health on a plan that works for your lifestyle. 

What Does a Nutritionist Do? 

Why spend money on a nutritionist if you can buy a cheaper diet plan online? The answer is simple: Personalized nutrition counseling considers everything, including your 

  • Health
  • Family history
  • Lifestyle
  • Stress levels
  • Sleep patterns
  • Personal goals or situation

Based on your needs, a nutritionist designs a program fit for your lifestyle. So many one-size-fits-all diets fail to provide the long-lasting results you may be hoping for. By contrast, personalized nutrition lays the groundwork for sustainable long-term health outcomes. 

As you and your nutritionist work together, you can tweak your plan to accommodate challenges. This highly personalized approach ensures that every client comes away with nutrition science-backed education and an approachable nutrition plan that works with their lifestyle preferences. 

Qualities to Look for in a Nutritionist or Dietitian

When choosing a nutritionist, it’s crucial that you take your time and vet each professional. Here are five considerations to guide your search for the best nutritionist or dietitian. 

Credentials and experience

Look for professionals who are certified Registered Dietitians (RDs) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs). Both certification levels are qualified to provide medical nutrition therapy. 

Be skeptical of medical advice or claims from a practitioner who is not a registered dietitian or registered dietitian nutritionist since they may lack the most up-to-date scientific and medical knowledge.

If you want to address specific health concerns, narrow your search to experts with training and experience in your area of focus. For example, look for a diabetes nutritionist who is also a certified diabetes educator in addition to their RD or RDN certification. If you are trying to manage celiac disease, look for someone with experience in gastrointestinal challenges.

Personality and professionalism

Your health is personal, so it is crucial that you feel comfortable working with your nutrition counselor. A great way to vet personality and professionalism is to schedule informational calls or sessions. These meetings allow you to talk with your prospective nutritionist, get to know their counseling style, and envision yourself working with them. 

The best nutritionists are usually personable, engaging, excellent at building rapport, empathetic, and clinically competent. 

Even if you find someone who initially seems perfect, don't be shy about meeting with other registered dietitian nutritionists until you find someone whose personality and professionalism meet your standards. 

Strong communicator and listener

A registered dietitian nutritionist is one of the best sources of guidance on science-backed nutrition information. However, this requires finding an expert whose communication style is easy to understand. 

When searching for a nutritionist, look for nutrition professionals who are easy to talk to, are attentive listeners, and can break down complex scientific information so that it's easy to understand. 

If you're wondering why listening is a crucial skill for dietitians, know that being able to listen is often tied to being a good communicator. You want your problems and experiences heard so your nutrition counselor can give the most personalized advice.

Nutrition counseling skills

While "nutritionist near me" is sure to bring up tons of suggestions, you want someone willing to think outside the box. 

Top Nutrition Coaching uses complex nutrition counseling scenarios during the hiring process to ensure that all nutrition experts can diagnose root cause issues, think creatively and resourcefully, show empathy, and personalize their advice and approach for each client. 

Looking for these interpersonal skills in a personal nutrition counselor is essential to make sure you get the most out of your counseling experience.  

Customer service

Nutrition counseling is about helping you feel healthy and confident, so prioritize a professional or company that supports these values. 

Reading reviews and testimonials is a great way to understand the customer experience. Of course, ensure the reviews are verified before diving in. As you read, look for people with similar needs or situations who have benefitted from the company's services and are grateful for their long-term results.

‍Other Professionals Who Can Help Meet Your Nutrition Goals

If you're not convinced that a registered dietitian or registered dietitian nutritionist is the right professional to help meet your goals, there are other professionals or health maintenance organizations to consult. Here are some other health professionals in the nutrition field.

Certified nutrition specialists

Although their training is extensive, certified nutrition specialists have fewer professional requirements and less rigorous academic and clinical preparation than registered dietitians. 

They must complete 1,000 hours of supervised practice (or 4,000 hours of unsupervised practice) and pass the American College of Nutrition's certification exam. They cannot provide medical nutritional therapy–prescribing supplements or "treating" chronic diseases through food is not allowed with their certification. 

However, a certified nutrition specialist may be adequate for your needs if you're looking for general advice on what to eat. 

Functional medicine practitioners

Functional medicine practitioners are similar to registered dietitian nutritionists in specific ways. Both professionals use a holistic approach to diagnose and understand health concerns, consider various environmental factors, and examine past medical history. 

