What should I eat? It’s a common question — and there are a lot of people out there willing to dole out nutrition advice. But who should you really trust? Hint: It may not be that influencer you’re following on Instagram or TikTok.
Here, find out the type of pro who can advise you on improving your eating habits, facilitating weight loss, managing a chronic condition through diet, and more.
What Makes Someone a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist?
Registered dietitian-nutritionist (RDN) is a specific professional credential. To earn the RDN title, someone has at least a bachelor’s degree and has completed course work accredited or approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics, has completed an accredited supervised practice program (which lasts 6 to 12 months), and passed a national exam, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. To maintain the RDN credential, they also complete continuing educational requirements.
What’s the Difference Between a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist and a Registered Dietitian?
You may see nutrition pros with an RDN or RD (registered dietitian) after their name. So, what’s the difference? “There isn’t one! The two credential options are identical in their meaning,” says Jennifer Bruning, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Chicago.
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Is a Nutritionist the Same as a Registered Dietitian?
No. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist; it’s a completely unregulated term. This is, in part, where the title of RDN came from. The “N” was devised for additional clarification. “The option to add ‘N’ for ‘nutritionist’ was added to help the public to understand that while all dietitians are nutritionists, not all nutritionists are dietitians,” she says.
What About State Credentialing?
You might also notice that an expert includes additional letters after their RD or RDN credential. These might include LD (licensed dietitian), LDN (licensed dietitian- nutritionist), or CDN (certified dietitian-nutritionist), notes the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. These are state licenses, and the letters vary by state. While an RDN or RD is a national registration, these state credentials signal that the dietitian is also registered to practice in their state, which is also important. “Many states choose to require licensure or title protection for dietitians to ensure that the public receives medical nutrition therapy and other forms of nutrition counseling from credentialed practitioners with the verified knowledge and experience needed to do so safely,” Bruning says.
What Advice Should I Be Getting From a Registered Dietitian Anyway?
There is so much you can learn from an RD-RDN. “RDNs are uniquely trained to provide expert advice on a wide variety of nutrition and health topics and are the only accredited healthcare providers that offer medical nutrition therapy,” says Justine Karduck, PhD, RDN, director of the didactic program in dietetics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES).
For example, they can help teach you about the basics of healthy eating, develop a diet for weight gain or loss, or help you manage chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, says Bruning. In addition, they can help you navigate eating when you are living with a food allergy or intolerance and if you are recovering from an eating disorder, she adds.
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Can Certified Health Coaches Be Experts in Diet and Nutrition?
A certified health coach focuses on creating behavioral changes to get you to your health goals. Specifically, they “partner with clients seeking to enhance their well-being through self-directed, lasting changes, aligned with their values,” according to the National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching. Some health coaches are RDNs, and have a Certificate of Training from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. There are also personal trainers certified through agencies such as the American Council on Exercise (ACE) who have also earned an ACE Health Coach Certification and can use this to help their clients practice a healthy lifestyle and promote general well-being.
The type of professional accreditation your health coach has will inform what type of diet and nutrition as well as fitness advice they can provide. Ask your health coach for their background, as well as the certification program they attended, and do your research to make sure that the program and their philosophy fits with what you’re looking for.
What About Credentials in Specialized Dietary Approaches, Like Sports Nutrition, Culinary, or Holistic or Functional Medicine?
There are seven specialty board certifications offered through the Commission on Dietetic Registration, which is the credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. These include board certifications for gerontological, oncology, pediatric, pediatric critical care, renal nutrition, sports dietetics, and obesity and weight management. These credentials can be readily identified because they begin with a “CS,” Bruning points out. For example, a professional who has board certification as a specialist in sports dietetics will have a CSSD. An RDN board-certified in obesity and weight management has a CSOWM.
When it comes to credentials for other specialized dietary approaches, like culinary nutrition or functional medicine, there isn’t a set standard, but these dietitians have typically sought out additional programs to focus in a particular area of practice. Your best bet is to first look for an RDN and then look at their areas of specialty. Bruning points out that an easy way to do this is to use the Find a Nutrition Expert tool on EatRight.org. First, you’ll search via your city, state, and ZIP and then use the drop-down “Specialty” box and check the expertise you’re searching for. Culinary arts; integrative, complimentary, and alternative nutrition; and vegetarian nutrition are among the 30 specialties listed.
You can also ask about their training and work experience, notes Dr. Karduck. “Any RDN should provide a prospective patient a summary of their skillset, and if they are not the appropriate RDN for the job, they can refer you to another RDN with that level of expertise,” she says.
Are There Any Credentials for RDNs Specializing in Keto, Intermittent Fasting, and Other Popular Dietary Approaches?
No, there are not. That said, all RDNs should be staying on top of diet trends, says Bruning. This way, they can advise any patients who are interested in trying these approaches on things like safety and nutrition. “There are many dietitians willing to engage individuals who would like to learn more about these styles or patterns of eating and can give guidance on how to do so healthfully,” Bruning says, who recommends looking for an RD-RDN who notes that they specialize in one of these types of diets. (This information is often easily found on their website, if they have one.)
What Nutrition Credentials Should I Look for if I Have a Disability or Another Health Concern?
If you have a medical condition, “it’s vital that you have a properly trained and credentialed nutrition practitioner to help you,” says Bruning. An RD-RDN has “a strong knowledge of various conditions, including but not limited to: overweight and obesity, endocrine disorders, cancer, malnutrition, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and renal diseases,” adds Karduck. In other words, for help with a chronic condition, you can feel confident that an RD-RDN is qualified to help you. That said, finding one with additional certifications can be helpful. Here’s what to look for:
If You Have a Chronic Condition
Diabetes CDCES is a credential awarded by the Certification Board for Diabetes Care and Education, notes the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists.
Chronic Kidney Disease Look for someone who is a board-certified specialist in renal nutrition (CSR), per the Academy.
Cancer The Commission on Dietetic Registration also has a board-certification for specialist in oncology nutrition (CSO).
Heart Disease or High Blood Pressure Look for a dietitian who specializes in CV-WELL, a dietetic practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. CV-WELL stands for cardiovascular health and well-being. You can find a qualified expert through the Academy’s search tool and clicking on “Heart Health–Heart Disease–High Blood Pressure” in the “Specialty” drop-down menu.
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If You Are Pregnant
Consider an RD-RDN who is also a certified lactation counselors (CLC). “An RD specializing in pregnancy and lactation is great for someone pregnant or looking to become pregnant,” says Bruning. They can also continue to offer support if you decide to breastfeed.
If You Have an Eating Disorder
Consider an RD who is a certified eating disorders specialist (CEDS), certified by the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals.