Social media may abound with nutrition advice (both credible and not), but there are plenty of instances in which you should work with a dietitian directly instead of relying on your feed to help you figure out the best foods and supplements for your specific needs.
Finding the right dietitian might take a little digging, though. Here, the experts themselves break down some of the most important factors to consider when on the hunt, from the qualifications that matter most to red flags to watch out for.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Rachelle Caves, R.D.N., C.H.C., C.P.T., is a registered dietitian, certified health coach, and personal trainer based in Boston. Dalia Beydoun, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian who has been practicing medical nutrition therapy for a decade. Chrissy Arsenault, R.D., is a dietitian with Trainer Academy who has a decade of experience in dietetics.
First, Confirm Their Credentials
Before anything else, it’s important to note the difference between a registered dietitian and a nutritionist. All dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians. So what’s the difference?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, education and training distinguish a dietitian from a nutritionist. Dietitians are recognized medical professionals and the title “dietitian” is reserved for those who complete specific education and licensure requirements. If you’re seeking support for a medical condition or specific health issue, it’s important to work with a dietitian, since they receive appropriate training in these areas.
“You’ll want to look for the credentials R.D. (Registered Dietitian) and/or R.D.N. (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist),” says Boston-based dietitian Rachelle Caves, R.D.N., C.H.C., C.P.T. “Both terms signify a dietitian who has passed their certification exam and are registered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the national credentialing agency for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.”
Depending upon where you live, you will also want to check that the R.D.N. is licensed within your state, if applicable. For example, dietitians practicing in Massachusetts should also have the credential “L.D.N.” in their title, which signifies that they are licensed to operate there.
On the other hand, “nutritionist” is not a regulated title, meaning there are no requirements around who can and cannot use it. Basically, anyone can claim to be a nutritionist, even if they don’t have education or training to back it up—including plenty of the influencers dishing out advice on social media.
Of course, “some nutritionists may have completed some education related to diet or food science,” notes the Cleveland Clinic. “They may have some experience counseling people about food and healthy eating habits or they may just have a passing interest in the field.” It’s one big gray area.
That said, not everyone looking for nutrition support needs to work with a dietitian. Other nutrition credentials may suffice in certain circumstances. “If you’re not looking for nutrition therapy to alleviate or treat a medical condition and are instead seeking someone to help you set goals and stay on track (without providing specific nutritional advice for a health condition), then a Health Coach can be of assistance,” says Caves. However, the best of both worlds is to find a dietitian who is also certified as a health coach, she notes.
Consider Whether You Need A Specialist
Beyond looking for that baseline of education and training you’ll get from a dietitian, think about whether you need help from someone with expertise in a specific area. For example, depending on your needs, you might want to work with someone who specializes in diabetes management, eating disorders, or sports performance nutrition. This is particularly important if you have specific goals or a medical diagnosis you want to address.
“You want someone who knows your condition well and has ample clinical experience,”
says Dalia Beydoun, M.S., R.D., who has been practicing medical nutrition therapy for a decade. What does that look like, though? Caves suggests looking for someone who has at least three to five years of clinical experience.
Depending on your needs, keep an eye out for any additional certifications or credentials your potential dietitian has, such as a Weight Management Certification, for example, suggests Case. Additional education and training in your area of interest is always a good thing.
Make Sure They’re Up to Date
Regardless of whether you need a specialist, get a sense of whether any dietitian you’re considering working with regularly updates their knowledge through continuing education and stays current with the latest research and guidelines, suggests Chrissy Arsenault, R.D., a dietitian with Trainer Academy who has been practicing for a decade.
“You’ll want to look for a dietitian who relies on scientific, evidence-based practices and stays up to date with the latest research in the field,” Beydoun agrees. This may require doing a little detective work on your end. Don’t be afraid to ask potential candidates about the latest trends and scientific evidence related to any particular health concerns you’re interested in addressing. Do a bit of homework on the topic on your own, too, and then compare notes.