If you opt for a functional medicine practitioner, look for a healthcare professional certified by the Institute for Functional Medicine with a master's degree in a health-related field.

What makes these practitioners different from registered dietitians? A registered dietitian nutritionist must have a certain level of clinical experience and academic coursework to get their license. By contrast, functional medicine practitioners have fewer degree requirements and clinical prerequisites. 

Since there is significant variation in expertise levels, it can be tricky to determine the effectiveness of functional medicine practitioners, especially if you want help managing diabetes or other chronic health conditions. 

Nutritional therapists

Nutritional therapists hold a bachelor's degree in nutrition or a related field and a Clinical Nutrition Certification Board license (if your state requires one). These practitioners can advise you on the right foods to eat for good health, help you find suitable diet options to fit your needs, and provide general support on your nutrition journey. 

However, they cannot provide medical treatment or diagnoses, making this type of expert less effective for treating chronic diseases or gastrointestinal problems.


Your doctor is an excellent resource for scientifically-backed nutrition advice, education, and medical diagnoses. Physicians are also able to recommend treatments to address specific health concerns. This is especially useful if you've been seeing your doctor for years since they are already familiar with your health status, history, and other factors affecting your body. 

However, your medical provider may not have the same in-depth knowledge of food and nutrition as a registered dietitian or nutritionist. Though they provide helpful medical advice and care, they may not be able to accommodate the week-to-week follow-up visits or meal-planning assistance that a registered dietitian can offer. 

Watch Out for These Red Flags When Considering Coaches, Dietitians, and Nutritionists

There is a lot of misinformation to sort through in the world of personal nutrition. Whether looking for advice online, on social media, or through personalized counseling, these are the biggest red flags to alert you that a nutrition resource may not be trustworthy. 

One-size-fits-all eating plans

When you walk into a nutrition counseling session, you likely want help with a very individual set of health concerns. This is why one-size-fits-all programs don't work for most people, especially if your goal is long-term health. 

If a nutritionist suggests following a strict eating plan advertised as effective for all body types, know that you aren't receiving scientifically-supported advice. 

The best nutritionists will want to know about your health history, concerns, external factors, and lifestyle before making any recommendations. Using information unique to you, they will help you build an accessible nutrition plan that makes it simple to eat healthily and increase your physical activity level. 

A diet that leaves you constantly feeling hungry

If your nutritionist or coach gives you a meal plan that always leaves you feeling hungry, this should be a warning sign. 

Though it is common for people to expect to feel hungry on a diet, this is one of the first signs that your body is not getting sufficient nutrients to function and feel its best. To build a successful eating plan, you need to feel satisfied after eating. 

If you are experiencing hunger after meals, let your nutritionist know so they can help you make adjustments. If your nutritionist doesn't allow the flexibility to provide a more filling plan, it's probably time to start looking for another counselor.

Diets that cut out entire food groups

Maybe you've heard the term "fad diet." Though these diets have largely gone out of fashion, you may still encounter lingering fad diet practices like cutting out carbs, eating only certain food groups, or eliminating all sugars. 

If a nutritionist recommends eliminating an entire food group, be wary of their diet philosophy. Cutting out food groups does not provide a sustainable approach to long-term health and can have adverse effects, with common symptoms including dehydration and weakness. 

Instead, look for a nutritionist who incorporates as many food groups as possible into their eating plans. 

Words like "bad" and "unhealthy" to demonize food groups

Since fad diets came about in the 1980s, mainstream culture has used words like "bad" and "unhealthy" to make eating certain foods seem like moral choices. 

If you are working with a nutritionist who describes certain foods or eating patterns as "bad," you are not getting completely objective advice. There's a difference between learning about nutritionally dense and beneficial foods versus avoiding certain food groups entirely.

The best dietitians will help you navigate this distinction so that you don't develop a fear of certain foods and instead focus on balancing your food choices. 

Internalizing this negative language has been linked to severe health concerns like eating disorders. For example, internalizing the message that all fried foods are "bad" does not provide the foundation for a healthy food relationship.

A nutrition expert can help you understand that eating for enjoyment is just as vital as eating for health. If you encounter moral judgments surrounding food in your counseling sessions, consider finding a different registered dietitian nutritionist.

Your nutritionist tries to sell you specific products

Some nutritionists use their client base to sell their lines of nutrition bars, health food powders, or dietary supplements. If your nutritionist recommends certain products now and then, you likely have nothing to worry about. But it should be a red flag when their nutrition product is a central tenet of your recommended eating plan. 

