From coaches to trainers to influencers, there are many people who claim to know how to help people with food, diet, weight loss, and body image. Knowing who you are working with and their education is important in selecting the best provider for you. In this blog post we will talk about the differences between a dietitian and nutritionist.
Although both dietitians and nutritionists work with people to develop the best plan for their individualized health needs, there are some key differences between these two professionals. In the United States, dietitians are certified to treat clinical conditions, whereas nutritionists do not need to obtain this certification. Being able to use the title dietitian means that the professional is legally certified and it is a protected term. On the other hand, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist and this title does not mean that the professional possesses credentials.
Through extensive training and educational requirements, dietitians learn expertise to offer evidence-based medical nutrition therapy and nutritional counseling that is tailored to meet an individual’s needs. A registered dietitian has to complete:
- A bachelor’s degree with coursework in dietetics and nutrition that is approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- Supervised experience at an accredited institution like a healthcare facility, school, nursing homes, community centers, or for state governments
- A national exam that is administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration
Dietitians are also required to engage in yearly professional education to upkeep their board certification. Dietitians are also qualified to treat eating disorders if they have specific training and experience in that area. Many dietitians specialize in creating individualized plans for those suffering with an eating disorder or other medical conditions.
Although many nutritionists do obtain licenses and other qualifications, the title “nutritionist” can actually be applied to anyone. Individuals who do not have any professional training or accreditation can still call themselves a nutritionist, and this position is not nearly as regulated as a dietitian.
Further, as opposed to a dietitian, nutritionists tend to solely provide general nutritional advice. Nutritionists are typically not qualified to offer advice regarding eating disorders or medical conditions.
Why is working with a dietitian helpful?
Achieving the correct nutrition intake for your individual needs can feel like a difficult task. Navigating nutrition labels and meal plans can be a very daunting experience, and guidance from an expert can be extremely helpful and necessary. Nutrition is a complicated science that varies based on every individual’s medical history and personal needs. Dietitians are experts in devising personally tailored nutrition plans that consider diseases, eating disorders, allergies, food sensitivities, and weight concerns that you may experience. While considering all of your medical issues and individualized needs, dietitians will provide you with helpful personalized resources like grocery lists, portion sizes, meal plans, recipes, and scientific explanations of nutrition. They also can help you overcome fear foods, help you create a healthy relationship with food and your body, and improve your health.
By creating a warm and judgment free environment, a dietitian can be extremely helpful in helping you recover from an eating disorder or disordered eating. Working with a dietitian can also help correct any nutritional deficiencies that you may be experiencing. Lastly, a dietitian will be able to thoroughly educate you on the macro- and micronutrients your body needs, while also teaching you how to properly identify feelings of hunger and fullness.
The food industry and social media offers society a lot of misleading information. Marketing tactics often use misleading labels to identify certain foods as “healthy” or “guilt free.” Society also promotes diet culture, which can be detrimental to achieving healthy eating behaviors. Many dietitians will work with you to truly understand food labels and work against diet culture. There is so much misinformation out there, when you work with a dietitian you will learn how all components of our food are beneficial for our body and brain. Unlike an influencer who gives you a one size fits all plan, a dietitian will give you a personalized plan with tools that are based on research and supported information.
In fact, at Best Within You Therapy & Wellness, our registered dietitian, Morgan Cherry, is an anti-diet dietitian nutritionist who uses evidence-based interventions to help you reach your goals. Morgan focuses on debunking many of the myths that society’s diet culture promotes. Working with Morgan will allow you to achieve flexibility and freedom when deciding what to eat. By creating an individualized plan, Morgan can help you work towards a balanced lifestyle that avoids a restrictive mentality. Morgan also specializes in working with eating disorders, and prioritizes creating a non-judgemental environment to best assist you with meeting your nutritional goals. During your first session with Morgan you will come up with personalized goals and leave with actionable steps that you can take.
What to expect from working with a dietitian:
It is important to note that we can not speak for every dietitian. However, at many intake appointments and at Best Within You Therapy & Wellness, these are some common things you can expect:
In the first appointment, there will be an initial intake appointment that lasts for about an hour. In this appointment the dietitian will ask you questions about your current lifestyle, eating habits, medical history, eating concerns, and your personal goals. The dietitian will likely also ask about your food preferences, culture/tradition, how often you eat, when you eat, and your exercise habits. Understanding the answers to these questions will help the dietitian get an idea of where you currently are at vs. where you would like to be at.
After going through these questions and getting to know you, the dietitian will likely help you set very specific goals. You will begin to talk about steps you can take to start meeting these goals. Diet and lifestyle changes are a gradual process and it may take time to really see change. That said, it is important to develop a detailed plan with your dietitian and attend follow up appointments. Dietitians will often monitor the plan based on changes they observe, and they will also help you be honest with the plan you created with them. Follow up appointments are integral to the process of change and you will likely experience several adjustments based on what is working and what is not. It is also possible that the dietitian has you keep a food journal to track your food intake. This is not at all necessary if you do not want to keep a food journal. Everything will be personalized to you.
How can you prepare for your first appointment with a dietitian?
The first way to prepare for your appointment is to go in with an open mind and appreciate your desire to make improvements in your life; it takes courage to make lifestyle changes. Another way to prepare for your first appointment is to take note of what you eat in a day and the hours of consumption. This is not at all necessary, but having a general idea could be helpful.
It may also be helpful to come in with updated bloodwork and medical documentations, especially if you are suffering from a specific disease. This information can help the dietitian formulate a plan that is best suitable for you. If you do not have this information, that is not a problem at all. The dietitian can discuss if this information would be valuable and what labs to order.
We also want to note you do not have to do anything to prepare, before your first appointment there will be some forms to fill out that will prompt you to think about your current habits and history. Honesty is crucial, and a dietitian’s intention is never to be judgemental. At Best Within You we are intentional about creating a judgment free space.
A dietitian can be incredibly helpful in achieving optimal nutrition for your body, helping you set challenging but achievable goals, and improving your relationship with food and your body. A dietitian will be there to support you and help you improve your health. If you are struggling with nutrition, health issues, your relationship with food, or an eating disorder, we are here to help at Best Within You Therapy & Wellness. Please feel free to reach out for a free phone consultation with our registered dietitian.
Thank you to Jacquline Zimmerman, Best Within You intern and Morgan Cherry, Best Within You registered dietitian nutritionist for this article.