What's The Difference Between a Dietitian and a Holistic Nutritionist?

I get asked often what the difference is between what I do and what a Dietitian does. I can speak more to my own education and experience as a Holistic Nutritionist, but I compiled information from statements put out by The Canadian Association Of Natural Nutrition Practitioners (CANNP), The Canadian School of Natural Nutrition (CSNN), The Canadian Association of Holistic Nutrition Professionals (CAHN-pro), and added in my own personal insights as a practitioner, to do my best to differentiate the two here.

What I outline in this blog post only applies to Canada, since that's home base for me. 

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While Dietitians and Holistic Nutritionists both promote health through food and nutrition, the basic differences between the two fields fall into three categories: education, recognition and approach.

Education
Dietitians go through a university level dietetics program capped off with an internship year in a hospital. We go through a college level program and our "practicum" consists of a number of real life clients we take on as case studies and are guided through by a more experienced Holistic Nutritionist.

One of our professional associations, CANNP, carried out a comparison between various approved holistic nutrition curricula and courses of study for dieticians. Here’s what they found.

They found that the university courses for Dieticians tend to have an emphasis on biology and chemistry and that their education is focused on conducting and interpreting food studies and research, global food-related problems, organizational aspects of institutional functioning, the intricacies of macro and micro nutrients, and dietary programs based on government Food Guides.

For Holistic Nutritionists basic science, instruction on how nutrients contribute to health and disease, and how to read nutritional research are covered by all of the approved nutrition schools but the emphasis is on how to use these insights to help people make positive diet and health changes. A heavy emphasis is put on conducting consultation sessions with the use of symptomatology, understanding alternative modalities and building individualized programs based on therapeutic dietary approaches. Also, our training has the added dimension of the impact of digestion, detoxification, stress management, movement, and the body-mind-spirit connection on health and wellbeing. We also learn about natural health products like nutritional supplements and botanicals.

In other words, when it comes to education CANNP concluded from their comparison study that the dietetic courses of study tended to focus on food theory, science and protocol, while ours focused more on practical application of diet changes for individuals drawing on a broader set of tools, an exploration of the interplay between various aspects of well-being beyond food, and based on the understanding that everyone is unique.

Recognition
Dietitians are recognized and regulated by government, while Holistic Nutritionists are not. Regulation means Dietitians are held to rules set by a government body while a responsive body of peers defines practice policies. Regulation allows Dietitians to work in government sectors such as hospitals.

Holistic Nutritionist are not regulated by government but we do have industry regulations in place. Holistic Nutritionists who are members of one of our professional associations must meet professional requirements in education, continued education, and conduct themselves according to a Code of Ethics and other practice parameters. Currently, membership in a professional  association is voluntary for Holistic Nutritionists. It is important to work with a Holistic Nutritionist who is a member of one of our associations (CANNP, CAHN-pro or IONC) so you know they are meeting these specific standards. 

Because we are not government regulated and because of our emphasis on application and coaching, Holistic Nutritionists tend not to work in hospitals or government sectors. We concentrate more on coaching individuals and families on the practical application of diet changes. We work at the grass roots level in the home, in schools, and in community centres, in the Natural Health Products Industry, and at the clinical level alongside Naturopathic Doctors, Practitioners of Chinese Medicine, Chiropractors, Colon Hydrotherapists, Registered Massage Therapists, and Herbalists. We also work at the corporate level as wellness coaches supporting the health and well being of company employees.

The absence of government regulation is why presently Holistic Nutritionists do not get the same privileges from insurance companies as Dietitians. It might also be why we tend to be  less influenced by government policy and the food industry.

You can help your insurance company become more aware of the important role Holistic Nutritionists play by contacting your employer’s Human Resources department and requesting that our services be covered.

Approach
Dietitians and Holistic Nutritionists are free to create their own methodologies as long  as they stay within their training, their scope of practice and, for Dietitians, government guidelines because of regulation.

Dietitians tend to follow a more mainstream approach focusing on reducing the symptoms of disease using government sanctioned food protocols. They tend to excel at providing a food plan that meets nutritional needs from a macro and micronutrient standpoint. Also, being a regulated industry, they enjoy less room for flexibility and experimentation based on the needs and situation of their individual clients.

Holistic Nutritionists on the other hand, are trained to be holistic thinkers. We are trained in the nutritional needs of the human body but are encouraged to go beneath protocol and diagnoses, to consider multiple factors that influence health, and to focus on strengthening the interconnections between the body systems using food. Amongst Dietitian, for example, creating a weight loss plan by addressing stress and working on nourishing the thyroid gland, or creating a mental wellness plan by working on the health of the gut would likely raise some eyebrows. That kind of approach is firmly within our training and scope of practice as Holistic Nutritionists, though, because of our understanding of "interconnections".

Understanding how the body works as an interconnected web and how food impacts that web, incorporating practical changes into a lifestyle plan, and helping individuals implement that plan is where we tend to excel.  

You'll likely find us supporting sustainable and biodynamic and organic farming processes, local food charters and farmers markets while criticizing GMOs, irradiation, Confined Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFO), and practices of agricultural companies that dominate our food supply and contribute to climate change. You’ll also find that most of us view unnatural additives, food colourings, preservatives and pesticides as interfering factors when it comes to health, even if they are on the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list. We also factor in the use of antibiotics, the effect of environmental pollution, metal accumulation, allergies, sensitivities, GMOs, irradiation, stress and sedentary lifestyle.

Some Dietitians might also align with this way of thinking, but it is more likely a reflection of their personal interests rather than their education.  

The Holistic Nutrition profession is only about 24 years old but fills a vast grey zone that lies between vibrant health and diagnosed disease. It’s a landscape within which hundreds of questions and considerations float - questions and considerations that we help our clients navigate so they can feel and function their best in everyday life.

What we do is based on ancient wisdom and tradition mixed with cutting edge research and the expanding knowledge of how the body works as an interconnected ecosystem.   We work collaboratively with our clients as coaches to help them regain their vibrant, vital, optimal health and wellness and can meet the needs of the individuals of all ages based on where they are. 

When you understand the differences, you'll see there is room for Dietitian and Holistic Nutritionists.  What matters most is that you choose the care and the practitioner that resonates with you, can meet your needs and can help you reach your most optimal state of health.

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