Nutritionist vs. Dietitian vs. Health Coach: What Do They Do? What’s Right for You?

Building healthier habits is hard. Not only that, but there is a TON of information at our fingertips about how to best take care of ourselves – what and when to eat, the best type of exercise, how to improve sleep, become a morning person, learn to practice mindfulness – the list goes on and on! If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the results of your Google search for help with healthier habits, especially those that could help you lose weight, it may be time to consider talking to a professional. Yet even that can be confusing! Like, what is a Nutritionist vs. a Dietitian vs. a Health Coach? Let’s look at the differences and consider how each could be beneficial for you.

What Do Dietitians Do?

Registered Dietitians (RD), also known as Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDN), are experts in food and nutrition. They have completed advanced education and training in nutrition and primarily work in the treatment and prevention of disease. Registered Dietitians frequently work in healthcare organizations, although they can be found in food-related businesses, academic institutions, and research as well.  

RDs within healthcare organizations provide medical nutrition therapy, or dietary recommendations that are specific to medical conditions or diseases. This can range from conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease to gastrointestinal issues or cancer. RDs take the science of nutrition and physiology and translate it into specific recommendations for their patients in order to address their particular concerns while considering factors such as their health history, what medications they’re taking, and their lifestyle.  

When it comes to losing weight, RDs are a fantastic resource. We know that nutrition plays a significant role in our weight, so it makes sense to talk to a food expert when trying to change the number on the scale. Additionally, RDs are eligible for advanced training and board certification in weight management. This certification requires education beyond nutrition to include research related to the most effective ways for people to lose weight, with an emphasis on behavior change. A Registered Dietitian will use the research and their training to develop the best individualized guidance on weight loss and, more importantly, how to improve your overall health. Not only that, a Registered Dietitian will provide you with the ongoing accountability and support that is needed on any weight loss journey.

What Do Nutritionists Do?

While nutritionists also give advice on food and nutrition, they can have a variety of educational backgrounds. Non-formal self-study can count towards becoming a nutritionist, though there are also formal certifications available such as a Certified Nutrition Specialist or a Certified Clinical Nutritionist. 

A nutritionist can assist your weight loss efforts by providing you with general guidance on healthy eating habits, which are an important component of weight loss. They may have you keep a food diary or provide you with meal plans to follow. Just as with a Registered Dietitian, they can meet with you regularly for ongoing accountability and support in your effort to change your eating habits.

Are Dietitians and Nutritionists the Same Thing?

Our society often uses these words interchangeably, but they are actually quite different. Registered Dietitians complete extensive education and training, whereas there are no defined criteria to be called a nutritionist. A Registered Dietitian has to first obtain a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in nutrition from an accredited program, then go on to complete 1200 hours of clinical training, and pass a national exam. They often have to be licensed by a State Board to practice in a specific state. They also complete continuing education requirements in order to maintain their certification, so they are up-to-date on the latest research around nutrition and the diseases they treat. While there are nutritionist certification programs, it is not required that a person complete certain training or have a certification in order to call themselves a nutritionist. The Commission on Dietetic Registration puts it simply by saying, “all registered dietitians are nutritionists but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians.”

What Do Health Coaches Do?

Health coaches assist people with implementing lifestyle changes to improve their health and wellness. They typically work with patients on lifestyle factors such as nutrition, physical activity, sleep, stress, time management, and smoking. A health coach helps a person to identify challenges that might be standing in the way of a healthier lifestyle and then works with them to establish goals for overcoming those challenges. Health coaches can be part of a corporate wellness program, but can also work in a healthcare organization or have their own business. It can be challenging to decipher the credentials of health coaches because there are no specific education or training requirements to be called a health coach. However, you can look for evidence of specialized training through certificate programs and there is a National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching that requires you to complete a specific training program and pass an exam in order to get certified. When trying to lose weight, a health coach can assist you with identifying your barriers to making the healthful lifestyle changes that promote weight loss.  For instance, although they are not considered experts in food or nutrition, they can help you to determine why you have difficulty implementing healthier eating habits. Health coaches empower you to make self-directed changes according to your individual goals and values. They can also provide ongoing support and accountability for continuing to make changes in your lifestyle that promote weight loss.

How to Choose between a Nutritionist, a Dietitian, and a Health Coach

Seeking professional help in your weight loss journey is an important step in increasing your chances of success. When choosing between these three different professionals, consider your needs. A health coach will be able to provide accountability and skills for self-directed learning, but not necessarily expertise on proper nutrition. If you need guidance on proper nutrition, a nutritionist may be a good option.  A Registered Dietitian has the training and experience to take it one step further by helping you with proper nutrition and understanding how what you eat affects your health- both current medical conditions you have or just the prevention of chronic disease. With a Registered Dietitian, you can feel confident that they are familiar with the latest science and are providing you with research-backed guidance. They will also be able to provide you with ongoing support and accountability for assistance with some of the most challenging aspects of lifestyle change.

How Form Health’s Registered Dietitians Can Help You

At Form Health, Registered Dietitians work as part of a medical team to provide a comprehensive approach to weight management. Each Form Health patient partners with a Board Certified Doctor and a Registered Dietitian with board certification in obesity and weight management to create a personalized weight loss plan that includes nutrition, physical activity, mindset shifts, and FDA-approved medication, if appropriate. Our insurance-covered medical weight loss program will give you the tools to help you lose weight and improve your overall health. The program is delivered entirely through the Form Health app which allows patients unlimited, frequent communication with their care team via video visits and messaging, weight and food tracking, and access to educational content.  Get started today by taking our quiz to see if medical weight loss is right for you.Questions about medical weight loss? Schedule a free call with an enrollment specialist to learn more.

About the Author: Brooke Marsico, PA-C, completed her physician assistant training at Midwestern University in 2011. She began her practice in the field of Obesity Medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago where she practiced from 2016 to 2021. She went on to treat patients living with obesity at Cleveland Clinic from 2021 to 2022 prior to joining the team at Form Health. Brooke is passionate about helping patients living with obesity achieve meaningful weight loss and improve their health. Her practice focuses on individualized behavioral and pharmacological intervention to help patients reach their goals. She is also experienced in managing patients who have a history of bariatric surgery.

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