The world of nutrition has grown rapidly in recent years. However, as this market continues to experience exponential growth, there has been an increase in the number of nutritional experts who do not have any formal nutritional education but are offering nutritional advice. This has resulted in significant confusion and chaos among the general public. The Internet may be a great source if used properly, but it can also provide opportunities to ‘pseudo’ or ‘fake’ nutritionists who offer vague or sometimes wrong advice to unsuspecting clients. This often causes the public to lose faith in the field of nutrition.
Nutritionist vs. Dietitian
Most people think a dietitian and nutritionist mean the same thing. While they both offer nutrition advice, a dietitian is a legal academic title that requires a license for practice, whereas a nutritionist is a generic title that is frequently used to describe any person who offers nutritional advice. Today, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist by taking a two-hour online course on nutrition or attending a weekend class on the subject of diet. But overall, these generic nutritionists have less in-depth knowledge in the food sciences and do not have board certification. Pseudo-nutritionists can be found everywhere and include celebrities, social media influencers, athletes, and even personal trainers. Before consulting a healthcare expert for legitimate advice on nutrition and diet, it is important to ensure they are qualified to provide that service.
What exactly is a dietitian or trained nutritionist?
A trained nutritionist or a dietitian is a healthcare professional with formal academic training who can offer qualified advice to the public on healthy eating and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. A dietitian will offer dietary advice based on scientific evidence and can help people improve their health through educational advice, guidance on healthy eating habits, and adopting a healthy lifestyle. This could include meal plans, tracking progress, healthy recipes, and, most important, motivation.
However, a nutritionist/dietitian is not a nurse or a physician. They cannot order medical tests, make a diagnosis, or treat medical disorders. A legitimate nutritionist will always tell the client beforehand that they work in conjunction with other healthcare providers to provide patients tips on adopting a healthy diet and healthy lifestyle.
Certified dietitians rarely offer the same empirical advice on nutrition to everyone. For example, just telling everyone to eat less than 2,000 calories a day or take multiple vitamins every day is vague and not scientific advice. Today, nutrition has advanced to the point that each person is offered nutritional counseling based on their age, genetic makeup, comorbidity, body weight, lifestyle goals, and motivation. Every individual has different goals; therefore, individualized nutritional counseling is needed. This is what a well-qualified nutritionist could potentially offer.
Types of Nutritionists
Selecting a nutritionist can be confusing because there are several credentialing bodies in this field. A legitimate nutritionist should ideally have a proper certification either from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), the National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCSF), Precision Nutrition, National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), Fitness Mentors or other reputable institutions. Also, there are other qualifications that should be considered. For example:
- Certified nutritionists (CN) have varying credentialing, and licensing requirements depend on which state they reside. Some states like Washington require that a CN has at least a Master’s degree in clinical nutrition. These professionals can work in a private clinical setting but not in hospitals. The CN board does not require continuing education credits.
- A registered dietitian (RD/RDN) is governed by The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. To become a registered dietitian, one must complete a degree in nutrition. In addition, there is a one-year dietetic internship required at an accredited institution. After completing the internship, the candidate must pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s exam before receiving the “Registered Dietitian Nutritionist” credentials. A registered dietitian may either work in private proactive or in a healthcare institution.
- A certified clinical nutritionist (CCN) is someone who has obtained a certificate from the Clinical Nutrition Certification board. Most of these professionals have at least a master’s degree in nutrition.
- A clinical nutritionist specialist has obtained certification through the Board of Certification of Nutrition Specialist and may include a physician, osteopath, or even a pharmacist. These professionals usually have an advanced degree in nutrition or another healthcare specialty.
- Nutritional therapy practitioners obtain their training through the Nutritional Therapy Association. Again, they do not diagnose or treat disease but offer nutritional counseling for better health.
- A functional diagnostic nutritionist is a relatively new specialty where the nutritionist uses various tests to help determine the root cause of a chronic illness in a patient. Anyone can become a functional diagnostic nutritionist by obtaining the necessary training.
- Health coaches are part of the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and provide mentorship and wellness counseling to their clients through changes in lifestyle and diet. They may or may not have formal nutrition training.
How to Select a Nutritionist
We live in a digital world. Most healthcare professionals, including nutritionists, have a website where they post educational information for the public, offer dietary advice, and often present their personal case studies or reviews of nutritional studies. Also, on their website, nutritionists typically post their educational qualifications and experience. Consumers should always review the profile of the nutritionist they might be considering. This is critical for determining their validity and reputation. For example, someone calling themselves a nutritionist and selling vitamin products on their website is not a legitimate nutritionist but a profit-seeking business. It is thus recommended that when selecting a nutritionist, always do a thorough check and select professionals with the title RD, CN, or at least a degree in nutrition.