What to Look for in a Dietitian/Nutritionist

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

If you’re one of the many people committed to a New Year’s resolution this year, that means choosing a lifestyle program that includes a long-term sustainable diet and exercise program. Consider creating a support team to help. One important member of that team is a dietitian/nutritionist. What should you look for in this expert?

Nutritionist shaking a patient's hand.

Choose a person that matches your personality

One reason that a relationship with a dietitian or nutritionist fails is because they’re not a good match to your personality or goals. Some professionals can be very black and white in terms of recommendations and a bit harsh, especially if you have lifestyle-related disease present. Seek a person and coaching style that fits you.

Graduation cap and diploma.

Credentials are important

Dietitians have a college education and post-graduate degree. A board-certified dietitian is called a Registered Dietitian (RD). Nutritionists can complete a variety of different programs, so you need to check out background and education. Some nurse practitioners and physician assistants specialize in lifestyle coaching. A certified diabetes educator (CDE) specializes in diabetes. Some medical doctors (MDs) specialize in obesity care.

Personal trainer.

All personal trainers are not dietitians/nutritionists

There are stellar personal trainers who may have very basic nutrition knowledge, but unless they have the credentials and education, they should not be offering serious dietary advice. In fact, some may steer you to starvation diets, unnecessary supplements, and other harmful habits. Let your trainer work with your dietitian or nutritionist.

Nutritionist recommending supplements.

Beware those who sell stuff

Rarely should a dietitian or nutritionist sell you special foods, nutrition bars, or supplements unless you have special medical needs (post-bariatric surgery), or are enrolled in a program like Jenny Craig or Nutrisystem. The focus of the relationship should be menu plans, addressing cravings, and troubleshooting challenges.

Glucose monitor.

Special needs

If you have prediabetes, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, are post-bariatric surgery or have other conditions that have special dietary needs and goals, you may benefit from working with a dietitian or nutritionist who specializes in these health sectors. Your doctor also may have a relationship with a qualified expert.

Doctor talking to patients.

Value experience

If you are someone who struggles with weight cycling, then a more experienced dietitian or nutritionist may have the years of expertise required to help you to strategize and achieve your goals. You may also want to consider a dietitian or nutritionist who has a background in psychology to help you with cognitive behavioral training.

Smiling doctor holding an apple.

Some important don'ts

There are individuals who believe that they have enough personal experience to call themselves “nutritionists.” As mentioned, some personal trainers also believe they can comfortably offer diet advice. Don’t risk it: Seek trained professionals, don’t prepay for visits unless very committed, and don’t follow extreme diets -that’s a red flag.

Woman on a laptop eating a salad.

Some good resources

One good resource is the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.There is also a new certification called a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, which provides extensive training. Your doctor or local hospital may also have a referral base. The Obesity Society offers a database of clinicians, by region, who have dietitians as part of their team.

Patient shaking a doctor's hand.

If at first you don't succeed, try again

If your friend refers you to a dietitian or nutritionist and it doesn’t feel like a good fit for you – move on. There is a good match for your personality and goals; it may just take time to find that person. If you are significantly overweight or obese, you will likely spend months working with this individual so make sure it’s a “good fit.”

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at healthgal.com. Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”