Follow these easy steps to score a legit practitioner, according to registered dietitians themselves.
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How to Find the Best Nutritionist for You
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You've relied on food to fuel you for most of your life and, unlike when you were a child, you're now entirely in charge of your nutritional choices.

While sustenance can sometimes feel like an afterthought and eating something that just happens on autopilot, the foods and drinks you consume can have a major impact on everything from your hormones and weight to your disease risk and mood.

If you're looking to improve any of those, if you've been recently given a health diagnosis that requires careful dietary management, or if you just want to learn more about food and how to eat more healthfully or environmentally friendly, it makes sense to consult a nutritionist for guidance. But how do you find a nutritionist in the first place? There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach, but there are some helpful tips to make the process a lot easier.

6 Steps to Finding the Best Nutritionist for You

Understand and Verify Credentials

There are a few different credentials to understand before starting your search process. The most common being registered dietitian (R.D.) — used interchangeably with registered dietitian nutritionist (R.D.N.) — and certified dietitian nutritionist (C.D.N.) — also referred to as a licensed dietitian nutritionist (L.D.N.) in some states. (See also: What Does a Nutritionist Do, Exactly?)

"If an individual is looking for nutrition guidance to manage a chronic condition [such as diabetes, celiac disease, etc.] they should be seeing a registered dietitian," says Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., of Brooklyn-based Maya Feller Nutrition. "Education for registered dietitians requires a complex understanding of human anatomy and physiology as well as the nutritional implications of chronic conditions, which gives them the ability to practice medical nutrition therapy." (FTR, both R.D.s and R.D.N.s are recognized by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest organization of food and nutrition professionals in the U.S., says Erin Morse, R.D., chief clinical dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.)

A certified dietitian nutritionist (C.D.N.) — also known as an L.D.N. in certain locations — is a required license to practice medical nutrition therapy in certain states. Having a C.D.N. or L.D.N. indicates that a person has met education and/or experience requirements from their particular state to be a licensed practitioner, explains Feller — and each state has different criteria. "There are national boards and other organizations, but having a state license or registration is generally a sign that they are qualified to practice," says Scott Keatley, R.D., of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy. There are also additional specialties nutritionists can have, says Morse. The following are credentialed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:

  • Certified Specialist in Gerontological Nutrition (C.S.G.): nutrition for seniors
  • Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (C.S.S.D.): sports-related nutrition that can be geared toward professional athletes, collegiate athletics, or anyone serious about exercise
  • Certified Specialist in Pediatric Nutrition (C.S.P.): nutrition for children, usually under the age of 18 
  • Certified Specialist in Renal Nutrition (C.S.R.): nutrition for people with kidney disease
  • Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition (C.S.O.): nutrition for patients with cancer

It's important to note that all dietitians are nutritionists but not all nutritionists are dietitians, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. When it comes to the differences between a dietitian and a nutritionist, remember that dietitians will have R.D. or R.D.N. after their name, indicating that they've completed the necessary education and requirements to provide safe and proper nutritional counseling. And while a nutritionist could also have an R.D. or R.D.N., they might have a C.D.N. or L.D.N. (see above), a certificate in holistic nutrition, or something such as NASM-CNC, which is the National Academy of Sports Medicine's nutrition coach certification. That's not to say that a nutritionist hasn't received a nutrition-focused education; they might very well have a bachelor's and/or master's degree in nutrition. But a nutritionist (vs. a dietitian) might not have earned that title by undergoing the same standardized system.

"The term 'nutritionist' [specifically] is a title that is not largely protected," explains Morse. So, anyone can technically use this term for clout. As such, you'll definitely want to ask any pros you're interested in working with about their credentials.

Solidify Your Goals

Developing a more balanced diet overall is important and plenty good of a reason to seek out the advice of a pro. But it's also a smart idea to take a step further and determine exactly what you're hoping to accomplish by working with a nutritionist. Do you simply want to eat healthier? And what does "eating healthier" mean for you, anyway? Are you interested in exploring an elimination diet to pinpoint a potential food allergy or intolerance? Are you looking to manage the symptoms or progression of a certain health condition through your diet? Are you aiming to lose weight?  

"Knowing why you want to see a dietitian is very important in looking for a professional," says Keatley. "Even though dietitians and nutritionists are well versed in many different diseases and nutrition-related issues at a basic level, the more your provider has practiced in, for example eating disorders, the more likely it is that he or she will be able to help you meet your goals."  

In other words, asking yourself questions such as those above can help you narrow down your focus, thereby allowing you to find the best nutritionist for you. And depending on your specific goal(s), this expert might very well be someone who's specialized in a specific area of nutrition such as sports nutrition or food sensitivities or allergies, among plenty of others. "There are any number of reasons someone may want to see a nutritionist or dietitian," says Keatley, who adds that the most common are concerns about weight, management of health conditions with a strong connection to food intakes (e.g.irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes), or disordered eating.

