What’s the Difference Between a Nutritionist, Health Coach, and Registered Dietitian?

Many people don’t know that Registered Dietitian is a protected title, therefore, use it interchangeably with a nutritionist. I have had friends reach out to me and say things such as, “so and so, is a Registered Dietitian now, they finished that 12-week course!”

By the way, no Registered Dietitian has become one without at least a bachelor’s degree and hands-on training!

Distinguishing a nutritionist from a health coach or a Registered Dietitian can become difficult for individuals seeking nutrition services. 

What is a Nutritionist?

Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. This title is not a regulated title.

A nutritionist does not need to have any particular schooling, certifications, or license. Anyone who claims any knowledge of nutrition at any level can call themselves a nutritionist. 

Your friend who sells cold-pressed juices could call herself a nutritionist. The teenager who works at the supplement store could call themselves a nutritionist. The graduate student who decided not to pursue an RD-credentials could call themselves a nutritionist.

You can clearly see above, the wide spectrum a nutritionist can fall under. Some individuals may have great knowledge of nutrition while others may have limited understanding.  

Since nutritionists are not required to have a nutrition degree, training, or internships to hold their title, an increasing number of nutritionists do not have related degrees.

What is a Health Coach?

A health coach is what I can best describe as an accountability partner who helps individuals stick to their goals, habits, practices, and behavior. Similar to a nutritionist title, a health coach isn’t a regulated title and can be pretty ambiguous. Some health coaches may hold a certification from ACE Health Coach Certification, Health Coach Institute, or Institute for Integrative Nutrition.

Health coaches should not prescribe diets or programs but should play a role in motivating individuals on how to put their goals to practical use.

Health coaches should refer clients to the appropriate professionals when needed. 

What is a Registered Dietitian?

All Registered Dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are Registered Dietitians. A Registered Dietitian is the highest level of nutrition education an individual can obtain.

Of all these titles, Registered Dietitians are the only ones that can possibly be all three.

In outpatient settings, community nutrition, and private practice especially, Registered Dietitians are health coaches. RDs are trained in motivational interviewing which is a key component of the health coach-client relationship. 

In the foodservice and clinical setting, Registered Dietitians must stay abreast of current evidence-based research and industry advancements. Registered Dietitians work in settings where it’s pertinent to provide updated and accurate nutrition information and interventions to clients and patients. 

Many times, you may even see Registered Dietitians use the title Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Both of these titles are protected titles accredited by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). *Some states, (I am looking at you, Texas!!) allow “dietitian” to be interchangeable with nutritionist…this is an uphill battle!

The Academy is the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. It’s comprised of students, educators, researchers, retired and international members who help in constructing, advising, advocating, and influencing food networks, nutrition therapy, and food policies.

To become a Registered Dietitian, one must:

  1. Have at least a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, although many have higher degrees
  2. Complete 1000 hours* of supervised practicum, commonly referred to as a dietetic internship or DI for short- many DIs are unpaid rotations in clinical, community, and foodservice settings *this is a temporary change effective between January 1, 2020, and June 30, 2022; typically 1200 hours are required
  3. Pass the national RD exam which consists of at least 125 questions about the Principles of Dietetics, Nutrition Care for Individuals and Groups, Management of Food and Nutrition Programs and Services, and Foodservice Systems

Beginning in 2024, ALL RDs will be required to have a master’s degree in addition to the three REQUIREMENTS listed above.

In Oklahoma, RDs must be licensed by the Oklahoma Medical Board. 

Nutrition is an important predictor of livelihood, disease risks, and health outcomes, it’s no wonder everyone wants a piece of the pie. It’s important to understand the titles because, in practicing nutrition, credentials matter. Misinformation and disinformation are so harmful to both individual, community, and public health.

How to Pass Your RD Exam on the First Attempt

I hope you were able to catch my IG Live. As promised, I wanted to talk about how to pass the RD Exam on the first attempt.

According to the Academy, in 2020, 67.3% of dietitians passed their RD Exam on their first attempt. Before you get too caught up in the statistics remember, you aren’t playing the odds. You are a willing participant in the outcome of passing the RD exam. You CAN pass the test on your first attempt! While much of the exam is about understanding and knowing the material, knowing how to take a standardized test is equally as important!

The RD exam is a challenging exam, but so was your DPD-program, Dietetic Internship, biochem, organic, food science, food law, and life in the COVID-era. You can do this! I promise. You have and you will do harder things.

The questions are not there to trick you. The exam tests your attention to detail, ability to assess the most important information given, and critical thinking. My hope is that these tips will not only help you prepare for your RD exam in the best way possible but also help you go into your exam with a sound mind and confidence that you deserve to and can pass this exam!