It's best to seek out a provider who doesn’t promote health through the required use of specialized dietary products, especially those they sell as a side gig.

What Is the Cost Breakdown of Working with a Nutritionist or Dietitian?

The cost of personalized nutrition counseling is a significant concern for many people. However, seeking professional help with nutrition can help prevent or alleviate many health conditions and their long-term repercussions. Here are some ways the cost of nutrition experts outweighs expensive health bills.  

Reactive cost: Manage chronic health conditions

Americans spend an average of $3.8 trillion each year managing chronic healthcare costs–one of the country's leading medical expenses. However, less than 1% of this amount is spent on prevention or ways to improve overall health. 

If you have recently been diagnosed with a chronic health concern, addressing your eating and overall wellness is essential in managing this new challenge. It will also keep your medical expenses low in the long run. 

A personal nutritionist can help you learn about diets that emphasize fruit and vegetables, minimize processed foods, and include regular physical activity to reduce the symptoms and severity of your chronic health condition.

Reactive cost: Address significant life changes through your health plan

Working with a nutritionist is one way to keep on top of changes to your health, especially if you're undergoing significant changes. 

Are you suffering from a sports injury? Or perhaps you're recently pregnant, have increased stress levels, or have been diagnosed with Crohn's or another chronic disease. A personal nutrition counselor can help you understand the changes your body goes through during these periods and how to adjust your diet to meet your needs. 

Working with a nutrition professional is massively beneficial in helping prevent more serious health challenges from developing during adjustment periods. If you have specific challenges, you can find a nutrition specialist who knows how to help your problems, such as experts in prenatal nutrition, diabetes, GI issues, and sports nutrition.

Reactive cost: Search for solutions with ineffective fad diets or weight-loss programs

Even though 95% of fad diets fail, the diet and weight loss industry continues to grow and is currently a $71 billion industry. But because so many of these fad diets and weight loss programs use a one-size-fits-all approach, it is clear that buying into these programs is more costly than helpful. Not to mention the books, videos, nutrition products, supplements, and meal plans you're encouraged to purchase!

Personal nutrition counseling offers another option to help you lose weight. Instead of paying for one weight-loss plan after another, your nutrition counselor will help you ditch the ineffective fad diets. Instead, your dietitian will help you create an accessible and sustainable eating plan that leads to long-lasting success. 

Preventative cost: Learn what healthy eating looks like to avoid major health concerns later on

Though plenty of data supports the value of healthy eating, it often gets a bad rap. Working with a personal nutritionist to educate yourself on the benefits of a nutritious diet is key to avoiding negative stereotypes that may turn you off from a more wholesome diet. 

A dietitian can also help identify easy ways to incorporate nutrition into your daily life. In the long run, developing healthy habits with a nutritionist will reduce your risk of chronic illnesses, heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. 

A well-rounded diet supports the immune system, strong bones and muscles, and longevity. By participating in nutrition counseling, you equip yourself with the tools to prevent the onset of costly health concerns.  

Preventative cost: Help reduce your risk of heart disease

You can lower your risk of heart disease or other cardiovascular issues through nutrition. Studies have shown a strong connection between heart disease and a healthy diet, regular exercise, sleep, and stress management. 

Working with a heart health nutritionist is one of the easiest ways to discover which eating and lifestyle choices increase your risk of a costly long-term illness. Your dietitian can also explain simple ways to incorporate healthy eating habits into your day-to-day routine to prevent the onset of heart disease. 

Preventative cost: Help with diabetes management

If you have type I or type II diabetes, nutrition is one of the best ways to manage your health. People with diabetes have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, other chronic health conditions, and being overweight. 

Working with a personal nutrition counselor is one of the most effective ways to learn about these preventable costs and diabetes management techniques. By adopting healthy nutrition habits, you can avoid additional healthcare costs by improving your blood sugar and reducing your risk of other costly health concerns. 

Final Thoughts

There are an endless number of benefits you could experience working with a nutritionist—if you know what to look for. While there are many scams out there in the nutrition space, arming yourself with this knowledge and doing a bit of your own digging can help you find the right professional for your needs.

Reputable companies like Top Nutrition Coaching offer one of the best ways to ensure you’re partnered with a well-reviewed, expert nutritionist. Consider your individual goals and get started today on a new health journey!

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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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