ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Career Guide: Nutrition Coach Versus Nutritionist

Career Guide: Nutrition Coach Versus Nutritionist

Reading Time: 4 minutes 42 seconds


Date: 2021-06-17T00:00:00-04:00

Proper nutrition is key to a healthy and balanced lifestyle. The idea of well-rounded nutrition is important in the prevention of obesity and chronic disease as well as for optimal athletic performance. While it is thought that only people with restricted access to whole foods have issues with malnutrition, it is possible for individuals who have access to adequate calorie intake to be lacking the micronutrients required for health. This is known as hidden hunger.

A health and wellness professional educated in the field of nutrition is a good resource for the public. They can help them analyze their food choices, make adjustments to promote health, and ensure their physiological needs are being met with diet. However, there are so many types of nutrition "experts." Dietitians, nutritionists, fitness professionals, personal trainers, and nutrition coaches to name a few. How do you know which is best and what is needed to achieve each title? And what's the difference?

Personal Trainer

A personal trainer is certified to provide physical fitness programming with the goal of improving physical health and, in some cases, sports performance. Certified fitness professionals also observe movement patterns with functional movement screening to address muscular dysfunction, but not structural dysfunctions. They can assist clients with nutritional strategies or sports nutrition to improve their fitness results.

Personal trainers can offer clients nutrition strategies like:

  • Calorie management - food substitutions and snack choices

  • Food selection strategies - choosing whole foods, good sources of fats or proteins, etc.

  • Nutrition timing strategies - when to eat throughout the day to support maximum energy, performance, and recovery

  • Supplement information - details on supplements and what they are used for

  • Lifestyle strategies - preparing for events or vacations and how to select meals

A personal trainer CANNOT create detailed meal plans, prescribe supplements, or diagnose disease whether nutritional or physical. Their focus is general health and wellness.

A personal trainer should earn a certification from a reputable certifying agency by passing a certification exam intended to test their knowledge and functional skills. Certification is key for reputable personal trainers as it ensures the fitness professional has the baseline level of knowledge to safely work with clients and provide services. Working without a valid credential puts the client and "trainer" at risk.

Registered Dietitian

A registered dietitian can do more than just guide a client through the trends and dietary guidelines. They have the knowledge and credentials to develop diet and nutrition programs tailored to an individual's physical and medical needs. They also work with physicians, policymakers, schools, and researchers to improve public health and food systems.

Dietitians can:

  • Work with individuals or groups

  • Create meal plans and programs to manage health and disease

  • Manage food quality in schools, healthcare systems, and care homes

  • Provide nutritional guidance for complex nutritional situations like intravenous feeding, supplements, and diet and drug interactions

  • Assist with medical nutrition therapy for general medical health and recovery

A registered dietitian undergoes years of hands-on training to be able to offer their counseling services. Starting with a recognized undergraduate degree and potentially a master's degree in nutrition and dietetics, they partake in a dietetic internship after the completion of their studies. Both the internship and degree completion must be accredited through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and involves more than 1,000 hours of coursework and 1,200 hours of supervised practice. A doctoral degree is not required, but they are offered in the field of dietetics for those who wish to advance their education. Once this is completed, the candidate will be eligible to sit for the dietetic registration exam.


Nutritionists work with individual clients in the field of nutrition. Considered more of a health coach, the title of nutritionist is generally not legally protected in each state.

A nutritionist may:

  • Lead cooking classes

  • Coach overall health and habits

  • Develop general diet and exercise plans

  • Help clients with food logging and adherence to a fitness program

  • Deliver presentations about health and wellness

Since they lack the formal education of a dietitian or the certification of a nutrition coach, a nutritionist is limited in what they can provide. A nutritionist CANNOT create detailed meal plans, prescribe supplements, or diagnose disease whether nutritional or physical.

Their focus is more on general health and wellbeing, similar to a personal trainer, which is why these fields pair well together. Nutritionist often help clients uncover why they eat the way they do and how to use food as fuel in support of their fitness goals.

The lack of regulation surrounding titles like nutritionist, health coach, and wellness coach means that clients must do their due diligence when looking into or hiring a nutritionist. Check qualifications and education before taking the next step.

Nutrition Coach

While it may sound similar, a nutrition coach is very different from a nutritionist. A nutrition coach is a nutrition specialist, or expert, with a nutrition certification from a reputable agency or educational establishment. Nutrition coaches keep up with current trends and diets in the field to help clients navigate them. Nutrition certification is sometimes offered through community colleges and universities and four- to six-semester programs that end with the candidate sitting for a certification exam. Those interested in becoming a nutrition coach can also complete a self-study program and sit for a certification exam when they have completed the materials. Self-study certifications are typically completed in three to four months as opposed to a year or more.

Once certified, a nutrition coach can begin coaching clients in:

  • Lifestyle changes surrounding diet

  • Address detrimental dietary behaviors

  • Assess a client's nutritional habits

  • Suggest dietary changes with the aim of improving overall health and wellness

  • Inform clients on supplements and nutrition strategies

Without a registered dietitian license, a nutrition coach CANNOT prescribe supplements, write specific meal plans for clients, make dietary suggestions with the goal of treating disease, or diagnose nutritional or physical disease.

A nutrition coach is educated enough to provide holistic nutrition and lifestyle services. Their education has provided them a firm grasp on how the human body works, digestion and absorption, proper dietary guidelines, and behavior change strategies to influence behavior modification. They can market their services as a certified professional and feel confident that they are prepared to help clients without putting them at risk.

Chew on That!

There are several valid choices when it comes to getting educated and working with clients in the field of nutrition and dietetics. To begin in the field quickly, a nutrition certification is a great step! Then, as you move through a higher education program, dietetic internship, and registration exam should you choose, you can start your career.

No matter which way you choose, education is the key! Kickstart your nutrition business with ISSA's Nutritionist Specialization—the most comprehensive approach to unlocking the secrets behind why clients eat the way they do, and the systematic approach to drive lifestyle change.

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By becoming an ISSA Nutritionist, you'll learn the foundations of how food fuels the body, plus step by step methods for implementing a healthy eating plan into clients' lifestyles.

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