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From dietitians to health coaches, nutrition experts abound. With so many nutrition credentials out there, how do we know the difference?
Nutrition: Who has the answers?
Searching for simple answers in a world of “food experts” is frustrating.
You have a question, and everyone from the checkout guy at Whole Foods to your mother-in-law has an answer. And for each five people advising, there are seven solutions.
Everyone who eats claims to be a food or nutrition expert.
All over Facebook you’ll find health coaches, nutritionists, nutrition counselors, nutrition experts, personal trainers, and dietitians. It seems like everyone is following one eating plan or another, but the details of each of these plans are conflicting. Beans are good, beans are bad. Drink red wine. Avoid alcohol. Carbs are evil, but whole grains are good.
So what’s right?
Nutrition is complex. The needs of individuals depend on genetics and culture, activity, weather, quality and quantity of sleep, medical history, and a slew of other factors. Solid and reliable nutrition information can only come from someone who knows all of these factors about you and can interpret them appropriately. It has to be someone with the education, experience, and nutrition credentials to support the advice they are dispensing. Not someone who is hocking nutritional supplements on TV.
Let’s demystify some of the most common nutrition credentials:
The most common nutrition credentials in the US and Canada are Health Coach, Nutritionist, and Dietitian. If you’re somewhere else, look into this more carefully since the titles and corresponding educational and experiential backgrounds are different. For example, in Mexico, “nutritionista” and “dietista” have the exact opposite definitions of the similar sounding credentials in the US and Canada.
Dietitian / RD:
Dietitian is a legally defined term. This means only those who meet the legal requirements of the credential may use it. A dietitian, also known as a registered dietitian or a registered dietitian nutritionist, is someone who has pursued a formal nutrition education at an accredited institution of higher learning. They’ve likely earned a bachelors, masters, or even PhD in nutrition from an accredited university.
This is followed by the completion of an internship, generally a 9-12 month program where supervised experience is combined with specialized learning in various areas of nutrition. After their internship is completed, a national exam must be passed before the credential is awarded. Once an individual is a credentialed dietitian, they must maintain a certain number of continuing education credits for each 5-year recertification cycle. The continuing education cycle is carefully monitored and occasionally audited by the Commission on Dietetic Registration.
Nutritionist is not a legally defined term. This means that anyone who deems themselves a nutrition expert may begin to use this title without repercussion.
Some individuals who go by the title of nutritionist, do have a formal nutrition education, or even a PhD in the field. This does make them an expert in the field of nutrition, and advice given from someone with this background is likely reliable.
However, the label of nutritionist may just as well apply to someone who read an article on nutrition. When someone advertises him or herself as a nutritionist, it’s best to look into their background before deciding if their advice carries any weight.
To further confuse matters, certain states, such as New York and Washington, award licensing for nutritionists. While the requirements vary state by state, they generally include a formal nutrition education at an accredited university followed by supervised practice or experience and the passing of a state-approved licensing exam. This is very similar to the path to becoming a dietitian and does hold weight as one of the valid and reliable nutrition credentials. To reiterate, when you learn that someone goes by the title of nutritionist, it is important to research their background in education, training, and experience prior to ingesting their advice.
Health coach is another nutrition credential without a legal definition and can be used by anyone, regardless of education or experience. This title is often bestowed by supplement companies. But, just as with a nutritionist, it’s best to ask some questions and get a closer look.
A health coach is not meant to treat medical or psychological conditions. They are meant to help people figure out how to incorporate healthier choices and activities into their lives, often by helping them follow the guidelines provided by a healthcare practitioner.
The job of a health coach is to help a client move forward by using readily available tools, such as meal planning, scheduling, or mindfulness activities.
A responsible health coach will stick to advising based on their scope of practice, and will refer out in cases of medical and/or psychological complexity.
Certified Nutrition Specialist / CNS:
Certified Nutrition Specialist is a lesser known credential. The CNS carries a legal definition as well as an intense, education-based pathway. The CNS credential represents a masters or doctoral degree in nutrition, clinical healthcare, or a related science field. This is followed by a 1,000 hour supervised training that looks a lot like a dietetic internship, followed by the passing of the boards.
Alyson Roux, MS, CNS, MFA owner of Alyson Roux Nutrition, is a Certified Nutrition Specialist, commonly known as a nutritionist. She reiterates that because the CNS is a newer certification, most people are less familiar with the title. The training is very similar to that of an RD, preparing these professionals for work in outpatient and private practice settings. Dietitians and those with the CNS credential are the only nutrition professionals eligible for clinical jobs, such as those at hospitals.
Nutritionist Dietetic Technician Registered / NDTR:
The Nutritionist Dietetic Technician Registered, also known as NDTR, is kind of like a junior RD in the same way that a Vet Tech is a veterinary assistant or a Pharm Tech is a junior pharmacist. The DTR scope of practice is a bit different. It focuses on education and supporting the recommendations given by the medical staff.
One can become a NDTR after a 2-year Associates degree in nutrition followed by an internship of up to one year, and the passing of a national exam. Or, someone with a 4-year Nutrition degree can take the national exam and earn the credential. A NDTR can operate independently, giving more general nutrition advice similar to that of a nutritionist. However, a NDTR won’t be able to accept insurance or give nutrition advice aimed at a specific medical condition.
The point to knowing all this?
We shouldn’t underestimate the benefits that come with sound nutrition education and experience. Take for example, a couple trying to conceive. A seasoned and appropriately credentialed nutrition professional will know which questions to ask and how to advise appropriately, rather than giving canned advice that may or may not be appropriate based on the couple’s medical history and needs.
An educated and experienced nutrition professional will know when weight gain may indicate an underlying hormone imbalance or even cancer, and will refer out to an endocrinologist rather than prescribe restrictive diets for weight loss.
Remember, nutrition advice is medical advice. Bringing your health concerns to the appropriate nutrition professional ensures that the advice dispensed takes your symptoms, history, lifestyle, abilities, and goals into account.
You want an expert to be able to take textbook advice, combine it with recent research, and bring it into real life for the benefit of your health.
Be your own advocate, ask questions, and enjoy the health and lifestyle benefits of advice tailored to you and your body.
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