The wellness industry is saturated. There is an incredible amount of information being thrown at you from every angle, every single day. Between social media, non scholarly articles in magazines, television media, and those working in the fitness industry, it's becoming increasingly difficult to know what is credible information and what is not. Having worked in the fitness industry for many years, I've seen and heard a lot. Because my day to day work primarily revolves around helping clients become the healthiest versions of themselves, the topic of nutrition comes up more often than any other topic in my studio. Navigating what to eat is one of the most challenging things many of my clients face in their journey to reach their goals. Everyday there are many questions are about daily calorie numbers, food timing, the types nutrients to consume, what foods are best served for particular goals, and the list goes on and on.
Among many things observed in the fitness industry, I have witnessed more times than I wish I had, fitness professionals over stepping their scope of practice when it comes to nutritional guidance. You the consumer should be well informed when choosing whom to work with on your road to optimum health. Knowing the ins and outs of what credentials to look for when choosing to work with someone is paramount. Also, the importance of understanding the difference between what a professional is certified to do versus licensed to do for the public is extremely important in discerning who can do what.
First, what is a nutrition coach? A nutrition coach is typically a personal trainer, but can also be someone who doesn't necessarily teach fitness who loves to guide others on their road to nutritional health. A nutrition coach pays an organization to learn from their materials and research. After they have gathered all of the knowledge provided, a test is taken to make sure the knowledge is retained and understood, and after a passing score is obtained, a certificate is issued. These programs can be self study online or more in depth depending on which organization one chooses. After completion, this sets the nutrition coach up to start a service guiding clients in nutrition. Notice I said 'guiding'? We'll get to that in a minute.
What is a Registered Dietician Nutritionist (RDN) ? An RDN is someone who has obtained a degree from a 4 year college and has extensively studied the science of nutrition. RDNs have to take and pass a national exam provided by the Commission on Dietetics and Registration (CDR). An RDN is licensed to practice depending upon their state and is considered a healthcare professional. RDN's also have to work on maintaining the RDN credential by earning additional approved credits. RDN's can specialize in different areas of nutrition such as pediatrics, sports specific nutrition, and diabetes related nutrition. An RDN is licensed to provide and prescribe specific nutritional plans and work with all special populations in regards to health issues.
What about a nutritionist? You've heard that term thrown around too, I'm sure. A nutritionist is a general term for someone who gives nutritional advice and guidance. They aren't necessarily a licensed professional and typically work in public health, schools, fitness centers, or private practice. It is up to you the consumer to do your research to find out where this person has studied and what qualifies them to give you advice.
So what is the actual role of nutrition coach?
Lets say you hire a personal trainer. You want to finally get in shape, lose those few extra pounds, and get some help with your diet. Lets face it, we know that diet is 80 percent of the battle. You meet with your trainer ( after researching their credentials, I hope! ) and they sell you a plan, an idea on how to get you where you want to go. Everything is going well until the day comes the trainer hands you a meal plan, or tells you to eliminate a whole food group, or pushes a supplement and insists you take this to get your results. This is when, I hope, you start to question your decision on hiring this individual.
You see, this is well beyond a nutrition coaching scope of practice. Beyond a personal training scope of practice. Yet, it happens everyday. I've heard it and witnessed it. Clients need help figuring it all out and they are desperate for answers, only to be steered in a dangerous direction by someone who is not licensed to do any of these things.
Nutrition coaches can offer up guidance. Nothing more. Nutrition coaches cannot prescribe, treat, or diagnose. Nutrition coaches are not qualified to eliminate whole food groups, prescribe specific food menus and daily menus, or set drastic calorie cuts. Nutrition coaches cannot provide detailed sports specific meal plans for athletes in extreme training nor can they prescribe dietary plans for anyone with chronic health conditions. They also cannot promote fasting, cleanses, or detox programs. And unless your nutrition coach is a certified personal trainer, they cannot provide exercise programming.
Everything I just listed here falls under the umbrella of what a licensed health professional is qualified to provide.
What can your nutrition coach do? Nutrition coaches can work with healthy populations - that is anyone who doesn't have an underlying health issues which require special dietary interventions. The coach can take a look at your daily diet diary and asses your current eating and offer guidance on how to modify it. Coaches can also offer calorie guidelines as set by acceptable entities such as the USDA My Plate. They can also educate clients on healthy macronutrients and the benefits of including them into the diet. Nutrition coaches can guide clients to establish healthy eating habits, give information from credible sources, share recipes, provide behavior based coaching, share food preparation methods and skills, help the client choose the appropriate foods before and after a workout, and discuss the importance of hydration. Coaches can make recommendations and offer support and guidance. There is a big difference there.
Lastly, your nutrition coach should know a lot about good nutrition. This seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many are out there who discuss nutrition with their clients without gaining extensive knowledge on the subject. Check the credentials of the person you are considering working with and do your own investigative work to ensure that you aren't wasting your time and money. There are many reputable organizations out there certifying professionals in the area of nutrition coaching. This also goes for personal training too. Check up on your professional to make sure their information is coming from a highly researched source and also ask questions about their education and years in the profession. Your body and wallet will thank you!