Beware Any Big Promises Or Quick Fixes
This goes for pretty much anything, but a dietitian who promises dramatic weight loss or instant health improvements is one to avoid. “Sustainable changes take time and effort,” says Arsenault. Any reputable, trustworthy dietitian will acknowledge that—and encourage you along your journey.
You want to work with someone who can help you make gradual changes that are achievable, maintainable, and sustainable long term. “A successful partnership includes ongoing support and follow-up to track progress and make necessary adjustments,” Beydoun says. Anyone who claims they can give you all the answers in one consult is full of it.
Look Out For Ulterior Motives
While there are many cases in which targeted supplementation and a clear picture of any potential nutritional deficiencies are important, be mindful of how a dietitian regards supplements and testing.
“If your dietitian overly emphasizes supplements, they could be making a commission on your sales,” warns Beydoun. (The Vitamin Shoppe’s nutritionists, who offer free initial consultations, do not make any commission on sales.) Since dietitians are trained in diet, first and foremost, you should expect them to take a food-first approach.
It’s a similar story for testing. “Tests ordered by some dietitians often lack validation or strong evidence—and, in some instances, dietitians may receive a commission for recommending these tests, raising concerns about the motivation behind ordering them,” Beydoun says. “It’s important to ensure that any testing suggested by a dietitian is rooted in solid scientific evidence and aligns with your specific health and dietary needs.”
Make Sure The Vibe Is Right
Credentials, education, and expertise aside, it’s important that any health professional you work with is compassionate, empathetic, and patient. When considering working with a specific dietitian, ask yourself: Do they present their expertise and information in a way that is appealing, approachable, and engaging to you? Do they listen to you and ask thought-provoking questions that will help you in your work together?
Arsenault recommends looking for a dietitian who is a good listener and seeks to understand your goals, preferences, and challenges in order to work with you on overcoming challenges. “Dietitians who are trained in behavior change and motivational interviewing often excel at communication,” she notes. That’s something to look for if extra support and kind accountability are major motivations for seeking out a dietitian in the first place.
A dietitian should collaborate with you and involve you in decision-making and goal-setting rather than giving you directions to follow. “A supportive dietitian respects your choices and provides guidance without shaming or criticizing,” Arsenault says. “It should feel like working with a supportive, helpful mentor by your side.”
Beware The Overly Generic
In addition to establishing a good rapport with you, a dietitian worth working with will also provide advice and recommendations that feel individualized to you. They should consider your personal needs, lifestyle, cultural background, and health goals, suggests Arsenault. Everything should feel custom-tailored to you.
Be wary of any dietitian who provides generic advice, pushes you to follow a trendy diet, or creates a meal plan for you without considering your unique needs and health status. One big red flag here is a dietitian who skims over the initial consultation, which should “cover your medical and surgical history, food allergies and intolerances, dietary preferences, and medications and supplements,” says Arsenault. They should also ask you to keep a food diary or do a food recall exercise with you to get a clear sense of your current eating patterns before making any recommendations, she adds.
Choosing to work with a dietitian is a commitment to yourself, your health, and your future—and is an investment of both finances and time, so do your due diligence to find the right fit for you.
After scoping out a dietitian’s social media platforms and website to get a general idea of their approach and attitude, consider reaching out to schedule a 15-minute introduction call to connect, address any questions or concerns, and feel out whether this dietitian is a good fit for you before diving in. Most professionals are happy to accommodate this!
Any of the following topics that are important to you may be worth bringing up:
- Cooking or culinary abilities and skill sets
- Eating habits
- Flexibility of appointments and/or scheduling (e.g. in-person or video conferencing)
- Frequency of appointments
- Food beliefs
- Food preferences
- Food traditions
- Your budget for working with a dietitian
- Your accessibility and proximity to food and grocery stores
- Your relationship with food and your body
Though finding your best dietitian match can feel a bit like dating (and be a bit of a process), interview as many potential candidates as it takes to find the healthy eating pro that will help you continue along in your health and wellness journey. The right match makes all the difference!
If you are interested in working with a dietitian and don’t know where to start, begin your search through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics database or schedule a free nutrition consult with The Vitamin Shoppe’s own nutritionists.