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Dietitian vs. Nutritionist: Which Should You See?

Should You See a Dietitian or a Holistic Nutritionist? Three Questions To Ask Yourself

You've got a concern about your diet and are looking for some professional help. But should you see a registered dietitian or a holistic nutritionist? It's a personal decision and oftentimes, they do work in conjunction with each other, as I learned from chatting with Nicole Yuen, a registered dietitian, and Sarah Maughan, a holistic nutritionist, both of whom are based in Toronto.

When meeting with you to, say, lose those last 10 to 15 pounds, each are likely to discuss your eating habits, medical history along with your family's health history, exercise habits, recent blood work and any symptoms you're experiencing. The differences lie in who you'd like to have treatment with. You should consider the following.

What's Your Budget?

Seeing a registered dietitian may be more accessible to most people given it's covered by provincial health plans with a referral from a doctor, so it's a good choice for someone who can't afford to see an alternative health professional. While a holistic nutritionist is covered by some health insurance plans, your treatment sessions are usually out of your pocket.

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Do You Want To Stick To Using Tools Such As Canada's Food Guide?

Registered dietitians focus on the use of scientific research and practice based on evidence and, as such, they'll use tools such as Canada's Food Guide and calorie requirements to help explain and set goals with you. On the other hand, a holistic nutritionist doesn't follow the food guide and may be better able to help you plan your eating based on your food sensitivities, diet, etc. says Maughan (although with the guide's update, Yuen would argue it can be adapted to restricted diets).

Given this heavier focus on food sensitivities, Maughan notes eliminating foods from one's diet may be one of the first routes a holistic nutritionist may recommend and monitor when it comes to a patient; a dietitian, Yuen says, is unlikely to prescribe elimination unless there's a medical diagnosis that warrants it.

It's probably worth noting here the different education requirements for each practice. A registered dietitian is required to complete a four-year undergraduate program at an accredited university followed by a minimum of one year in internship (during which they'll focus on clinical nutrition and hands-on counselling, for example). They also complete a standardized exam in order to become a registered dietitian.

A holistic nutritionist, on the other hand, is not required to complete a university degree, although a high school education in science is recommended. After attending a school of nutrition, students are required to complete 50 practicum hours and pass a board exam, which is the same across Canada, however it's not regulated. (Note: Soon an apprenticeship program will be a requirement for becoming a holistic nutritionist.)

What's Your Comfort Level With Alternative Therapies Compared To A Licenced Practice?

If you prefer having the inter-professional collaboration between your health pro and doctors (and thus working with someone who works with hospitals), you're better off seeing a registered dietitian. Holistic nutritionists don't work with hospitals and aren't clinically trained to treat patients with diseases or who've undergone severe weight loss through bariatric surgery, for example.

Maughan compares choosing between a registered dietitian and a holistic nutritionist to choosing between a chiropractor and a physiotherapist. While holistic nutrition does focus on research, practitioners aren't regulated like dietitians, so there's no governing body overseeing them, which may make certain people feel uneasy.

"Often, people who come to see a holistic nutritionist are those who've had frustration with traditional methods; they've had ongoing health issues for which they've found little relief from through their doctor and they're looking to explore another route," adds Maughan.

In the end, adds Maughan, much of it comes down to finding the right person for you. "Seeing anyone -- a nutritionist or a dietitian -- is mainly about rapport, bonding and general communication because you may be spending quite some time together sharing a lot of personal information."

Karen Kwan is a health and lifestyle writer based in Toronto. She also has a blog, Health & Swellness.

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