Qualified Nutritional Therapist: What is that anyway??

There are so many terms being thrown around these days in the health practitioner field that it’s no wonder you might not know what most of them are or what the difference is between them!

When I began studying nutrition, I didn’t know what a Naturopathic Nutritional Therapist was either, I just knew that the type of information the course offered was exactly what I was looking for. It entailed 150 hours of coursework in Anatomy, Physiology, and Pathology in the first year, over 300 hours of lectures in nutritional therapy over the next two years, and over 200 hours of work in clinic in those next two years.

What is nutritional therapy and what do you learn? In the Nutrition lectures, we learned about the biochemistry of converting food to energy and what obstacles can develop, what nutrients including vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and orthomolecular nutrients are known (so far) to do within the body, how to thoroughly review scientific research to inform recommendations, pharmacology, and nutrigenomics. We also studied in depth, the ways in which excesses or deficiencies of certain nutrients may impact the health of a system or multiple systems and how to dig down into the root cause of an issue not just with a list of symptoms, but a better comprehension of how the systems of the body are connected and what a symptom can be telling us about a deeper imbalance that is present.

What does a nutritional therapist not do? What does he/she not know? One of the important areas a nutritional therapist also learns about is the ethics of supporting clients and understanding the appropriate scope of practice. Nutritional therapists do not treat or cure disease - we are not doctors and have not been trained as such. If anyone without a medical license claims they can treat or cure you, it might be worth looking carefully at that individual’s qualifications first to ensure you understand in which fields that person has been trained and how they are backing their recommendations (media blogs or scientific research?).

What about a health coach or a life coach? Can’t they give nutritional advice too? How can you decide from which individual you would like guidance? Each health practitioner is trained to give a certain type of level of advice. All can be of considerable help and can bring you forward on your healthy journey. What you might consider is asking someone what their scope of practice is and what actual training or qualifications are. What scientific literature is informing their recommendations and how reliable are their sources. If you have a complex condition, or find that simply going to a doctor is not resolving your health issues, it might help you to know that a medical doctor, nutrition professional, and health coach can support you well all together, as each of those individuals has been trained in a different way to give different types and levels of advice or guidance. It is important that we do start understanding the value of each, and not that one is better than another or will help a condition instead of the other. When you meet a nutritional therapist, dietician, nutritionist, health coach, or life coach, ask whether that individual has been trained in the health of large groups of people or in identifying individual differences. Many nutritionists and dieticians can be of great help to inform public health decisions, governmental recommendations for the general public, help companies decide which ingredients are safe in mass-produced foods, and inform hospitals about important nutritional needs of patients with different conditions (or what food they need to be fed when not conscious to sustain life appropriately). These are all critical and yet different types of knowledge. So become informed as you look for advice on your health journey, about what type of guidance you need.

Each of us is unique. Each time we notice a symptom that tells us something is not functioning optimally in our bodies, we need to understand that it may require medical attention quickly or it may require getting to the root cause of an imbalance that eventually caused that symptom to arise. Symptoms are just information that lets us know something is out of balance. If it is a systemic infection, broken bone, immediate allergic reaction, or inflammation of an organ, it may require immediate medical attention by a medical doctor, a hospital visit, or surgery. You wouldn’t ask your nutritionist to set a broken bone! But you wouldn’t ask your doctor which foods/spices such as ginger or curcuma longa (turmeric) have been shown to ease inflammation in the body and how to cook with them.

As an example, a nutritional therapist might put the information you give to him/her together and consider potential underlying reasons for digestive issues, brain fog, and/or fatigue and one recommendation might be to see the doctor to have a blood test done; a doctor might then use a blood test to discover an allergy or condition such a celiac by testing antibodies in the bloodstream; a nutritional therapist can give you detailed information about how to eliminate gluten, what foods contain it, what it does within your body, how eating it can cause further complications and symptoms, and why it is critical to eliminate it if you have been diagnosed with that disease. A health coach might help you get through the difficulties of changing your lifestyle longer term with support and ways of incorporating the new diet into your life over time. These are ways in which practitioners in the health community can be of help to you together, not instead of each other, and just one idea of where the scope of practice begins and ends. Consider that the doctor may not find an allergy, but instead recommends you on to a gastoenterologist to check for something obstructing the bowel, or colon cancer, for example. A nutritional therapist may be able to support you with the nutritional piece of a more complicated protocol in which a doctor is also prescribing a pharmacological medicine and so you are better supported with the help of their work together.

A properly trained and qualified functional or naturopathic nutritional therapist will be able to take the time in a consultation to understand what genetics, experiences, and environment come together to influence the systems in your body in a unique way. This can help inform support through diet and lifestyle recommendations backed by scientific research. He/she will also know when to recommend another health practitioner that can better or additionally be of help to give you the best knowledge and guidance, based on your individual needs, to bring your body back to balance and optimal health.

In the end, it is your body, and your health, that is on the line. You, as an individual, can gather information and knowledge from a variety of sources. And each individual trained in the health field, can give you a different type and level of information that ultimately informs your decision about how best to move forward towards the best health possible for you.

I wish you knowledgeable, supportive, and responsible health practitioners as you continue your health journey in this gift of life. I hope this has been helpful in considering the type of health practitioner you may contact when health advice or guidance is needed.

And I wish you good health!