Have you ever wondered why there is such a wide variety of differing individuals who all share the same title of ‘Nutritionist’?
What does the term ‘Nutritionist’ even mean?
How can we better understand the different sources of information and services that each can provide for our health?
This summary is intended to help clear up some of these things, and help you make the most informed decisions for your health.
Firstly, lets clarify exactly what Nutrition is.
The dictionary describes ‘nutrition’ as:
n. The process of nourishing or being nourished, especially the process by which a living organism assimilates food, and uses it for growth and for repair of tissues.
n. The science or study that deals with food and nourishment.
n. A source of nourishment; food.
This is still pretty broad right?
And it clearly focuses heavily on the the most basic source of nourishment to all living things… food.
So then what makes someone a Nutritionist?
Technically the term is not a protected title in most countries and can often be used very generally to refer to any person who has an affinity for food, and the nourishment it provides.
But wait, doesn’t that make almost EVERYONE a Nutritionist?
After all, we are all interested in food to some degree (at least enough to sustain ourselves, and perhaps to enjoy the experience of eating).
This is likely one of the main reasons why there are so many differing fields of, and approaches to, nutrition (and therefore so many different types of ‘Nutritionist’).
Whats In a Name?
To begin getting a clearer picture on some of these differing approaches, it may be useful to explore some of the different labels given to various professionals in the field of Nutrition.
Here is a brief summary of some of the key titles used, along with their common meanings and uses.
|Nutritionist||General Term (Non Specific)||One who studies Nutrition|
|Nutritionista||Nutrition Enthusiast||A creative term / Spanish for Nutritionist|
|Nutritionalist||Advocate of Nutrition?||Incorrect term for Nutritionist (poor grammar)|
|A professional trained in supporting athletic performance, and general nutrition for body composition modification|
Non-Clinical Nutrition Advisor
|A professional trained to provide general wellbeing (diet and lifestyle) advice (e.g. for providing health support in roles such as floor staff in health food stores, admin staff in health clinics, etc.)|
|Dietitian||A clinical professional (usually in a Public/Hospital setting) who provides standardised diet and lifestyle support for patients undergoing medical treatment within the Medical System.|
Nutritional Medicine Practitioner
Functional Clinical Nutritionist
|A clinical professional (usually in a Private Practice setting) trained to treat a patient’s health conditions via individualised nutrition, lifestyle and environmental interventions (according to the principles of Natural and Functional Medicine)|
You will notice that there are numerous different levels of applying nutrition knowledge to the pursuit of health and wellbeing.
From the most basic and general advice around simply obtaining enough food, to the most complex intricacies of personal needs, and advanced clinical treatments using specific nutrients.
The early study of nutrition lead to the discovery of fundamental diseases of extreme deficiency (e.g. Scurvy, Pellagra, Beri Beri, Rickets, etc.) which demonstrated that certain nutrients were essential.
This then lead to the development of RDI (Recommended Daily Intake) values by various government agencies and health departments around the world.
For many this is the extent of the role that nutrition plays in health (simply getting enough food, and achieving daily RDI values to stave off overt diseases of deficiency).
However since that time, each passing decade has brought with it further discoveries and understanding of the true complexity of the food and nourishment we obtain from our environment, and the high degree of variability between the many ways that different individuals process this complexity to yield health and the optimum functioning of their bodies.
Therefore there are multiple levels of complexity and personalisation that can be employed when seeking to use the power of nutrition to bring about health in a particular individual.
Levels of Nutrition Treatment
It is easy to understand how a lack of basic nutrients may prevent optimum health and functioning of the body.
But there are further levels of nutrition intervention that can be used to influence a person’s health.
Here is a summary of increasingly advanced and personalised levels of nutrition intervention, and who might facilitate them:
|Level of Nutrition Intervention||Involving||Guided By|
|1. Food Quantity
General sufficiency of energy intake.
(Calories and Kilojoules)
|Adequate access to food and the will to eat.
(eating sufficient quantity of food for one’s needs)
(according to hunger)
All Nutrition Professionals
|2. Food Variety
Adequately balanced Macronutrients.
(Proteins, Fats, and Carbs)
|Sufficient variety in the diet (balanced meal composition) to support all essential structures of the body.||All Individuals
(according to preferences)
All Nutrition Professionals
|3. Food Quality
Sufficient Micronutrients from food.
(Vitamins, Electrolytes, Trace Minerals, etc.)
|Sufficient quality in the diet to facilitate all the complex metabolic and cellular functions of the body.||All Individuals
(according to preferences)
All Nutrition Professionals
|4. General Supplementation
Boosting diet with general supplements.