Are you seeing a trend? You can pass your RD Exam on the first attempt!

Peep this tweet from 8 years ago when was still in my DTR program.

How to Pass Your RD Exam on the First Attempt

Narrow Down Your Study Resources

I passed the RD exam after studying consistently for about 8 weeks using primarily Jean Inman, Visual Veggies, and Pocket Prep.

This leads me to my first bit of advice- narrow down your study resources.

My internship program provided each intern with Jean Inman. Due to campus restrictions during COVID, I purchased Visual Veggies software on my computer. I also purchased Pocket Prep app on my phone. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

Jean Inman walks you through each domain. I could listen to the USB in my car. I downloaded the audio to my phone so that I could listen to it at the gym or on walks. Jean Inman covers each domain while noting key topics.

Visual Veggies software helped me track my progress over time. I loved the whiteboard videos and rationales provided for answer choices. I also liked the ability to take full practice exams that simulated the RD Exam. That helped me get into the right frame of mind while studying.

I love Pocket Prep because I was able to take it with me everywhere. I would answer questions while waiting to get my oil changed, on an airplane, or just on the go. Similar to Visual Veggies, Pocket Prep provided rationale and references to find follow-up information.

While resources named above were my main, everyday resources, I still found it useful to check into study groups on FB, study groups with NOBIDAN, and my weekly study group with those from my cohort. Additional supplemental study resources included Chomping Down the Dietetics Exam Podcast and occasionally YouTube videos.

The key point is to find what works for you based on your budget, your style of learning, and the amount of time you have to study.

Create a Realistic Study Schedule

During this season of my life, I was incredibly fortunate I was able to focus solely on school and not have to juggle work at the same time. I feel for those of you on the grind! It’s not easy, I know! I realize this is a privilege and was largely how I was able to study.

This is the time, you need to sit down and be honest with yourself about how long and when you will be able to study. I initially wanted to dedicate 8-10 weeks to study. For the first 3 weeks, I studied for about 15-25 hours a week. After this week, I assessed my progress (motivation and concentration) and reduced my study time to no more than 20 hours per week (4 hours a day).

Can you study 5 hours a week? Great! 20 hours? Awesome! Make your schedule realistic to your season of life, because my schedule may not be realistic for individuals who are working, juggling family, and other responsibilities. Self-care during this time (in the form of eating well and resting) is equally, if not more, important than getting the study time in. 

This is where I want to “note” (Jean Inman voice), CHECK IN WITH YOURSELF, and adjust your schedule accordingly. As you approach your exam date, your studying will probably begin to taper.

Schedule Your RD Exam (you can always change your date)

Unpopular opinion: Don’t line up your dream job with the RD Exam hanging over your head.

Congratulations! Schedule your exam.

You don’t have a job lined up? One will come, schedule your exam!

If your goal were to run a marathon, wouldn’t you schedule your race before putting in all the training? That’s the only example I got. You’re not Forrest Gump. You have motivation. Schedule your RD Exam! (And then watch Forrest Gump, if you haven’t already).

Treat Practice Tests as Study Material

Memorizing answers will not do you any favors. I’ve heard many people say things along the lines of, “I only got 2 questions from Jean Inman on my RD Exam.” Quite honestly, I couldn’t tell you if any question I studied was actually on my RD Exam, and here’s why:

Aside from my weekly full-length practice test on Visual Veggies, I made a spreadsheet and started adding questions from my practice tests. Then, I looked up the rationale for every answer- even the wrong answers.

This forced me not to memorize answers. This also forced me to know what EVERY answer meant so I could get future questions correct. While this is incredibly time-consuming, it was a lifesaver. After answering the question correctly, I would then rephrase the questions by adding the word “not,”  “most,” or “least” to see how other answers could be correct if asked a different way.

Manage Stressors

You need to find a way to manage stressors. For me, planning meals was a point of stress. The time it was taking to plan meals, go to the store, and cook was valuable time I could be use to study but was not all that enjoyable as I was studying all this stuff. With great advice from my friend, Dawn, I decided it was a good time to try out a meal delivery service and not think about meals for a little while.  I know this may not be an option for everyone, I would just say, this is the time to take advantage of people offering to help. Whether it’s running an errand for you, cooking dinner, or babysitting the kids for a little bit, TAKE UP THE OFFER.

Write Down Affirmations

I know this seems cheesy and unnatural, especially if you’re not used to being your biggest supporter. I wrote a list of seven affirmations on my whiteboard, which I read EVERY DAY before I studied. I mean, EVERY DAY! 

