What’s the Difference Between a Health Coach, a Registered Dietitian, and a Nutritionist?

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One of the most common questions we receive from prospective students is in regards to the qualifications and scope of practice for professionals in the field of nutrition & wellness.

Many people are familiar with the term “nutritionist” when it comes to someone who helps others acquire healthy eating habits, but the details beyond that tend to get a little blurry.

Here are the distinctions to help you get clear on the differences between the three terms, and decide which is the right fit for you.

Health Coach

A Health Coach is someone who works with clients to help them achieve wellness goals such as losing weight, increasing energy, or naturally alleviating symptoms of digestive distress. They also focus on disease prevention, reducing stress, and creating balance in all areas of life. Health Coaches take a whole-body, or holistic, approach to wellness. This means that they go beyond food and diet to explore the many ways that a client can improve their quality of life and find lasting health and happiness. It also means that they consider things like career satisfaction and fulfilling relationships as being influential to client success.

Health Coaches can work independently in their own business, alongside medical professionals, or in other wellness settings such as yoga studios or wellness centers. The ultimate benefit for someone who works with a Health Coach is the ongoing support and guidance that doctors are rarely able to provide. The certification to become a Health Coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition is approximately 1 year, and IIN graduates go on to work in schools, corporate wellness, media & publishing, fitness training, public speaking, government policy, and many other professional environments.

Registered Dietitian

A Registered Dietitian is someone who has had more formal schooling in the biology and biochemistry of the human body. RD’s must complete at least a bachelor’s degree, work in a supervisory program for approximately 1 year at a health care facility, and pass a national examination to get their license. While some RD’s choose to work independently and run their own practice, many are more likely to work in a conventional medical setting, such as a hospital or public health center, and work with doctors to help patients who have serious health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer.

Registered Dietitians are overseen by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and must therefore follow a certain set of guidelines in terms of the recommendations they can make to patients. While this ensures a certain level of standard practice, it leaves less room for individualized support and does not take into account the non-dietary aspects of life that facilitate or prevent healing (such as anxiety about work, lack of sleep or adequate hydration, or time for relaxation).

Being in more conventional settings, RD’s are generally less able to provide ongoing support to patients, and their focus is more on disease-management and the elimination of symptoms rather than achieving a higher level of thriving in life. The advantage of being a Registered Dietitian is the generally wider acceptance and recognition within the medical field.


There are no specific requirements for this term, with the result being that many different types of professionals who have a wide range of experience in wellness and nutrition calling themselves nutritionists. It is more common for Registered Dietitians to use the title, however many Health Coaches do as well. If the field of nutrition interests you, then it helps to put less emphasis on the title itself and more on the environment you’d like to work in, as well as the training requirements you can accommodate, and the philosophy of wellness you personally prescribe to.

What do you believe is the key to helping others achieve better health?

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About Diana Chaplin

Diana Chaplin is the Lifestyle Editor of the Integrative Nutrition Blog and a 2012 graduate of the Health Coach Training Program. She is a mom to a wild and happy toddler, speaks Russian, and her favorite food is sunflower sprouts! She can be reached at blog@integrativenutrition.com.