Focused on food: Registered dietitians, nutritionists, and health coaches

Nutrition specialists can help with PCOS and other hormone issues. But not all nutrition titles can work within the same scope.

Registered Dietitians (RDs), nutritionists, and health coaches are all savvy about how diet impacts our health. Nutrition is undeniably a super important support element in managing any hormonal health condition, whether it be a reproductive hormonal disorder like PCOS or more general imbalance.

Many people (incorrectly) use the term nutritionist and dietitian interchangeably, while also confusing certain nutrition and health coach certifications among one another. In the realm of nutrition specialists, credentials really do mean a lot.

Certificates vs. certifications

Before we get rolling, it’s important to be aligned on what a certificate vs. a certification is. We like this breakdown from Natural Healers:

“Certificates are proof that you’ve successfully taken a class or series of courses and can sometimes be completed in as little as a few weeks. Certificate programs are often designed for those who have already earned a degree and want to gain a deeper knowledge of a particular subtopic. In the field of nutrition, these could be specializations such as sports nutrition, weight management, or nutrition for children or the elderly. Depending on the coursework, earning a certificate might help you meet certain requirements for certification.

A certification, on the other hand, is a credential given by a regulated professional organization that verifies you’ve completed a certain level of education, gained a designated amount of professional experience, and in most cases, have passed a specific exam. What’s more, the certifications with the highest requirements often align with the prerequisites for becoming licensed or certified by your state. Many states require a licensing exam offered by one of these organizations, meaning that you can pursue your state credentials and optional certification at the same time.”

There are seemingly infinite certificates and certifications thrown around when it comes to nutrition-focused specialists, so being clear on this key distinction is an important part of being an informed patient.

Without further ado, let’s get started!

What it means to be an RD

Providers that are registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) are allowed to carry the title of “dietitian,” or, more specifically, registered dietitian nutritionist (hence the common RD or RDN abbreviation you will often see alongside their names). RDs are board-certified professionals required to take a licensing exam.

In addition to providing nutrition counseling, RDs are also qualified to work in dietetics, which includes treatment-based nutrition plans and falls more on the medical side of the healthcare spectrum than the lifestyle end.  

The curriculum requirement for RDs is intense. Within most states, these providers must:

Once completing their degree and passing the CDR board examination, RDs can pursue specialty certifications such as weight management, sports dietetics, and pediatrics. They can also work in a variety of settings: hospitals, clinics, universities, or start their own private practice (hiya, Pollie providers!).

Most states have regulations imposed directly for RDs and this profession is regulated in a fairly standardized way from state to state. While this can pose more limitations from an independent practice perspective, it also makes it a more friendly option for patient payment: RDs can often bill patients’ insurance.

...vs. what it means to be a nutritionist or health coach

Future providers that are passionate about how nutrition impacts our health oftentimes opt for a nutrition certification (what Pollie refers to as “nutritionists”) title if they want to provide nutritional counseling on a more rapid timeline.

There are a variety of certification programs that a nutritionist can pursue, many of which can be completed in as quickly as 6 months.

This flexibility does come with its own scope limitations, though. While RDs can help diagnose more serious health conditions like eating disorders with their title, nutritionists are generally more limited in their interactions, taking on more of a supportive and educational role with their clients.

It’s also important to note that many health coaches can fall into this realm. While health coaching is more focused on helping clients develop goals and accountability - and can extend to other life aspects as well - the titles can sometimes be used interchangeably, so you should have a good handle on the specific certification that a provider has when it comes to seeking advice from a nutritionist or health coach.