When writing affirmations, I think it’s important to remember why. Your “why” comes from looking at past experiences, not future ones. With the exception of #3, my affirmations were written based on my journey to this point. If you don’t have affirmations, borrow mine. Write them down on a whiteboard or on your phone. Just be sure to look at them daily.

  1. I am a dietitian
  2. I know this information
  3. I will pass my RD Exam on the first attempt
  4. I am intelligent & capable
  5. I am determined
  6. I have done harder things
  7. I deserve this

Take Breaks and Get Some Fresh Air

You can’t be all work and no play. But, also don’t be all play and no work. Take breaks that don’t involve studying. Go for walks or runs. Meet a friend for coffee. Listen to music! I made an awesome playlist if you need a break to bake cookies! Find a way to be human. Get some sunlight, you won’t regret it.

Nourish Yourself Kindly

I don’t want to hurt your feelings; coffee is not a meal. We both know this. We know food can serve two functions: nourishment and pleasure. We need food for both. Don’t forget to choose foods that provide enough nourishment to be able to study and function with clarity. Don’t let yourself get too hungry during your sessions. When your body feels nourished, you will be able to concentrate.

Trust Your Gut

Unless you know with ABSOLUTE certainty your first answer is wrong, trust your gut. Don’t change your answer. The majority of the time when you change your answer, you were right the first time. I STRUGGLED HARD WITH THIS taking practice exams, then I had to stop. You know this information, trust you know it.

BELIEVE YOU WILL PASS! (I changed CAN to WILL)

On exam day, you’ve done everything you can do, you just have to show up. Yes, there may be topics you didn’t cover or things you still don’t quite understand, you are still more than prepared for this exam.

This is not the time to cram. You pose more of a risk of misremembering. Wake up (or sleep in), enjoy your first meal, go get your nails done, or treat yourself to your favorite lunch spot. You’ve made it! Today is the day you get to become a Registered Dietitian! Be sure to nourish yourself appropriately before your test.

Before you answer your first question, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, and say to yourself, “I’m here. I’ve studied. I know this. I am smart. I’m going to be a Registered Dietitian today.”

There may be questions you don’t even know where to start. Make sure to read the complete question. Then, read it again. Write down keywords such as most, least, best, effective, etc. Look at the action verb in the answer choices- more often than not, dietitians will make decisions that offer the least amount of risk and requires us to EVALUATE and ASSESS the situation.

If you still are struggling with narrowing down answers, take your best guess. I decided ahead of time, that if I came to this point, my answer was going to be ‘D’ every time unless I was certain ‘D’ was not right. Choose an answer and let it go. Don’t dwell on it. 

At the end of the day, the RD Exam is just that, an exam. Yes, it’s important, however, it will always be there. 

I wish you the best of luck and I know you got this! Message me if you have questions.

Second Career Dietitians

I personally believe, second career dietitians have an advantage over those who go the more traditional route. Second career dietitians clearly know what they want because transitioning to the field of dietetics is not for the faint of heart. Pursuing this career requires a lot of resources including time and money (and sometimes lots of it).

Each job I’ve held prior to pursuing my RD credentials has been valuable and I don’t discount any of those experiences. Each offers a story in addition to invaluable skills that make me a well-rounded dietitian.

Jobs I Had Before Becoming a Registered Dietitian

Payroll Specialist

As a payroll specialist, I learned how to use software programs to analyze, reconcile, and calculate financial data. I also learned a lot about great and not-so-great leadership in this role. I processed payroll for clients across several industries, so I learned about shift differential, FTEs*, hourly wages, and quarterly taxes (*on the RD exam).

This job required a tremendous amount of integrity, attention to detail, and dependability working with individuals and companies’ financial and banking information. Also, working on banking holidays, whew.

Transferable Skills for a Dietitian: Active Listening, Critical Thinking, Mathematics, Monitoring, Time Management

Coffeeshop Supervisor

I didn’t just prepare drinks and pastries, but I was also responsible for store operations, delegating employee responsibilities, and training baristas as needed. Working in a fast-paced environment teaches you to think quickly and under pressure. Positions such as this require exceptional customer service and management skills* and a lot of human skills* – from mediating coworker disputes to de-escalating angry customers. I DID IT ALL! (*on the RD Exam)

Transferable Skills for a Dietitian: Judgment and Decision Making, Management of Financial Resources and Inventory Control, Food Safety and Sanitation

Peace Corps Volunteer

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I spent the majority of my time working in the community with specific target populations. I had to integrate with my community in order to promote and improve community health programs. Cultural competency* was imperative as a Peace Corps Volunteer, it’s also imperative as a healthcare provider as our communities become more diverse.

