If you have a chronic health condition, food allergies, are trying to lose weight, have digestive issues or just want to improve your health and lifestyle, you may have considered working with a registered dietitian.
Your doctor may refer you to a dietitian for medical nutrition therapy (MNT) to help manage a chronic disease like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity or a food allergy or intolerance.
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Before you schedule an appointment, here are some of the pros and cons of seeing a dietitian.
Dietitian vs. Nutritionist vs. Nutritional Therapist: What's the Difference?
The terms "dietitian," "nutritionist" and "nutritional therapist" aren't interchangeable. While the professions sound similar, there are some significant differences between them, mostly related to education, certification and the types of nutrition advice they're legally allowed to give.
There are currently no regulations on who can call themselves a "nutritionist" or "nutritional therapist." People in these professions can complete various certification programs or courses to learn about nutrition and how to offer generalized nutrition coaching. While many of these programs offer good training and education, they're not regulated on a federal or state level.
A registered dietitian (RD), also sometimes referred to as a registered dietitian-nutritionist (RDN), must hold at least a bachelor's degree from an accredited program, complete 1,200 hours of supervised practice experience, pass a national registration exam and maintain continuing education credits with the Commission on Dietetic Registration. As of January 2024, all new registered dietitians will be required to earn a Master's degree.
An RD is qualified to provide medical nutrition therapy as well as generalized nutrition education and coaching.
Pros of Working With a Dietitian
There are several benefits to working with a dietitian to meet your health goals, prevent disease or manage your current health conditions.
While anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, you can be confident that a registered dietitian has years of knowledge and experience behind their nutrition recommendations. Their ability to practice and maintain their credentials are based on continuing education, staying up to date on current research in the field, and practicing in an ethical and professional way.
Many dietitians are further trained in specialties like diabetes, cancer, sports nutrition, eating disorders and digestive conditions. A dietitian can work with your medical doctor to help you tailor your nutrition and lifestyle to your current medical status and medications.
Improve Health Without Invasive Treatments
Good nutrition and lifestyle habits can help prevent chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and stroke as well as some types of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If you have a chronic disease or condition, improving your nutrition could help you better manage your health, reduce medication, cut healthcare costs and improve your quality of life. A dietitian can help you reach your health goals with MNT or nutrition counseling.
Here are some possible health conditions that can potentially be improved or better managed with MNT, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:
- Diabetes, including type 1, type 2, prediabetes and gestational diabetes
- Heart disease, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure and stroke
- Kidney disease, including chronic kidney disease stages 1 to 5 and kidney stones
- Liver disease
- Gastrointestinal conditions, including Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Food allergies
- Feeding difficulties related to feeding tubes or for people with developmental delays or special needs
- Eating disorders
- Obesity and weight management
If you have a chronic condition, working with a dietitian can greatly affect your overall health and wellbeing by potentially helping reduce the medication you need and the side effects that come with medication, and prevent further complications.
Researchers analyzed 18 different studies with over 4,000 people with type 2 diabetes receiving medical nutrition therapy with a registered dietitian. After three months, they saw a 0.3 to 2.0 percent decrease in hemoglobin A1C levels — and in eleven of the studies, participants also significantly reduced the amount of glucose-lowering medication they needed, per a June 2018 article in Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy.
Personalized, Custom Nutrition Guidance
You'll no longer have to rely on fad diets, feeling hungry or tired from dieting and not knowing what or when to eat. A registered dietitian can help you develop a plan that will help you meet all of your nutrition needs, is sustainable long-term and helps you crush your health and wellness goals.
By committing to follow-up appointments with your dietitian, your RD will help you overcome obstacles that might inevitably get in the way of your health goals and help you adjust your diet as symptoms, weight or medical needs change.
Cons of Working With a Dietitian
While the benefits of working with a dietitian can be life-changing, there are also a few disadvantages to consider.
Not Always Covered by Insurance
A potential disadvantage of nutrition therapy is the cost of the appointments. In some cases, visits with a dietitian may not be covered by insurance. Over the past few years, more insurance companies have begun covering nutrition therapy for select conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and an obesity diagnosis.
Even if your visits with a dietitian are not covered by insurance, the investment in your health could save you money on additional medical expenses over time.
Finding the Right Fit Can Be Tricky
While all dietitians complete accredited programs, not all have the same skillset or philosophy regarding nutrition.
It's important to do your research and make sure the dietitian you choose specializes in your needs. A dietitian may specialize in areas such as cancer nutrition, diabetes, sports nutrition, pediatrics, eating disorders, weight management, kidney support, digestive disorders and more.
You may have to meet with several dietitians before you find the person who is the best fit for you.
The philosophy that a dietitian follows can be important as well. If you have a history of disordered eating, you may want to find a dietitian who practices with an intuitive eating approach. If you want more structure, do your research to find someone who matches this need for the best chance of success.
Following Through With Treatment Plans Can Be Tough
It takes significantly more effort to exercise each day, prepare and eat nutritious foods and manage your stress levels to lower your cholesterol than remembering to take a pill each day.
Lifestyle and nutrition changes take a lot of work, and learning what to do is only the beginning. Be prepared to routinely see your dietitian for follow-ups and troubleshooting as you work to put your plan into action.
- American Dietetic Association: Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT)
- Commission on Dietetic Registration: "Registered dietitian or registered dietitian nutritionist certification"
- Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy: "Success of nutrition-therapy interventions in persons with type 2 diabetes: challenges and future directions"
- CDC: "Poor Nutrition"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Medical Nutrition Therapy Effectiveness Systematic Review"