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health coach vs. registered dietitian

In my experience, health coaches can often be mistaken for dietitians or nutritionists. While there are some similarities, there are plenty of differences. 

I went to the dictionary to get a baseline definition of each.

Merriam-Webster, defines each as follows: 

Dietitian: “A person whose job is to give advice about what to eat in order to be healthy”

Nutritionist: “A person whose job is to give advice on how food affects your heart”

At this time, there isn’t a formal definition of the term health coach, however health coaches are trained to do both of the above plus more. If I had to write a definition, I would describe a health coach as a trained and trusted advisor who gives guidance in the areas of food, nutrition and lifestyle focused on habit change to help a client meet her wellness goals while learning about herself and her body as unique individuals. 

A Registered Dietitian (RD) undergoes formal training in science to earn a degree. A credentialed RD must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, complete a six to twelve month practice program, pass a national exam and pursue continuing education requirements to maintain their credentials. A Nutritionist completes similar training and testing but requirements vary by state. The degree status RDs earn make them more widely recognized within the medical community, though that is changing in recent years. 

Health Coaching is different in that it’s a certification rather than a degree. The program of study is different depending on which institution you choose but mine at Institute for Integrative Nutrition was one year with required tests at milestone points throughout the program. I’ve since taken the International Association of Health Coaches (IAHC) exam to become nationally recognized as a certified coach and I pursue continuing education as I deem necessary and relevant. 

While all Health Coaches are different, most coaches work with clients in a private practice while others choose to work in corporate settings, at schools, wellness centers or alongside medical professionals. RDs and nutritionists often work in clinical settings though some also choose to be in private practice. 

Where a health coach most differs from an RD or nutritionist is in the approach to wellness. Health Coaches take a holistic approach to wellness and works with clients to help them reach goals like weight loss, improving energy levels, alleviating digestive distress and healing other symptoms naturally. But the focus goes beyond food to cultivating balance in other areas of life like career, relationships and spirituality. In my practice, I go above and beyond to offer a personal level of support and accountability that you may not find elsewhere. 

I recognize that some RDs and nutritionists are taking a more “coach-centric” approach, but because they often work in clinical settings, the level of ongoing support they can provide is limited. Not to mention, they’re governed by the guidelines of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics so a less mainstream approach may not be within their realm of practice. 

Have a question about health coaching? Leave them in the comments! 


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