Transferable Skills for a Dietitian: Active Learning, Complex Problem Solving, Coordination, Learning a New Language, Program Evaluation, Planning, Community Outreach

Online English Teacher

During grad school, I taught English online for about a year. I worked with students ages 4-14 years old. Most of my students lived in China. Working with children requires an additional layer of patience and support, in order to encourage, motivate, and build confidence. The job required me to provide daily feedback on student results and progress.

Transferable Skills for a Dietitian: Instructing, Adapting Learning Strategies, Social Perceptiveness, Writing

Registered Dietitians come from all walks of life. I’ve known for a while that I wanted to be a nutrition entrepreneur, and all my past jobs have allowed me to broaden my knowledge, skill sets, and creativity. The nutrition and dietetics field can be for anyone & the professional needs individuals from all backgrounds and expertise!

Why I Decided to Apply For a DTR-Program

In my early twenties, I became very involved in my local running and triathlon clubs. I competed in several local races and events, this reignited my interest in nutrition.


After researching nutrition/dietetic programs and decided on a Dietetic Technician (DTR) program at Tarrant County College. I applied to (DTR) Program because:

  1. Its accreditation by Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
  2. Affordability, and
  3. I would be able to get a feel for the field of dietetics

In 2013, when I returned back to school, I had absolutely zero knowledge or experience in the nutrition/dietetics field. It was a bit overwhelming. I thought I wanted to pursue sports nutrition because I was knees deep in health and fitness.

As I began to learn more, my areas of interest changed from sports nutrition to community nutrition. My plan was always to continue my education to become a Registered Dietitian.

Program Requirements for my DTR-Program

  • Introduction to Dietetics
  • Nutrition and Diet Therapy
  • Principles of Food Preparation
  • Food Safety & Sanitation
  • Child Nutrition and Programs
  • Community Nutrition
  • Medical Nutrition Therapy I, II, and III
  • Quantity Procedures
  • Anatomy and Physiology I and II
  • Business and Professional Communication
  • Food Management Systems

Completing a DTR-Program may be a great way to get your foot in the door of nutrition and dietetics at an affordable price. It can also be a great way to start building your dietetics network. I have many friends who are DTRs and others who continued on to become RDs.

Dietetic Internship Must-Haves

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Edited January 18, 2021

So, you’re about to start your dietetic internship? I am sure several dietitians and RD2Bes have given you ideas of what you need to be successful.

Between the immunizations, internship handbooks, eNCPT, and everything else in between, I wanted to share some of my dietetic internship must-haves with links.

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. I recommend you read or listen to this one before you start. While it takes the whole book to see how everything is tied together, I thought this was an important read to learn how to communicate with people who are from different backgrounds than myself.

Clever Fox Planner Premium Edition. This is seriously the last planner you’ll need. I’ve ALWAYS been a pen & paper type of gal. I like how Clever Fox has un-dated calendar pages so you can start your planner any time of the year. During clinical rotation, I like to write down how many patients I see each day so I can see how much I’ve improved day-to-day. Clever Fox helps guide you to set goals every quarter, reflect each month, and track progress.

Clarks Women’s Sharon Dolly Loafer. Do you like walking on clouds? Because the only answer is yes. The style I purchased is out of stock, but these are my everyday clinical shoes because they are equally comfortable and functional! I get so many compliments wearing them.

The Essential Pocket Guide for Clinical Nutrition” target=”_blank”>The Essential Pocket Guide for Clinical Nutrition. This is a great reference guide for interns. I keep this on my desk and it helps guide my ADIME notes. It fits perfectly in my lab coat pocket and I love that each chapter includes sections on disease process, treatment and nutritional intervention, and patient education.

Lintelek Smart Watch. You need a watch! Don’t rely solely on your phone because… you’re the intern and being on your phone is kind of a faux pas. So, just get a watch and save yourself the trouble. This is not as fancy as an Apple Watch, however, if you’re on a tight intern budget, it’ll do. This watch gives you the capabilities to receive text notifications and calculates your steps.

Fruit Lanyard. Who doesn’t need a cute fruit lanyard?

Hydro Flask Tumbler Cup. I need coffee every morning to get me going, and my Hydro Flask keeps my coffee hot for up to 6 hours.

Other Essentials:

Calculator

Uni-ball Signo Inks Pens

Face Masks depending on the hospital, these may be provided, but sadly, I wouldn’t count on it (interns aren’t always privy to “employee benefits”)

Notebook – You won’t remember everything. May I suggest, writing it down? I like to use the notebooks with blank pages so I can draw pictures and diagrams, if I need to.

Shoe In-soles – You need these for management rotation.

Best of luck on this fantastic journey! What are some items you would add?

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