What Is the Difference Between a Nutritionist and a Health Coach?

July 9, 2020

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While there are important differences between these two types of health professionals, the underlying goal is the same: to help people get healthier! 

There’s never been more information available on how to live a healthy lifestyle and eat a healthy diet, but why are people still confused about what to do? Information overload! You likely know firsthand that one Google search for “Is X healthy?” will get you tons of conflicting answers. Super frustrating, right? 

That’s where health and nutrition experts come in. Nutritionists and Health Coaches alike can help you sort through and make sense of all the health information out there and, most important, make it relevant to you and your needs. The reasons for seeing one of these experts can also be the same, such as a desire to: 

  • Lose weight
  • Resolve gut dysfunction and digestive problems
  • Reduce stress and stress-related ailments
  • Pinpoint root cause(s) of a health issue
  • Transition through a life phase as smoothly as possible (e.g., pregnancy, menopause, age-related changes)
  • Improve energy, focus, and mood

But how exactly do nutritionists and Health Coaches differ? Here are some key differences between the two professionals:

Nutritionist:

  • Creates specific nutrition-based guidelines for clients to address specific health issues
  • Can prescribe certain diets and supplement protocols based on client lab tests
  • Can develop specific meal plans for clients to monitor symptoms, bloodwork, etc.
  • Requires years of formal education and training, including potential state(s) licensure
  • Doctors often refer patients to them as their services are covered by insurance. Nutritionists can help implement the nutrition-based solutions that many doctors do not have the time nor training to do

Health Coach:

  • Focuses on a holistic approach to health, exploring all the other areas of a client’s life that can fulfill and nourish; it’s not just about the food on the plate!
  • Utilizes goal setting and accountability-based coaching strategies to help clients understand and address their health issues from a holistic perspective
  • Can provide information on different types of diets and supplement options to explore, but cannot prescribe
  • Has a variety of educational options to choose from, depending on their desired career outcome
  • While services are not yet covered by insurance, important work is underway to demonstrate the value of Health Coaches and their work to improve health outcomes. Health Coaches often work in tandem with other traditional healthcare professionals, such as doctors and nutritionists

What are the main roles of a nutritionist vs. a Health Coach?

The outcomes may be the same – weight loss, more energy, improved mood, better digestion, clearer skin – but the ways in which a person achieves these desired outcomes look different depending on whether they work with a nutritionist or a Health Coach.

The main roles of a nutritionist include:

  • Focusing on the dietary aspect of a client’s well-being so desired health goals can be reached through food and potential supplementation, such as weight loss, biomarker improvement, and even chronic disease reversal
  • Creating meal plans based on the client’s specific needs (e.g., a low-sodium, low-sugar, high-fiber diet for someone looking to reverse their high blood pressure)
  • Creating supplement plans based on the client’s specific needs (e.g., adding in a quality omega-3 fish oil supplement for someone looking to reduce their bad cholesterol)
  • Aiding their clients in understanding how food and supplements are digested and assimilated in the body, which helps explain why they prescribe certain foods and supplements

The main roles of a Health Coach include:

  • Providing clients with a safe, supportive space to explore their health issues and health goals
  • Encouraging clients to focus not just on the dietary aspect of their health, but other areas of their life that can provide fulfillment and nourishment, such as the quality of their relationships, satisfaction with their job/career, how their home and environment make them feel, and even their connection to a spiritual practice. We here at IIN call these areas "primary foods," and ensuring the health of each area is imperative to overall health.
  • Empowering clients to learn what makes them feel vibrant and healthy, not just what they’ve been told is “healthy” or what they “should” or “shouldn’t” do as it relates to their health
  • Guiding clients toward sustainable diet and lifestyle changes by equipping them with the mental and emotional tools to achieve great health, such as how to find the foods and lifestyle practices that work for them 

What are the different types of nutritionists?

The term “nutritionist” is quite general, and it’s important to distinguish between the different types to understand which education and training to pursue.

Different types of nutritionists include:

  • Holistic nutritionist – This is the same as a nutritionist but with a broader view of health as it encompasses much more than just dietary needs. It’s important to note that education and training specifically for a holistic nutritionist is difficult to find as “holistic” is not a regulated term state by state, nor country by country. 
  • Certified nutrition specialist (CNS) – This role requires further training than a nutritionist, and depending on the state you’re practicing in, this credential offers an alternative route to licensure rather than becoming a registered dietitian (RD).
  • Registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN)This role is the most advanced in the nutritionist hierarchy as you are both licensed (by the state where you’re practicing) and certified (by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the United States).

How do I become a nutritionist?

If looking to pursue the certified nutrition specialist (CNS) title, the following must be achieved:

  • Complete a minimum of a master’s degree in clinical nutrition at an accredited institution
  • Complete 1,000 hours of supervised clinical work that must be approved by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (BCNS)
  • Pass the Certification Examination for Nutrition Specialists administered by the BCNS
  • Maintain continuing education credits in five-year cycles

If looking to pursue the registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) title, the following must be achieved:

  • Complete a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in dietetics at an accredited institution
  • Complete a supervised 6- to 12-month dietetic internship that is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND)
  • Pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s dietetic registration exam
  • Gain licensure in the state of practice, if applicable
  • Maintain continuing education in cycles based on the state of practice

What are the different types of Health Coaches?

Becoming a (successful) Health Coach will require a person to identify their target market, or niche audience. While it would be amazing to be able to help every single person, it’s not necessarily good practice to generalize your services as a Health Coach. That being said, many Health Coaches choose a specific audience to work with so they can grow and maintain a successful practice, such as those experiencing burnout, busy moms, those with gut-related issues, etc.

There are no formal distinctions between these types of Health Coaches, unlike the distinct nutritionist titles, but many people choose to combine their Health Coach credentials with existing ones, such as a personal trainer becoming a Health Coach to better serve their personal training clients’ needs in and out of the gym!

How do I become a Health Coach? Who can call themselves a Health Coach?

The health coaching profession is still widely unregulated across the United States and internationally, but it's gaining traction as one of the most lucrative careers in the health and wellness profession.

Because becoming this kind of health expert has become more popular, finding a high-caliber, credible health coaching institution is extremely important. The unfortunate truth is that anyone can call themselves a Health Coach, even if they lack formal training. Despite this, many people who go through training programs are awarded titles that are specific to the training they earned and their expertise. 

In order to become a Health Coach, it’s recommended that you consider the following when choosing your health coaching education: 

  • Online or in person – Many health coaching programs can be found online, while some have blended programs that combine online lectures with in-person training as well as supervised practice hours. Whether it’s online, in person, or both doesn’t make the training program better or worse; it’s simply a matter of what fits your needs and budget.
  • Duration – Most health coaching programs range from six months to one year, but there are some that can be completed in less time. While completing a training quickly sounds great, consider whether you’ll be earning a well-rounded education in such a short period.
  • Cost – The cost varies widely depending on the type of training, whether there’s an in-person component, duration, educational materials provided, support offered, and so much more. Depending on your personal needs, career goals, and budget, this is something you’ll need to factor into your education decision. 
  • Credential earned – What you can call yourself after completing a health coaching program is important, but again, it depends on your personal career goals and whether you wish to add it to an existing credential. Most training programs will allow you to call yourself a “[name of program]-trained Health Coach,” “certified Health Coach,” or “Holistic Health Coach.” 
  • Curriculum – What the program covers and what you’ll learn is extremely important to understand before committing to a training program. Many health coaching programs are very specific, and even geared toward coaching within the traditional healthcare setting, while others are more holistic in their approach and can provide the knowledge needed to create a health coaching business
  • Faculty – Who will be teaching can make a difference! You may want to ask yourself: “Is there diversity among the teachers?” “What are the backgrounds and credentials of the teachers?” “Are these teachers well-known and respected in their fields?”
  • Affiliations and partnerships – Many schools and health coaching programs will claim they are accredited and can provide certification, but can they actually back up those claims? Accreditation and certification can be important depending on your desired career goals, but many health coach institutions have other kinds of educational partnerships that can propel your health coaching career, such as the ability to apply your health coach training toward higher education and provide opportunities for you to sit for certification with other institutions.
  • Reputation - Doing research on how long a school or training program has been around is an important factor to consider when choosing your educational path. Many health coaching schools seem to pop up overnight, so look for information on when they were founded, what milestones the school or program has reached since their founding, and if they are even licensed by a larger governing body. The Institute for Integrative Nutrition was founded nearly 30 years ago; we created the field of health coaching! We're also licensed by the New York State Department of Education, which means our curriculum is regularly reviewed and approved to ensure that our rigorous curriculum is accurate and up to date.

Do I need to become certified to practice as a Health Coach?

Certification is not required to become nor practice as a Health Coach, but as the health coaching profession moves toward being regulated, there have been moves to require certification for practicing Health Coaches. Certification can also allow Health Coaches to maintain a competitive edge in a field that’s becoming saturated as it demonstrates their dedication to the practice and competency in the health coaching profession.

The National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching (NBHWC) is an organization whose mission is just that: to become the certifying body for Health Coaches in the United States. The NBHWC requires health coaching schools and training programs to apply for approval in order to provide graduates with the opportunity to become eligible to sit for the NBHWC certification exam. If you sit for and pass this exam, you can call yourself a true “certified Health Coach.” 

This is one more thing to look for when determining if a particular health coaching program is right for you.

What career paths can a nutritionist take vs. a Health Coach?

While the roles of these professionals differ, their career paths can often look quite similar, because as we discussed, the end goal for their clients is often the same!

Nutritionists and Health Coaches can work in:

  • Private practices
  • Doctors’ offices
  • Hospitals
  • Wellness centers/gyms/spas
  • Schools
  • Grocery stores
  • Food product companies
  • Supplement companies 

Because health coaching encompasses much more than just addressing food as part of the larger health picture, Health Coaches often use their health coaching credential as a value-add to their existing profession, such as yoga instructor, functional medicine doctor, chiropractor, chef, teacher, health activist, or author; the options are truly limitless!

What are the benefits of becoming a nutritionist or Health Coach?

Whether you become a nutritionist or a Health Coach, you already know you want to help people get healthier, and that’s incredible! Ultimately, when deciding what kind of health expert to become, you need to consider your professional goals and the path you want to take to get there.

The benefits of becoming a nutritionist include:

  • Earning an education to understand how the body works as it relates to utilizing food as fuel, energy, and sustenance
  • Helping people focus specifically on their dietary needs to overcome health issues or obstacles and reach their health goals
  • Supporting doctors and other healthcare professionals by facilitating important nutrition-based conversations and implementing healing protocols
  • Working in a variety of settings, institutional or not

The benefits of becoming a Health Coach include:

  • Earning an education to understand the multidimensional aspects of health and how to coach clients to gain this understanding
  • Creating a career on your own terms, whether combining your Health Coach credentials with existing ones or curating a new career path that fits your dreams and goals
  • Supporting the larger healthcare system and filling the voids in traditional healthcare
  • Learning how to equip not just your clients but yourself with the tools needed to sustain long-term habit change and create a healthier, happier life

Now that you know what it takes to become a Health Coach, check out the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s comprehensive Health Coach Training Program and download the Curriculum Guide. If you’re already a health and wellness professional and want to explore how to take your business to the next level, check out IINBiz, the all-in-one marketing platform made for the unique health professional!

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