My intention after graduating from culinary school was to open a restaurant and touch people with my food. I had it all planned out until, at the end of a long day at school, one of my teachers asked if I could cover a class for her—Food and Cancer at St. Luke’s Hospital in NYC. Before I could protest, she grabbed my hands, stared me in the eyes and said, “I trust that you can do this.” Well, I was thrilled that she could trust me. The real question was, “Could I trust me?” I taught the class, though not with authority for I didn’t feel like I had any. But I loved talking to this incredible group of women about how the foods you choose impact your health. However, I felt that I didn’t have the education or professional experience necessary to work with people with illness.
It was clear as day—I had to study nutrition. But the thought of going back to “real” school was freaky scary. So I enrolled in one of those “six months and you’re qualified to practice nutrition programs” in NYC and after two days I not-so-gracefully dropped out. Just wasn’t for me—I wanted a credible education. One where I would receive an advanced degree in nutrition and be respected for what I know, rather than questioned about all that I didn’t know among the heath and medical community that I intended to work with.
The nutrition space has literally gone wild. Self-proclaimed know-it-alls write about nutrition and people listen. Individuals, graduated or not, from a six month integrative nutrition program are treating people with chronic and terminal illness. I am not saying, by any measure, that these people are not well intentioned and effective in their insights and care. What I am saying is that “nutritionist” is a term that is now loosely used and many are practicing way beyond their scope of training—something that is very irresponsible and scary when it comes to true patient care and outcomes. That being said let me try to shine some light to help you make the best choices when seeking care:
Registered Dietitians (RD)
To obtain an RD, a person has to receive either a Bachelors degree in science or a Masters degree in nutrition, partake in an internship program that includes food service, community and clinical rotations and pass a standardized exam. Many RD’s work in private practice, clinical environments such as doctor’s offices and hospitals, wellness centers, school foodservice, corporate foodservice and as consultants.
Many Registered Dietitians also call themselves nutritionists. In addition, there are those with advanced degrees in nutrition, such as a Masters and PhD, who practice as nutritionists whether in private practice, as educators and/or consultants. There is additional certification available for advanced degreed nutritionists upon the passing of a standardized exam (similar to the one the RD takes). Other healthcare providers such as doctors, chiropractors and acupuncturists who, in most cases, also complete nutrition training can obtain such certifications. These certifications are a CNS (Certified Nutrition Specialist) and CCN (Certified Clinical Nutritionist).
Both RD’s and Nutritionists can call themselves integrative nutritionists. Currently, there is no formal certification for integrative nutritionists. But note that those who call themselves integrative nutritionists, should hold an RD or advanced degree in nutrition and honor the ideas of functional medicine—taking a more patient-centered approach addressing the whole person, not just an isolated set of symptoms.
Both RD’s and Nutritionists with formal culinary training call themselves culinary nutritionists(although I am seeing many people with neither credentials calling themselves such as well).Since the term culinary nutrition has not been formally defined, I have taken it upon myself to do so. Culinary nutrition is the marriage of cooking with the science of nutrition. Very simply, chefs need to know how to prepare nutritious foods and nutritionists need to know how to cook. With the ever-increasing number of health concerns, culinary nutrition could be used to help prevent illness and restore health by giving people the practical tools to eat more healthfully.
Nutrition/Holistic Health Counselors and Coaches
Anyone can call her/himself such. In fact, anyone can call her/himself any of the above (except an RD) whether they go to a 3-month or a 1-year NON-ADVANCED degree program. Even “self-proclaimed know it alls” are nutrition experts. Sadly, the nutrition/holistic health counselor and coach space, while created to educate a mass market to help this nation get well, has also created a large body of people who are not truly qualified to be practicing the same type of nutrition as RD’s and those with advanced degrees in nutrition.
While there is room for everyone, we need a field that is well defined and one where practitioners, whether an RD or a Holistic Health Counselor, knows what they know and knows what they don’t. If not, we are doing more harm than good. So when seeking nutrition care, make sure you truly understand the background and training of the person you are working with!