Published:
July 9, 2020
Last Updated:
October 19, 2021

Dietitian Vs. Nutritionist Vs. Health Coach: What are the Differences?

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, dietitians, 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, reduce stress and stress-related ailments, transition smoothly through a life phase, and improve energy, mood, and focus.

What do Dietitians, Nutritionists, and Health Coaches Do?

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 dietitian, nutritionist, or a Health Coach.

What do nutritionists do?

Nutritionists focus 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. They create 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), and look into whether their clients would benefit for nutritional supplements. Nutritionists aid their clients in understanding how food and supplements are digested and assimilated in the body, which helps explain why they recommend certain foods and supplements.

What do dietitians do?

A dietitian – sometimes called a registered dietitian (RD) or a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) - is a food and nutrition expert who completes rigorous training and satisfies national standards to practice. Dietitians help people improve their health by focusing on food and nutrition protocols, including prescribing certain diets and supplement protocols based on an individual’s health needs and concerns. Dietitians often work in tandem with doctors and physicians to support clients on their health journey, as doctors and physicians can refer patients to dietitians and typically have their services covered by insurance.

What do Health Coaches do?

Health Coaches provide clients with a safe, supportive space to explore their health issues and goals. They encourage 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.

Coaches empower 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. They guide 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.

Differences Between Dietitians, Nutritionists, and Health Coaches

There’s a fair amount of overlap between these professions, but how exactly do dietitians, nutritionists, and Health Coaches differ?

Nutritionist

Nutritionists create specific, nutrition-based guidelines for clients to address specific health issues. They can prescribe certain diets and supplement protocols based on client lab tests, as well as develop specific meal plans for clients to monitor symptoms, bloodwork, etc. Becoming a nutritionist 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.

Dietitian

Dietitians can help diagnose and treat nutrition-related illnesses. Clinical dietitians work in hospitals, long-term care facilities, in- and outpatient clinics, and private practice. They often care for individuals experiencing eating disorders, substance abuse issues, or medical conditions with symptoms that can be improved or managed with diet. Registered dietitians often collaborate with mental health professionals to screen for eating disorders. They create unique nutrition plans for their clients and help them maintain healthy eating habits based on their medical needs.

Health Coach

Health Coaches focus on a holistic approach to health, exploring all the other areas of a client’s life that affect well-being. They utilize goal setting and accountability-based coaching strategies to help clients understand and address their health issues from a holistic perspective. Coaches can provide information on different types of diets and supplement options to explore, but do not prescribe these types of protocols to clients.

While Health Coaching 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, dietitians and nutritionists.

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.

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).

woman sitting outside with mug in front of plant

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

What are the different types of dietitians?

The label “dietitian” is only used for people who have been licensed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the United States, as well as the state in which they practice. This role is the most advanced regulated role in the nutrition profession.

How to become a dietitian

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 differences between these types of Health Coaches, unlike distinct nutritionist and dietitian titles. Many people do 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?

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 - Is the program on a campus, or virtual?
  • Duration – How long will this take to complete?
  • Cost – How much will the program cost?
  • Credentials earned – What kind of certificate will you earn after completing the program?
  • Curriculum – What does the program cover? What will you learn?
  • Faculty – Who will be teaching?
  • Affiliations and partnerships – Can you apply your training credits towards higher education or board certification?

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 towards regulation, there have been moves to require certification for practicing Health Coaches. Certification also allows 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 (IIN has earned that approval). If you sit for and pass this exam, you can call yourself a board-certified health and wellness coach.

What career paths can nutritionists, dietitians, and Health Coaches take?

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, Dietitians, and Health Coaches can work in:

  • Private practices
  • Doctors’ offices
  • Hospitals
  • Wellness centers/gyms/spas
  • Schools and universities
  • 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 dietitian, nutritionist, or Health Coach?

Whether you become a dietitian, 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 on their dietary needs to overcome health issues or obstacles and reach their health goals
  • Working in a variety of settings, institutional or not

The benefits of becoming a dietitian include:

  • Higher earning potential, due to the extensive education and training dietitians must complete in order to practice
  • Finding work with food product manufacturers, retail businesses, in research and public health promotion, in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, or anywhere where a professional with experience in nutrition is needed
  • Supporting doctors and other healthcare professionals by facilitating important nutrition-based conversations and implementing healing protocols

The benefits of becoming a Health Coach include:

  • Earning an education to understand the multidimensional aspects of health and how to coach clients through this lens
  • 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

The Bottom Line

While there are important differences between these types of health professionals, the underlying goal is the same: to help people get healthier! Are you looking to work with clients to plan their every meal? Have you struggled in the past with disordered eating, and want to support others going through the same thing? Want someone to teach you tools to manage your life give you the impact you’re looking for? Nutritionists, dietitians, and Health Coaches offer different skills and have varying levels of clinical experience and authority. Before consulting – or becoming – a dietitian, nutritionist, or Health Coach, think about what you’re hoping to achieve.

Author Biography
Nina Zorfass
,
IIN Content Writer

Nina holds a bachelor’s in dietetics, nutrition, and food sciences from the University of Vermont, is a graduate of IIN’s Health Coach Training Program, and is an NASM-Certified Personal Trainer.

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