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.

Author: Krystal

Hey, Mother Roadies! I'm Krystal Dunham! I'm a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a passion for sharing sensible and nutritious recipes.

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