How to Choose a Legit Nutritionist, According to a Registered Dietitian

If you're thinking of getting healthier, rethinking the food you eat and your habits around food is likely one of the first things that comes to mind. And for good reason: A healthy eating plan can support myriad health goals from improving cardiovascular risk factors, increasing fertility, and support healthy aging, among others. It's safe to say that focusing on our behaviors around food is a great way to address a variety of different health concerns, as well as simply to feel better, happier, and more energetic in the present. The question then becomes, what's the best way to start? This is where a great nutritionist comes into play.

Whether you need some assistance figuring out the basics of where to start, have a specific health condition you want to address, or just want a little motivation to continue on your journey, it can be helpful to enlist a professional nutritionist in your quest for better health. There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing a nutritionist that can make the process confusing. But the reward for finding a great nutritionist you love working with can be pretty priceless. Before you throw in the towel, we asked Rebecca Ditkoff, MPH, RD, founder of Nutrition by RD, for some tips on what to look for when choosing someone to help you along your health journey.

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Know Which Credentials You're Looking For

Registered dietitian, nutritionist, holistic nutritionist… There's a bevy of terms and credentials out there in the food health world, so how does one know what each pro is qualified to do? In short, always research someone's educational background and credentials before deciding to work together. This is important in ensuring that they have the skills and tools to give you sound advice as well as that their services will fit in with your payment plan. Here are some key pointers to help you break through the clutter and understand what to look for in a pro.

"All Registered dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians."

"It is important to note that all registered dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians." says Ditkoff. The term nutritionist isn't regulated in all states, so technically, anyone who has an interest in nutrition can call her or himself a nutritionist in certain states.

A registered dietitian will have either an "RD" or an "RDN" after their name.

RDN stands for "registered dietitian nutritionist"—both titles, RD and RDN, are used interchangeably by dietitians. The RD/RDN title means that the practitioner:

  • Has completed a minimum of a bachelor's degree from an accredited program with an extensive nutrition and science curriculum

  • Has completed a dietetic internship

  • Has passed a national examination administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR)

  • Maintains their credential through continuing professional education.

This is a rigorous process that ensures that RD/RDNs are adequately equipped to provide safe and proper nutritional counseling.

By contrast, a nutritionist, or a holistic nutritionist, may not have earned that title by way of a standardized system.

"Although some nutritionists may have an educational background in nutrition without the registered dietitian credential (such as a bachelor's or master's degree in nutrition), others may use this title after taking a short online course," Ditkoff explains.

This isn't to say that nutritionists are harmful or don't have your best interests at heart, but they may not have the same level of education, certification, and standards that a RD/RDN does.

RD/RDN services are eligible for insurance reimbursement.

Also important to consider is the issue of insurance. As Ditkoff explains, "Only a RD or RDN is accredited and authorized to be recognized by the US Government as performing services that are eligible for reimbursement under current health care laws. In many states, the only professionals who are legally eligible for performing nutrition counseling and getting insurance reimbursement for it are RDs or RDNs." So if you're not looking to pay out of pocket, be sure to know what services are covered by your insurance and what credentials a practitioner needs to qualify.

Think About Your "Why" (and Write It Down)

"When looking for a nutritionist, consider the reason why you are seeking help," advises Ditkoff. "Many dietitians have specialized areas in which they practice. Therefore, it's important to look for a dietitian that can help you address your specific health needs and goals. For example, one dietitian may specialize in diabetes whereas another may specialize in eating disorders. Other specialty areas may include (but are certainly not limited to): sports nutrition, oncology nutrition, digestive disorders, cardiovascular health, and pediatric nutrition."

Thinking about why you're seeking nutritional counseling in advance of working with someone will also help you get the most out of each session. While you can work with your practitioner to set specific goals (and plans for achieving them), you can hit the ground running by diving into some of the reasons behind your desire to make a change before bringing someone else into the picture. Writing these reasons down will also help you stay on course if motivation starts to wane.

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Watch Out for Red Flags

"If it sounds too good to be true it likely is," cautions Ditkoff. She recommends staying away from anyone offering a "quick fix" or anecdotal advice about what worked for them or another one of their clients. These types of gimmicks are meant as a sales tool to draw people in, but are not founded in science and your unique body and needs.

"Proper nutrition advice should be individualized and evidence-based. What works for one person may not work for others," says Ditkoff. True change is also often slow and requires patience. While this isn't always popular, it's the only approach that will lead to long-term health and improved habits. Just ask anyone who has ever gone on a so-called "magical" 30-day fix, but then gone back to previous behaviors within weeks!

Have Your Questions Ready

Once you've identified someone (or a few people) you'd like to explore working with, it's a good idea to have a list of questions ready for during your consultation so you can address the topics most important to you.

Ask what their nutrition philosophy is.

According to Ditkoff, many dietitians will offer a free introductory call so you can get to know them and their style, and see if you'd enjoy working together. To get a bit deeper, Ditkoff says you can ask about their nutrition philosophy to get a sense of if you align with their general approach. For example, a nutritionist who talks about cutting out entire food groups as a general strategy may not align with the way you want to reach your nutrition goals, while another person might resonate with that approach.

Ask about their experience with specific concerns and goals.

She also recommends making a list of any specific goals or health conditions you'd like to address in order to ask about their experience working in those areas.

Ask about insurance upfront.

Finally, Ditkoff recommends figuring out the logistics of insurance and payment upfront, before you show up for your first session."You will also likely want to know whether they take insurance or are out of pocket," she says. "Some dietitians do take insurance and others are out-of-network, but can provide a superbill for reimbursement if you have out-of-network benefits." It's always best to be prepared with all the information before you get hit with an unexpected bill.

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