Nutritionists: Not all are created equal

The terms dietitian and nutritionist are commonly used as synonymous labels to refer to people that bestow information regarding diet and nutrition. What many people misunderstand though is that there are fundamental differences between dietitians and nutritionists. All dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians!

As a current dietetic intern halfway through a rigorous 10 month program where I must complete 1,200 supervised practice hours, I know firsthand what comprises being able to obtain the title of Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). To get into this position first required completion of my bachelor’s degree in nutrition at an accredited program and following my internship program I still will need to complete a national exam. There is reasoning behind the expansive education and work requirements that goes into this profession route, as Registered Dietitians are the true experts in nutrition. That’s not saying that individuals who practice as nutritionists do not have the knowledge or ability to supply people with valuable nutrition information, it is just likely they do not have the extensive training and expertise that a RDN possesses.

The reality is that in many states including California there is limited regulation on who can use the term nutritionist and therefore essentially anyone can market themselves as a nutritionist regardless of their education or training. Someone interested in exploring the opportunities in the field of nutrition should understand the differences and it helps to have a vision for what they would like to pursue.

Online nutritionist courses can offer training and specific education on a variety of topics from nutrition for fitness to holistic and alternative nutrition. A pathway that has grown in popularity and is utilized by some of the largest online nutrition programs is the idea behind health coaching. After reviewing the program guide for a leading online nutrition school offering potential students roles as health coaches, it is easy to spot the dissimilarities from not only an education standpoint, but also a business perspective from the schooling necessitated to become a RDN.

Dietitians are health professionals whose coursework include dense scientific topics such as biochemistry, human anatomy and principles of the body’s metabolism. In turn they use this scientific based knowledge to translate the discipline of nutrition for everyday living. The knowledge they obtain allows them to apply nutrition as a prevention tool for health related issues as well as for treatment of diseases such as diabetes and kidney disease. Beyond the education provided in the classroom, during the internship process is where students are able to test their nutritional mental prowess and gain invaluable hands-on experience before embarking into the job field.

Now by comparing my experiences to the claims of that leading online nutrition school, I can shed more light on the level of preparation my pathway provides to embark on the nutrition world. The online program claims to build health coaches who are equipped to work with clients to attain wellness goals as well as having the capacity to aid in disease prevention. It is made clear that students will learn a holistic approach to provide nutritional advice by considering outside lifestyle factors besides solely food choices. For me it was quite interesting learning that this program could be completed all online within 1 year knowing that learning about nutrition has many complexities behind it especially when trying to relate it to medical conditions.

In the program guide it gives an overview of the concepts to be covered and when describing the nutrition science portion of the curriculum it uses terms such as basic and introduction, leading me to believe that students do not receive very in depth nutrition education. Instead of focusing on the scientific nature behind how nutrition works within the body’s functions, a lot of the curriculum focuses on building relationships with client’s and identifying ways to build a career. Building rapport with patients and client’s is a crucial part of any kind of nutritionist’ role, but without the appropriate nutritional knowledge to back it then it leaves room for issues to arise. More research into similar programs shows this common theme that the actual instruction of science based nutrition is not up to par with an accredited program required to be attended by dietitians.

A ploy online courses will play on to lure in students, is the idea that dietitians are limited by their knowledge and practice guidelines to take into account non-dietary facets of life when advising patients and clients. I see this as being far from the truth as my internship has placed me in outpatient settings where identifying these outside factors is a critical step in the assessment process. The message I’m trying to convey is that the public must be wary of individuals who claim to be nutritionists because they may have no qualifications to do so. The pathway an RDN undergoes fully prepares them as a nutrition expert.

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