(Multivitamins, Fortification, Shakes, etc.)
|Supplementary macro- and micro-nutrients taken as a general precaution to ensure overall adequacy within a complete diet and to support general good health.||All Individuals
(according to general knowledge)
All Nutrition Professionals
|5. Targeted Supplementation
Focused supplementation of specific nutrients identified as being deficient.
(Higher dose, single nutrient supplements)
|Professional investigation and identification (e.g. via symptoms or lab testing) of nutritional deficiencies may lead to specific advice for an individual to take specific doses of ingredient/s to address the deficiency.||Most Qualified Nutrition Professionals
(to address specific deficiencies and needs)
|6. Clinical Interventions & Prescriptions
The use of specific nutrient forms, nutraceuticals and personalised diet modifications, to yield a desirable effect on personal function.
(Specialised clinical-grade supplements)
|Qualified Healthcare professionals extensively trained in nutrition and the functional mechanisms of human physiology and cellular metabolism, may provide ‘supraphysiological’ doses of individual compounds and nutrients, in order to have a desirable affect of the functioning of the body. (well beyond meeting basic RDI sufficiency levels)
Such professionals may also identify the need to avoid certain nutrients and food components (e.g. due to excesses, imbalances, or sensitivity reactions), in order for an individual to achieve optimum health.
|Certain Clinical Nutrition Professionals
(to achieve therapeutic outcomes and optimum personal health)
These differing levels of specificity and intensity involved in various nutritional interventions demonstrates the need for differing levels of education and training for the nutrition professionals qualified to facilitate each.
Especially since the dictionary definition attempts to differentiate a ‘Nutritionist’ as one who has studied nutrition:
n. A specialist in the study of nutrition.
n. One who is trained or an expert in the field of nutrition.
So What Constitutes a ‘Qualified’ Nutrition Professional?
Varying levels of study will naturally lead to varying levels of knowledge and applicability among professionals in the field of nutrition.
It may therefore be useful to review some of the key levels of nutrition education, and how they may each be applied.
Levels of Nutrition Education
|Level of Education||Nature of Training||Application|
|Nutrition-Related Short Course / Workshop||Weekend / Online Course||For Topic Familiarity / Interest|
|Nutrition-Related Certificate IV||6 Months – Basic / Online Course||For Introduction Level|
|Nutrition-Related Diploma||1-2 Yr – Fundamentals||For Supportive Role|
|Unrelated Undergrad + Nutrition-Related Post Grad||(Grad Cert, Grad Dip, PhD)||For Enhanced Application of Nutrition In Daily Profession|
|Nutrition-Related Bachelor Degree – (Public Health)||3-4 Yrs – Professional Level||For General Population Health / Policy Development|
|Nutrition-Related Bachelor Degree – (Clinical)||3-4 Yrs – Professional Level||For Clinical Practice|
|Nutrition-Related Bachelor Degree
+ Nutrition-Related Post Grad
|3-4 Yrs + 1-4 Years
– High Professional Level
|For Teaching, Advocacy, Product Development, etc.|
- There is a distinct difference between education courses that are aimed at clinical practice (and include training to become a healthcare practitioner), and those that study nutrition more generally (to prepare for a more broad role in nutrition research and policy development, and not necessarily clinical in nature).
- In 2018 Bachelor Degrees become the minimum qualification for recognition as a clinical natural medicine practitioner for many health funds / professional association membership in Australia.
- See more on Clinical vs Non-Clinical forms of nutrition below.
The Many Flavours of Nutrition
Just as there are so many levels of nutrition education and qualification, so too are there numerous areas of specialty within the field of Nutrition, each with differing goals, areas of focus, expertise and the application of nutrition knowledge.
|FIELD OF STUDY||EXAMPLE APPLICATION|
|Animal Nutrition||Livestock farming and veterinary pet health|
|Sports & Fitness||General dietary principles for personal training, sports and athletic performance|
|Food Science & Technology||Physics and chemistry of food for manufacturing and hospitality applications|
|Public Health||Population statistics and government health policy|
|Dietetics||For mathematical analysis of dietary composition and supporting needs during medical care.|
|Clinical Nutrition /
|Using diet/lifestyle modifications, and nutrient supplements, as and within the actual treatment of chronic health complaints, the mitigation of personal risks, and the optimisation of personal health potential.|
Clinical vs Non-Clinical
The term ‘clinical’ has a specific meaning to denote a particular field of application for nutrition expertise.
The dictionary defines something ‘clinical’ as:
adj. Involving or based on direct observation of a patient.
adj. Based on or characterized by observable and diagnosable signs and symptoms: clinical treatment.
This means that the term ‘clinical nutrition’ denotes the use of nutrition to actually treat illness and optimise health in a specific individual.