Another part of establishing your goals is determining how important working with a culturally-competent practitioner is to you. This type of expert is trained to provide unbiased services and care with individuals' backgrounds, cultural beliefs, and more in mind — something that can be especially helpful given how much cultural significance food can (and does) hold for so many. (Related: The Misappropriation of Asian Culture In Wellness and Food Is Doing More Harm Than You May Realize)

Research, Research, Research

Certain dietitian services are covered by some health insurance companies, but not all practitioners will be covered by your plan or be in your network, explains Feller. To find out which services, if any, are eligible for reimbursement, reach out to your health insurance company directly, recommends Feller. And if your plan does cover nutritional counseling, be sure to ask for a list of covered providers in your area as well, she adds. This is especially key if you're not looking to pay out of pocket. As far as price per session? "It really depends by state and region and different services also have different fees," says Jessica Cording, R.D. "In New York City, for example, it's not uncommon to spend $200 per session, and that's considered low. But there is a big range depending on where you go."

Another option: Before calling your health insurance company, put together a list of potential pros via referrals from your general practitioner or recommendations from friends, online research (more on that in a sec), etc. This way you can ask your health insurance company to help you determine whether any of these experts are in-network.

Now, as for that aforementioned online research. The internet, as you (likely) well know, can be a wonderful thing — and that's especially true when searching for nutritionists. So use that bad boy to your advantage and start clicking around to find potential pros that are of interest. As for a great place to start? The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' website, which has an online directory that you can browse through to find a qualified nutritionist near you. The organization also has several Member Interest Groups dedicated to working on making dietetics more inclusive and their websites and social media accounts can help you narrow down your search for culturally-competent practitioners. Speaking of which, Diversify Dietitics also has an "R.D. of Color" directory that's free to access.

Of course, you can also head straight to Zocdoc, which allows you to find and book in-person or telemedicine appointments with nutritionists, and even filter for in-network providers on the site and read reviews, says Keatley. If you're interested in working with a nutritionist affiliated with a larger hospital group or medical practice, they should at least have an online bio you can read to get a general sense of their approach. And, if they have their own practice, you may be able to get even more of a glimpse of what they're like by Googling them.

"Many in private practice have websites, blogs, social media handles, podcasts, YouTube channels, and more," says Morse. "It is helpful to review their content to make sure it is a good fit." (Related: Black Nutritionists to Follow for Recipes, Healthy Eating Tips, and More)

Set Up a Session

Unlike mental health providers, nutritionists don't usually do getting-to-know-you calls before setting up your first appointment, says Keatley. Instead, they'll often use that initial session as a means for both you and the expert to learn more about one another — personalities, interests, methods, etc. — while also starting to plan the next steps in your nutrition journey. 

"Most dietitians — especially those taking insurance — will not have a full appointment specifically dedicated to seeing if it's a good fit, especially if there is a lot to do," explains Keatley. And that's exactly why doing your fair share of research about potential pros prior to your first appointment can be particularly useful; it can help you develop an understanding of the expert's philosophies, methods, and more and, as such, start to figure out whether or not they're a fit. That said, you can totally use that initial consultation as a way to test out the nutritionist, too. If you've already narrowed down the field based on the area of expertise, that should be out of the way, but you'll really want to see if your personality and that of your nutritionist mesh well together, says Keatley. Ditto for their approach — it just may not be what you feel you need. For example, you might be more inclined to work with a professional who prioritizes 'Health at Every Size' (HAES) when it comes to treating and caring for patients. Under the HAES approach, a nutritionist will not use weight, size, and BMI as indicators of health and instead, work under the belief that a person's weight is considered a myth. (See more: The 'Health at Every Size' Approach to Health Care Is Aiming to Put an End to Weight Stigma)

Come prepared with at least a pen and paper to jot down anything that stands out to you about the expert and/or the overall convo as the session unfolds. After the appointment, you can review your notes to best determine whether or not it's a good match.

A proper first appointment with a nutritionist should review why the client is there — aka your purpose or hopes for meeting with a food pro, says Keatley. That can include starting to think about goal setting (or finalizing them if you're already confident in your "why"), along with a few tips you should take away to help you get started. "The heavy lifting almost always happens in the second visit," says Keatley.

Once you're sure of your expert pick and have completed your first (outpatient) session, you can expect to follow up as long as you need to, says Cording. "Anywhere from two weeks to a month for the follow-up, and [then] many people will phase it out. If someone is in eating disorder recovery or they're dealing with an illness, they may need or want more acute monitoring and counseling. In those cases, it's not unheard of to come in once a week," she explains.

Don't Be Afraid to Continue the Search

If you're not sold after your initial session, go ahead and "shop around" — dietitians all have a different approach and feel to their practice, notes Keatley. Try another nutritionist or two to hopefully find one that you feel comfortable talking to and whose methods resonate with you. You also want to "make sure they are listening to your own unique nutrition needs," says Morse.  If it doesn't feel like you were really heard in your meeting, you didn't like their recommendations, or their availability doesn't fit with your schedule, going elsewhere is in your best interest, she says.