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What is the difference between a Dietitian, Nutritionist, and Nutrition Coach?

Nutrition plays a major role in the success or failure of an endurance event, yet finding the answers to questions about calorie intake, macronutrient ratios, bonking, or optimizing performance can be daunting and time-consuming. Not only is the field of nutrition highly debated and ever-changing, the designation of nutrition experts is unclear, and varies depending on where you live. How is the average athlete to know what nutrition provider to work with?

There are Nutritionists, Certified Nutritionists, Dietitians, Nutrition Coaches, Registered Dietitian Nutritionists… and the list goes on! If you want to get a grasp of these nutrition provider types, read on.

One of the most overused and least understood terms in the field of Nutrition is “Nutritionist.” Anyone can call themselves a Nutritionist, so, buyer beware. GritLink is an online directory of health care providers who specialize in working with endurance athletes. The GritLink Network categorizes Nutrition Providers into three designations: Nutrition Coach, Certified Nutritionist, and Registered Dietitian.

What is a Nutrition Coach?

Nutrition Coaches help athletes with basic nutrition education, habit-change related to nutrition goals, and over- or under-fueling during training and racing. Coaches are a great first-line of defense as well as maintenance strategists for any of these issues. Professionals with the “Nutrition Coach” designation have completed course work and an exam from a private health, fitness, or wellness organization. Nutrition Coaches do not have medical accreditations or a license to practice “medical nutrition therapy,” such as the treatment of disordered eating, body dysmorphia, or the prescription of diets to support a medical condition. A good Nutrition Coach knows their boundaries, clearly states them with their clients, and has a network to refer out to when clients’ needs cross their boundaries of practice.

Nutrition Coaching credentials are wide and varied. Some Nutrition Coaching programs take place over a weekend, while others take 12-18 months to complete. Some examples of Nutrition Coaching certifications include: NTP – Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, Pn1/2 – Precision Nutrition Level 1 or 2, CISSN – Certified by the International Society of Sports Nutrition, or Diploma in Sports Nutrition (IOPN) Institute of Performance Nutrition.

Certified Nutritionists & Registered Dietitians: Medical nutrition practitioners

Medical nutrition practitioners have a Bachelors or Masters Degree in Human Nutrition from an accredited university and a state or federal license or certification to practice nutrition. Their license or certification (depending on the state) allows them to accept health insurance and treat medical conditions with nutrition therapy. Examples of medical nutrition practitioners are:

  • Certified Nutritionist (CN): In Washington State, anyone who uses the “Certified Nutritionist” designation has a Masters Degree in Human Nutrition and must file with the state for a certification to practice nutrition.

  • Registered Dietitian (RD/RDN): A Registered Dietitian has completed either a Bachelors or Masters degree in Human Nutrition, a 1-year (1200 hours) accredited dietetic internship, and has passed a national exam that enables them to work as an RD nationwide, with the appropriate state licensure or certification. In recent years, the RD designation has included RDN, but they represent the same credentials.

  • Certified Dietitian (CD) or Licensed Dietitian (LD) is a state designation that indicates an RD is certified with the state (in addition to their federal designation).

What about Sports Nutrition?

Medical nutrition practitioners receive base level training in nutrition for athletes, but can also specialize in Sports Nutrition with the credentialing agency, the Commission on Dietetics Registration, by getting an additional certification, which may include Board Certification in Sports Nutrition, or SCAN (Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition) certification.

Choosing Your Nutrition Provider

When deciding which type of Nutrition Provider to see, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is your end goal?

  • How important is your goal in relation to your life and training? In other words, how much time, money, and brain bandwidth are you willing to spend to reach your goal?

  • How flexible can your lifestyle be in order to accommodate your goal?

  • What are your personal preferences and beliefs when working with providers? For example, do you prefer action plans and communication, or are you someone who likes to see the data?

This information was adapted from an article originally published on GritLink on December 3, 2019. View the complete article here.


Thank you to the following nutrition providers in the GritLink Provider Network for their contribution to this article:

Additional References

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