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What is a “Nutritionist” (versus a Dietitian

This is a question that was recently pitched to me by a prospective client on Facebook: “I’m curious: why you didn’t seek state licensure as a nutritionist?”

I thought I’d take the opportunity to answer this question as a I find that words like “nutritionist” and “dietitian” are thrown around quite often by people, yet are poorly understood. First, there really is no licensing standard for a “nutritionist.” Someone could get her Bachelors or Masters Degree in Nutritional Sciences or a related field, but this does not equate to state licensure. There are a number of educational paths in the field of nutrition, some of them belonging to universities and graduate schools and others belonging to more focused, shorter term educational paths lasting 1 year or even less. There are various credentialing boards out there that offer standards of practice and knowledge for those trained in nutrition to achieve in order to say they hold a certain credential, such as the credential of Certified Nutrition Consultant (CNC). These credentials connate that the individual went the extra mile and is especially knowledgeable and/or experienced because they earned that credential. But the credential alone does not necessarily guarantee they are any more skilled or capable than a well-trained, experienced, and intelligent nutrition practitioner without that credential.

Registered dietitians, on the other hand, are registered by their respective state and have to operate according to those state professional guidelines, as well as the regulations of the American Dietetic Association. So, in a sense, they are regulated like a licensed practitioner is, and are subject to operating according to the guidelines of the regulating body. One important thing to know is, whether we are talking about medical doctors (who are licensed) or registered dietitians, the majority of licensed/registered practitioners are overseen by regulating entities that are closely intertwined with various federal government agencies. In addition, both the regulating body and the government itself have major financial conflicts of interests/and or are subject to heavy lobbying by vested interests to set the standards of practice. These standards, in my opinion, are not always looking out for the best health interests of the population and are often prioritizing the profiteering of other sectors of the economy, such as big Ag or big Pharma. Therefore, it is no surprise that we are not seeing the American population getting healthier - quite the opposite. So having a “licensed” credential in today’s world only means that the practitioner is governed by a regulating body that is fraught with conflicts of interest. The practitioner may be an excellent practitioner, but you want to look beyond the credential and make sure that the practitioner has gotten some of their experience and training independent of these agencies in an unbiased setting. You also want to be sure they are free to use their independent knowledge and skills to work with their clients in a way that truly serves health. Because of this, you often will not see functionally trained nutrition practitioners in conventional hospital settings. Rather, you will often find registered dietitians there because they follow the standards of the ADA which tend to fall in line with the rest of the insurance-driven medical paradigm other licensed medical practitioners follow. At the end of the day, licensure does not really give a practitioner more authority to help a patient or client (unless they are an MD or other prescribing practitioner and want the authority to diagnose and prescribe meds), or competency to truly help a person get well.

This is why I chose a profession on the side of nutrition and functional medicine - to get outside of the insurance system and conflicts of interest within regulating bodies and the agencies they work with. I want to help clients discover the underlying contributors to why they don’t feel well and then teach them how to address those things.

As an aside, I want to make the point that no nutritionist, including myself, is in the business of diagnosing and treating. I’m in the business of helping my clients self-test and self-address the issues we find, along with teaching them sound nutritional, lifestyle and mindset principles.

Hopefully I’ve made the point that there are a lot of nuances to determining who is qualified and well-suited to help you with a specific health issue, and I would not base that decision on credential alone.

So, what are the standards by which to evaluate a nutrition practitioner? There are really three key aspects I would focus on when evaluating a practitioner. The first one is testimonials. Do you see a plethora of testimonials on their website, or can they provide you with a list of testimonials from the clients they’ve worked with and gotten great results for? The second is personal experience. Has this practitioner struggled with the same health issue and/or symptoms you are struggling with? Do they truly understand the emotional, financial, physical, and spiritual struggle you are facing? The third key aspect is the ability to sample their work. Do they offer a low-cost initial consult that provides you at least 30 minutes of one-on-one time with them and allows them to gather information about your health picture and provide you with an interpretation of what they see? Or, do they offer you a discounted first session to give you insight into how they work and demonstrate that they can uncover new information for you? Do they offer free educational resources or tips on how to get improvement in the area of health you are struggling with? Most credible practitioners are happy to put free educational resources out there to help people at a basic level, as well as provide a low-cost option to experience their way of working and give you a sense of whether or not you want to continue forward with them (and vice versa!). With these initial touch points, you should feel heard, understood, and like they were able to connect a few dots for you in ways your doctor or other practitioners did not. If a practitioner checks the boxes on all of these things, I think it’s a good bet, he or she is a solid investment.

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