Examples of different nutrition specialist certifications include:

  • Certified Nutritional Consultant (CNC): This is a good credential for entry-level nutritionists. To be a CNC, a provider must have taken the American Association of Nutritional Consultants’ 11-part exam. A bachelor’s degree is not required for this exam.
  • NASM Certified Nutrition Coach: This is a popular certification for personal trainers who want to help their clients with a diet plan in addition to fitness routines.The National Academy of Sports Medicine monitors this credential.
  • American Fitness Professionals Association (AFPA) Certified Holistic Nutritionist, Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, Weight Management Specialist, and more: As another credential for personal trainers, an AFPA certification is good for those looking to maximize their career opportunities. There is a variety of certifications available through AFPA. However, these certifications do not enable providers to receive state licensing or certification.
  • Board Certification in Holistic Nutrition (BCHN)*: The National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP) monitors this credential, which is ideal for specialists interested in helping their clients achieve their health goals in a personalized, holistic way. This title makes some individuals eligible for receiving licensing and running an independent health practice, but again, on a state-by-state basis.
  • Certified Nutritional Professional (CNP)*: The NANP (mentioned above) offers a more rigorous curriculum for individuals who want to qualify for the licensing exam. In addition to completing coursework similar to BCHN, CNPs must have completed at least 1,200 hours of clinical experience over the course of three years, which qualifies these specialists for licensing exams in many states. A focus on health and wellness remains.
  • Certified Clinical Nutritionist (CCN)*: A CCN is a good certification if a provider wants to practice in facilities like health systems, research facilities, and other medical institutions. While CNP experience is centered on lifestyle, CCNs are more geared toward the science and technicalities behind nutrition. This certification also makes nutritionists in many states eligible for their licensing exam. The Clinical Nutrition Certification Board (CNCB) regulates eligibility for CCNs.
  • Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS)*: Being a CNS means a provider has achieved the “highest” of all national nutrition certifications. This title is more widely recognized for state licensing than CNP and CCN titles, and they have to complete similar intensity of coursework and continuing education as RDs. The BCNS awards CNS certifications.  

*Viable for licensing in some states

We know that was a lot, so we’ve put together a nifty cheat cheat for you here:

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There are also a host of common certificates, not to be confused with certifications, held by providers in our directories. For the provider population we focus on, most certificates are focused on functional medicine approaches, or helping patients make lifestyle and other adjustments to address the root cause of their health problems:

  • IFNCP Functional Nutritionist: These nutritionists have completed coursework for a certification from the Integrative and Functional Nutrition (IFN) Academy. As an IFN Certified Practitioner (IFNCP), these providers have been educated in how to leverage functional nutrition to help their clients.
  • Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM) Certification: This certificate is similar to IFNCP, but received through IFM. While IFN Academy is focused on nutritionists of varying credentials, IFM degrees often appeal to a broader range of healthcare professionals.
  • Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN) Health Coach Certificate: According to IIN, health coaches that obtain this certificate are expected to educate and support clients to make behavioral change.

Note that since certificates can be given out by any organization and not necessarily a state or national regulatory body, this list is illustrative and not at all exhaustive.

Practicing across states

In general, “nutritionist” titles tend to be less regulated than RDs: these certifications are not as widely recognized across states compared to their RD counterparts.

The way nutritionists can practice is subsequently more flexible. Some states even allow specialists to practice as nutritionists or “nutrition specialists” without having received any certification.

If you are interested in learning more about what certifications your state recognizes, you can learn more here.

Titles are important when it comes to nutrition support

Although at first glance an RD and nutritionist (or health coach) may seem to offer their clients a similar value proposition, there can be wide discrepancy in these credentials.

While their knowledge is similar in the broad sense that it is focused on nutrition, there is a wide range of education intensity (months vs. years), curriculum focus (lifestyle vs. medical), and patient support (coaching vs. prescribing) that are inherent with these distinct certifications and certificates.

Similar to the other types of providers in Pollie’s directory, one is not necessarily better than the other - it is all about what you are looking for in terms of budget, areas of expertise, and communication style.

By being informed about what the title of a provider really means, you can make more informed healthcare decisions for yourself.


If you enjoyed this and would like to learn more about the distinctions between providers, check out our piece on the different types of naturopathic providers here.