General Nutrition

What is a nutritionist and what do they do, exactly?

November 13, 2023

Written by Maeve Ginsberg

Medically reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

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Key Points

  • A nutritionist is an expert in advising how to use food and diet for overall health and wellbeing. 
  • Registered dietitians (RDs) and nutritionists have different qualifications.
  • Nutrition counseling is covered by insurance in the United States.

If you’ve started looking for a nutritionist or dietitian for nutrition counseling, you might be feeling confused by all the different terms and titles. There are nutritionists, registered dietitians, health coaches, nutrition plans, sports dietetics…it can be difficult to know what’s what. And what does a nutritionist actually do?

We’re going to break down just what a nutritionist is, what they do, and how they can help you.

What is a nutritionist?

A nutritionist is an expert in advising how to use food and diet for overall health and wellbeing. Nutritionists can go by many titles, including registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). They might focus on public health or serve individuals in a private practice, which might be open to anyone looking for dietary support for a healthy lifestyle, or it might be more tailored to certain diseases or disorders.

If it seems like that’s a wide range of options, that’s because there are a lot of different ways that nutritionists operate. Don’t worry: we’ll get into all of it.

What exactly does a nutritionist do?

A nutritionist treats and prevents various conditions, typically to help clients meet individual goals. “Registered dietitians (RDs) can help almost anyone due to the broad applications of nutrition for overall health,” says registered dietitian Rita Faycurry. “That’s what makes the field so valuable.”

You can go to a nutritionist for overall wellbeing, or you can work with a nutritionist for something more specific, like weight management, sports nutrition, diabetes, disordered eating, and more. Due to the breadth of dietetics, you are likely to find a nutritionist with the right specialty for your needs.

When working with individuals, a nutritionist might do the following:

  • Start with an intake form to learn about your eating habits, fitness, sleep, and overall lifestyle
  • Work with you to create a meal plan that suits your lifestyle and will help meet your goals
  • Check in or meet with you regularly to monitor progress

That’s just the broad overview. A registered dietitian nutritionist will use their nutrition science education to teach about healthy food choices to empower clients to make better decisions to meet their goals. RDs can create custom meal plans and share recipes they’ve developed. They can help navigate challenging situations, like travel or family celebrations, to ensure you’re still adhering to your plan’s guidelines.

Think of it this way: a nutritionist is like a tax accountant. Sure, you can try to navigate the world of nutrition (or taxes) on your own, but with expert guidance and advice, you will be able to reach your goals more smoothly while knowing your health (or taxes!) is in the hands of a qualified, licensed professional.

What is the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian?

The primary difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian lies in credentials. (And if you’re wondering, “dietician” is the same as “dietitian,” just spelled differently.) Registered dietitians are board-certified providers with at least a bachelor's degree. On top of the degree, RDs must have completed at least a supervised practice program and the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s exam to obtain a state license.

Dietitians are trained to diagnose and treat health conditions. Registered dietitians and registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) have the same qualifications. Both RD and RDN are protected titles, so only those with the proper qualifications can use the title.

Nutritionist is not a protected title. In some states, anyone may call themselves a nutritionist without any educational requirements. Nutritionists might have a certification, a master’s degree, or other experience.

RDs can work in clinical healthcare settings, like hospitals, whereas nutritionists typically cannot. Any of them can make dietary recommendations and offer nutrition advice, but only dietitians can diagnose and treat medical conditions through medical nutrition therapy (depending on the state).

Dietitians are the most qualified nutrition specialists you can work with. A good RD will help you navigate the confusing world of dietetics to provide education directly related to your needs so that you feel clear on what you need to do to reach your goals. You don’t have to figure it out alone! With so much noise out there, having a provider you can trust to provide qualified guidance is more important than ever.

What services do nutritionists offer?

Every RD provider has their own working style, but generally, when working with a dietitian, you can expect them to:

  • Evaluate your needs based on your current lifestyle
  • Establish goals and priorities to meet these needs based on your personal objectives and their professional recommendations
  • Develop and implement a nutrition program for you to follow
  • Provide support as you follow the program and make any necessary changes along the way

You may work with a dietitian for a specific period of time or you may work with them for years, depending on your health needs and personal goals. When you begin working with a dietitian, you can expect to meet with them at least weekly to check in and see how your plan is progressing.

The intention of these check-ins is to see how you are feeling, what is working, and what might not be working. Are the gut issues you’ve been experiencing improving? How are you feeling about your food choices? Are you struggling to eat enough? How is your sleep? Was there anything you wanted to accomplish but couldn't?

Dietitians understand the emotional nature of their work and help navigate that alongside the education they provide for nutrition therapy. They are adept at helping you reconnect with your body to understand your own hunger and fullness cues, empowering you to make more confident choices over time. A good RD will always make you feel informed and supported.

RDs may offer a range of services that address overall health or more specific conditions. You may work with a dietitian or nutritionist for:

  • Eating disorders
  • Diabetes management
  • Sports nutrition
  • Obesity
  • Weight management
  • Intuitive eating
  • PCOS
  • Pediatric nutrition
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Healthy eating

RDs and RDNs each have their own specialties, so be sure to inquire about your specific concerns when looking for a nutritionist. Some services, like Fay Nutrition, enable you to search by specialty so that you can be confident your potential provider has the expertise you need.

Beyond one-on-one services, dietitians may work in more public settings, like schools, hospitals, long-term care facilities or nursing homes, community health clinics, or government agency programs. 

How to find a nutritionist

When looking for a dietitian in the US, you will have to search by your state. While registered dietitian licensure is by state, many RDs offer both virtual and in-person services. By opting for virtual services, you may have access to a higher quality dietitian, whereas seeing someone in person restricts your options. 

Virtual nutrition counseling is often more convenient, which can in turn make the treatment more effective. You should opt for whichever method works best for you and your schedule.

Fay Nutrition connects you with board-certified RDs and RDNs that are covered by your insurance. You can find a top-quality provider and meet with them in person or virtually, depending on your preference. Insurance is required to cover dietitians’ services, so even if you’ve never used your insurance for nutrition counseling before, you are likely to get all or most of your dietetic services covered.

Click here to learn more about Fay and get connected with a registered dietitian in your area.

The views expressed by authors and contributors of such content are not endorsed or approved by Fay and are intended for informational purposes only. The content is reviewed by Fay only to confirm educational value and audience interest. You are encouraged to discuss any questions that you may have about your health with a healthcare provider.

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Maeve Ginsberg

Written by Maeve Ginsberg

Maeve Ginsberg is a health and wellness writer with a personal passion for fitness. As an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and former powerlifter, she loves combining her interests in health with her writing. Maeve has a Bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University. 

Rita Faycurry, RD

Medically Reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

Rita Faycurry, RD is a board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in clinical nutrition for chronic conditions. Her approach to health is centered around the idea that the mind and body are intimately connected, and that true healing requires an evidence-based and integrative approach that addresses the root cause of disease. In her books and articles, Rita offers practical tips and insights on how to care for your body, mind, and spirit to achieve optimal health and wellness.