Dietitians can be a great help for those following a specific diet to manage their health or for anyone looking to improve their diet.

Have you been trying to change your eating habits or improve your relationship with food only to find yourself overwhelmed by everything there is to know about nutrition? If so, you’re not alone. Nutrition professionals are available to help.

Dietitians are experts in the world of nutrition, and their primary role is to guide people through the process of learning about nutrition and making dietary changes. So, here’s everything you need to know about what dietitians can do, what they can’t do, and how to find a good dietitian.

Dietitians serve as educators, advocates, and support for clients on their nutrition journey. Here are just a few of the services that dietitians may offer to their clients:

Let’s say that you’re starting a new health journey, and one of your goals is to eat a more well-rounded, balanced diet. However, you know virtually nothing about nutrition beyond the basics and that’s making it hard for you to meet your goals.

Or perhaps you recently received a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes or high cholesterol. In addition to prescribing medication, your doctor might have told you that changing your eating habits can help you manage this condition. But you might have no idea where to even start.

A dietitian can offer the education and support to help you make those changes and meet your goals.

Some people use the terms “nutritionist” and “dietitian” interchangeably, but it can be helpful to understand the differences between the two.

A dietitian is a board certified, licensed nutritionist who has formal education and training in the field of nutrition. Before someone can become certified as a Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), they must complete:

  • a graduate program in dietetics
  • a 900–1,200-hour internship in dietetics
  • the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s board exam

RDs and RDNs have few restrictions on the type of nutrition services that they can provide to clients. For example, they can offer medical nutrition therapy, meal planning, and other individualized nutrition counseling.

A nutritionist can include anyone who teaches others about nutrition and the role that food plays in overall health. Although there are regulations on who can use the credentials RD and RDN, virtually anyone can call themselves a nutritionist — even without formal training.

With that said, nutritionists without RD or RDN credentials are subject to state regulations on which services they can provide. Some states do allow nutritionists to offer one-on-one counseling, but there are a few that prohibit individualized nutrition therapy without a dietetics license.

Even though dietitians have more freedom than nutritionists to provide individualized nutrition counseling, there are still some things that fall outside of their scope of practice.

First, a dietitian can’t diagnose any health conditions. So, this means that while a dietitian can help you treat or manage your health condition through nutrition therapy, they can’t provide you with a diagnosis.

Second, dietitians can’t legally prescribe medications. In fact, only a few healthcare professionals have the authority to prescribe medications. Those include Doctors of Medicine (MDs), Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs), and, in some states, Physician Assistants (PAs) and Nurse Practitioners (NPs).

If you have a chronic health condition that requires nutrition therapy, Medicare and most private health insurance plans may cover these services. However, one thing to know is most plans usually only cover medical nutrition therapy if it’s with an RD or RDN.

Some insurance plans also include wellness services — like nutrition counseling — under their preventive services. Since coverage varies from plan to plan, you can learn more about what your plan covers by checking your summary of benefits and coverage or reaching out to a company representative.

It can take some time and research to find the right dietitian for you. If this is your first time searching for a nutritionist, here are a few tips to keep in mind as you begin your search:

  • Consider your goals: One of the first questions to consider before even beginning your search is, “What are your goals?” Considering how many different nutrition specialties there are, setting a goal can help you narrow down your options.
  • Check their credentials: All dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are dietitians. While some nutritionists have formal education and training, the RD and RDN certifications are the best way to guarantee a comprehensive background in nutrition.
  • Set up a consultation: Many dietitians offer low cost or free consultations to help you decide if nutrition services are for you. Consultations are a great chance to ask questions about their background, philosophy, and counseling approach.
  • Seek out cultural competence: Cultural competency is important in all areas of healthcare, including nutrition. Consider seeking out a culturally competent dietitian who understands how your culture will affect your care.

If you’re ready to start your search, consider checking out the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Find a Nutrition Expert tool to search for dietitians near you.

Dietitians play an important role in helping clients meet their nutrition goals by providing education, tools, and support. Whether you’re looking for nutritional support for a chronic health condition or just interested in changing your relationship with food, a dietitian can help.