If you are looking to improve your overall health and food choices, a registered dietitian nutritionist can be a great resource. They can provide guidance on how to eat a balanced diet in a healthy and sustainable way.
What’s the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian?
First, it’s important to discuss the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian. While the terms are often used interchangeably, only one is considered a nutrition expert. Education and training requirements are quite different between the two.
The requirements to become a nutritionist are very loose, depending on the state you live in. Some states require a bachelor’s degree, while for others, no formal education is needed. Some nutritionists use online courses and certifications to gain knowledge in the field of nutrition.
Nutritionists typically act in supporting roles as health coaches. They help a client implement changes to their diet and provide basic nutrition education on calculating caloric and macronutrient needs.
To become a registered dietitian nutritionist, on the other hand, requires a master’s degree (starting in 2024). Courses in anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, metabolism, scientific research and counseling are required to become a dietitian.
Dietitians are also required to complete 1200 hours in supervised practice and pass a certification exam. Some states require additional licenses to practice dietetics.
As a dietitian, you can work with clients who have medical conditions that require special diets such as diabetes, heart disease, food allergies, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and more. You can also prescribe meal plans, which is out of the scope of practice for nutritionists and personal trainers.
Dietitians typically work in hospital settings (inpatient or outpatient), public health clinics, long term care facilities, private practice or college or professional sports nutrition programs.
Why should you see a dietitian?
There are plenty of reasons you may seek out a dietitian nutritionist. The average person may want to see a dietitian to discuss how to create healthy eating habits. They can set goals with the dietitian such as weight loss, improving digestion or gaining muscle.
For those who have medical conditions that require special diets, it’s very important to speak to a dietitian. While your doctor can provide basic advice, dietitians have a specialized knowledge about specific medical nutrition therapy to improve various health conditions.
In general, if you have questions about nutrition, it’s best to speak to a dietitian rather than seeking information online.
If you can’t afford a dietitian, you can work with your health insurance provider to get an appointment covered or discounted. You can also try to find dietitians on social media (such as myself) to get general advice from. If you qualify for WIC or SNAP, you can speak to a dietitian through these services for free.
What medical conditions require dietary change?
There are a variety of health conditions that potentially require dietary change. If you have any of these conditions, please speak to your primary care provider to see if seeing a dietitian is right for you:
- Chronic heart disease
- Chronic kidney disease
- Type I or II diabetes
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Food allergies
- Celiac disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Certain cancers
You can likely get an appointment (or several) with a dietitian covered by your health insurance if you have any of these conditions. Be sure to speak to a health insurance representative to see what you can get covered.
How to receive a referral for a dietitian
The best way to receive a referral for a dietitian is to speak to a healthcare provider such as your primary care provider. During an appointment, you can bring up that you’d like to speak with a dietitian, and if they feel it is appropriate, they can provide you with a referral.
What does a typical appointment with a dietitian look like?
A typical visit with a dietitian starts out with going over your medical history (chronic conditions, past surgeries, family history). Then, they will likely ask for a diet recall, which will give an overview to what your typical day to day diet looks like.
From there, the dietitian will likely ask about your goals and what improvements you want to make with your diet. Then, they will look at your diet recall and evaluate gaps that prevent you from reaching your nutritional needs.
After, the dietitian will help you create a goal or multiple goals that are realistic for you. From there, they will provide some nutrition education relating to those goals and provide some tips or strategies to help you achieve those goals.
At follow-up meetings, the dietitian will touch base with you regarding the goals you set the previous meeting and help you set new goals if desired.
Top 9 Questions to Ask Your Dietitian Nutritionist
It can be overwhelming to know what specific questions you should ask your dietitian at your first meeting. Here is a list of questions to help guide you.
1. Are there any foods I should be reducing or avoiding?
Depending on your medical history, you may need to reduce or avoid a certain food or food group. For example, if you have celiac disease, your dietitian will prescribe a gluten-free diet. If you have food allergies, your dietitian will recommend completely avoiding the source of your allergy as well as cross contamination.
2. What foods should I be eating more of?
Your dietitian may encourage you to consume more foods that are high in nutritional value, especially if certain vitamins and minerals are lacking in your diet. They may recommend foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats.
3. Should I be taking any supplements?
Supplements can be confusing and overwhelming, so it’s a good idea to discuss what dietary supplements you are currently taking as well as what supplements might be beneficial with your dietitian. They may recommend a vitamin supplement to help ensure you are getting all your essential nutrients.
4. How many calories should I be consuming?
Especially if you struggle with weight loss or weight gain, you may want to ask how many calories you should be consuming daily. This number could vary quite a bit depending on how much you weigh, your muscle mass, activity level and job type.
5. How much protein should I be consuming?
Your intake of protein may need to be higher if you are very active, trying to lose weight, are older or recovering from illness or injury. Be sure to ask your dietitian how much protein per day you should be aiming for.
6. What foods interact with the medications I’m taking?
If you are taking any medications or supplements, bring them up with your dietitian. There may be a food drug interaction that you don’t know about. For example, if you are taking warfarin, a blood thinner, you have to watch your vitamin K intake.
7. How much water should I be drinking?
Staying properly hydrated is very important for your digestion and overall health. You may want to ask your dietitian how much water you should be drinking. They will likely calculate the proper amount based on your height, weight, climate and activity level.
8. Should I aim to lose, gain or maintain my weight?
You may already have weight gain or weight loss goals, but either way it’s best to discuss if your goals are realistic and appropriate. A healthy weight is important for good health, but unhealthy obsession with weight loss can be a sign of an eating disorder.
9. What are the best strategies to lose, gain or maintain my weight?
Once you’ve set a weight loss, weight gain or weight maintenance goal, you may want to discuss the most effective and long lasting strategies to reach these goals. While the amount of calories you consume will determine your body weight, there are many ways to achieve your caloric intake goal. Work with your dietitian to determine the best method for you.
10. How should I manage eating out at restaurants?
If you eat out often, you may want to ask your dietitian how to best handle eating at restaurants. They can go over some strategies to find healthy meals on the menu or recommend certain restaurants with better options.
11. Should I worry about my sodium intake?
If you have high blood pressure or have a medical condition where fluid retention is an issue, you probably should discuss sodium intake with your dietitian. They may recommend a limit on sodium intake as well as liquids, depending on your condition.
12. How many meals and snacks should I be eating?
Some medical conditions may require small meals throughout the day as opposed to two or three large meals. Ask your dietitian how you should be spacing out your meals or if it’s even something you need to worry about.
13. What are your thoughts on the latest fad diets?
If you are curious about recent fad diets like the ketogenic diet or plant-based diets, you should discuss these with your dietitian. They can help you separate myth from reality when it comes to the latest fads.
14. Where can I find good recipe and meal ideas?
Your dietitian likely can provide you with several resources where you can find tasty and nutritious recipes. There are so many great free options online nowadays, even your dietitian may want to share a few of their favorite recipes.