What to Look for When Hiring a Nutrition Professional

By Anne Wilfong, R.D., L.D. – May 1, 2014

One of the first steps to changing your health might just be finding a qualified nutrition professional who can complement your efforts. But how do you know which to choose—a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) or nutritionist? What’s the difference?

You are not alone if you don’t know what sets these two titles apart. It’s a question that clients frequently ask when seeking a nutrition professional as part of their healthcare team. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “All registered dietitians are nutritionists but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians. It’s an important distinction that can matter a great deal to your health.” 

The label “nutritionist” can be used very loosely and, in the state of Texas, it can be adopted without any special training. Whereas anyone can call him or herself a nutritionist here, an RDN has extensive training in disease-specific nutrition therapy as well as nutrient and energy metabolism. RDNs must follow rigorous requirements to become a healthcare professional. “RDN” is a legally protected title and can be used only by individuals who have met the following requirements:

  • Earned an undergraduate or graduate degree from an accredited university with a demanding course of study and research in a nutrition-related field;
  • Successfully completed an internship comprising at least 1,200 hours of practical, supervised experience;
  • Passed a national board examination; and
  • Completed annual continuing education courses to maintain registration status.

Before taking nutritional advice, always check the qualifications and professional background of the person giving it. How do you do that? First, consult eatright.org for a list of Austin-area RDNs. When meeting with an RDN for the first time, be sure to ask questions; the following are some good ones to put before anyone you might be interviewing for nutritional help.

What types of nutritional counseling do you practice?

This is especially important if you expect to spend more than one visit together. For example, if you would like to change your dietary patterns or are struggling with an eating disorder, you need to know what approaches will be taken and how the nutritionist could help overcome possible barriers that might arise while working to achieve your goals.

What evidence do you use to support supplement recommendations?

Supplements are a hot-button issue for many, and I encourage to carefully considering what role they’d like supplements to play in nutrition. It’s easy to get caught up in the promise of increased energy, disease management, or weight loss, but it takes time to really evaluate the evidence behind those supplements as well as determine any possible interactions with medications prescribed by a physician and foods eaten. A qualified nutrition professional takes all of these factors into account, acknowledging the known—and unknown—facts about supplement use, in order to help clients make the best decisions for health.

A common misconception is that RDNs don’t specialize in a “holistic” approach to nutrition and only focus on Western (or conventional) methods. On the contrary; many RDNs are very interested and have quite a bit of experience in this area. If you would like to explore integrative approaches, ask whether the RDN has expertise in that area and is a member of the Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine Dietetic Practice Group. 

Do you have established relationships with medical doctors and licensed mental health experts? 

This is a key question for a team approach to healthcare. Additionally, if a referral is needed, it’s important that the referral is to someone who is qualified and works well with your nutritional professional.

How do you stay current on the latest evidenced-based nutrition recommendations? 

Please don’t be afraid to ask this question. Nutrition information is constantly tweaked and updated, and studies may seem to contradict one another. You’ll want to ensure your nutrition professional is staying up to date as well as able to interpret good studies from bad ones.

At some point, any nutritional professional will be stumped by a question, and that’s OK. But do expect an acknowledgement of what he or she doesn’t know and an undertaking of the diligent research needed to provide an evidence-based answer.

Do you accept insurance? 

The good news is that medical nutritional therapy is covered by an increasing number of insurance companies as a preventative measure in addition to nutritional management. In the state of Texas, an insurance company will generally require that the provider be an RDN. 

While this may seem like a lot to consider, health and wellness is important, and it’s crucial to have the most qualified nutritional professional on your healthcare team.  Taking the time to thoroughly examine possible candidates is certainly time well spent.



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