There’s a lot of focus these days on people to help with changing your eating habits to improve health. There are so many titles out there (I’ve got 2 myself!) and it’s hard to know who you should talk to. So here’s a quick overview.
Health Coach – A health coach is someone who has been trained in things like motivational interviewing and ways to help people make behavioral changes. They’re familiar with nutritious eating, but that’s often not their main focus.
In 2013, when I attended the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, health coaches weren’t as pervasive as they are now. That said, there’s no regulation around the title, so there are a lot of people calling themselves health coaches that don’t get the kind of training that I got at IIN or that’s available at other credible institutions. When I saw that a multi-level supplement company was calling its salespeople health coaches, I started looking for another way to refer to myself, ultimately getting a different sort of training. The National Board of Health and Wellness Coaching (NBHWC) is a board certification body with certain requirements for membership, including a robust training program and continuing education, so that consumers can be sure the coach they’re hiring is qualified.
Most insurance companies now offer health coaching as a service and a way to keep medical costs down (it works! Diet and lifestyle changes improve health!). They usually hire registered dieticians or RNs – I assume they get training in behavioral change in order to do the coaching work.
Health coaching can be a great help for motivation, accountability and support in making lifestyle changes for improved health.
Nutritionist – There are lots of categories for nutritionists, again with varying levels of training depth and skills. And again, there’s no regulation around the title. I’ve met self-proclaimed nutritionists, who have little to no formal training. My experience is that a lot of these people tend to like fringe sort of approaches that may or may not have any basis in science.
Then there are a number of training programs that are equivalent to a 4 year degree in nutrition in terms of the subject matter – they’re science-based, they just don’t go as deeply into things like biology and chemistry as a university program would.
The school I attended, the Nutritional Therapy Association, is one of those. That training was HARD. And I’m so grateful I did it – I understand how the body works to absorb and utilize nutrients, and the kinds of things that prevent it from doing so. I, along with many others with similar backgrounds, apply a “functional” approach – meaning we look for the root cause. I’ll give you an example from my own life, prior to NTA, but knowing some things about how the body absorbs and uses fats. I had been using a lot of sunflower oil for several months, and avoiding most saturated fat. When I got my blood checked, my cholesterol had risen 30 points. 30 points! In less than a year! The doctor just shrugged her shoulders. So, I cut out the sunflower oil, started using a wider variety of oils, including some saturated fat, and the next time I got it checked, my cholesterol had gone back down to normal. Without going into a bunch of science, my diet had caused my body to create a bunch of cholesterol in search of balance. Changing my diet took me back to balance and removed the need for additional cholesterol.
My point in telling this story is that the combined knowledge of biology and nutrition gave me that insight. That’s what a well-trained, science-based nutrition professional can do. We also have continuing education requirements and governing boards – I’m a member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals, and am currently studying for a board certification exam. The ability to give nutrition advice varies from state to state.
Registered dietician – this person has completed a 4 year university program in a nutrition-related field, done the required internship and passed a certifying exam. If you find a nutrition professional through the medical system, they’re likely to be a RD. They are the most science-y of all, with the most stringent requirements. At one time, I looked into becoming a RD, but decided against it because of the requirements that they’re bound to as a part of the medical system. I prefer a more holistic approach. So, if you’re looking into working with someone for nutrition, that’s a question to ask yourself – “Do I prefer a more medical or a more holistic approach?”
So, there are some basic differences between the different types of nutrition professionals. If you’re considering nutrition counseling, be sure to do your homework and find the right match for you, your lifestyle and needs.