(as opposed to more general nutrition information, for the general population, about general aspects of health)
For example, a nutrition student may seek to become a researcher in specific area of nutrition, or to provide general public health advice through media, however this is quite different from the very specific application of nutrition knowledge to investigate and treat the needs of a specific individual (using nutrition as treatment within clinical practice), and requires specific clinical-level training.
Clinical-level education usually requires a minimum of an undergraduate bachelor degree, in most western healthcare systems (such as Australia, USA, Canada, etc.), to allow registration with a professional body or association that governs healthcare practitioners of that specialty.
Because the use of nutrition in this context is a form of medicine, the term ‘Nutritional Medicine‘ is also used in relation to ‘Clinical Nutrition‘.
How is a Clinical Nutritionist different to a Dietitian?
Technically a ‘Dietitian’ could indeed be described as a Clinical Nutritionist (insofar as being a healthcare professional in the field of nutrition, who has been trained to clinically treat patients), however the fields of ‘Dietetics’ and ‘Nutritional Medicine’ do differ somewhat in their approach and in their areas of expertise and focus.
Dietitians typically practice via the implementation of specific diets and dietary modifications according to standards of practice, usually within the medical healthcare system.
Clinical Nutritionists / Nutritional Medicine Practitioners usually operate in private practice, and will certainly sometimes employ dietetic principles (whenever certain fundamental dietary modifications are necessary), however will also frequently utilise numerous additional aspects of ‘nutrition as medicine’, such as orthomolecular doses of nutrients (to bring about physiological effects on the body), lifestyle and environment modifications, functional laboratory testing, etc., according to highly personalised considerations (rather than universal standardised guidelines).
- a ‘functionally-minded’ Clinical Nutritionist may treat two patients who have seemingly similar signs and symptoms, with very different treatment strategies, using a wide variety of clinical tools (based on each of their individual functional needs)
- a Dietitian will commonly classify the needs of the two individuals quite similarly according to externally standardised guidelines, primarily relating to diet (e.g. standard Calorie quotas, Macronutrient ratios, RDIs, etc.)
What is ‘Functional’ Clinical Nutrition?
After a century of advances in the scientific understanding of nutrition and the metabolic functions of the human body, the significance of nutrients to the complex inner cellular mechanisms that determine our health as individuals have been repeatedly demonstrated to be indispensable factors to assess and address within any successful pursuit of personal wellbeing.
The field of Nutritional Medicine stems from this expansion of growing knowledge and awareness, and has come to center around a number of fundamental tenets.
These precepts were being specified by the Journal of Nutritional Medicine as early as the mid 1980s, in order to set the stage for new directions in healthcare for the 21st century:
1. A ‘normal’ diet is not necessarily a healthy or optimum one.
(Even in ‘well-fed’ industrialized societies, many may have only a borderline, or indeed low, content of certain essential nutrients)
2. Requirements for essential nutrients vary from individual to individual.
(depending on genetic, physiological, environmental, lifestyle and other influences)
i.e. What is adequate for one person may not be adequate for another.
3. Illness is inevitably linked with an abnormal biochemistry.
(and an alteration in the metabolism of nutrients and their by-products)
4. Specific nutrients provide a potent means of influencing body biochemistry and thus disease processes.
(such as vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and amino acids, as well as dietary manipulation in general)
5. Health & Reproductive processes are nutrient-dependent and sensitive to environmental pollution.
The nutritional status, and environmental factors affecting both parents in the preconception and periconceptional period, and throughout pregnancy, are primary determinants of pregnancy outcome (and potentially the long term health trajectory of the infant).
Taking A Functional Medicine Approach
In a broader sense the field of ‘Functional Medicine‘ as a whole has emerged from the same discoveries and process, and has expanded to account for even further health-impacting factors beyond nutrition alone, such as toxins, microflora, genetics, mindset, and more.
For this reason Functional Medicine provides an expanded framework for all healthcare modalities to adopt in the pursuit of positive health outcomes in their particular areas of specialty.
The marriage of this expanded outlook of Functional Medicine in the specific context of Nutritional Medicine, can therefore be regarded as a ‘Functional’ approach to Clinical Nutrition i.e. Functional Clinical Nutrition.
The goals of Functional Clinical Nutrition include:
- To establish and maintain optimum health & well-being (and prevent illness through natural health care means).
- Focus on restoring and maintaining optimal health by addressing and restoring physiological functions.
- Focus on identifying and addressing underlying causes of chronic health problems and concerns based on nutritional, lifestyle, and environmental factors.
- Detecting stressors to the body’s systems through thorough case evaluation, investigation and Functional Lab Testing.
- To treat each patient according to their own unique and specific health history, concerns, and needs.
Learn more about the fundamental precepts of Functional Medicine here.
Whether you are looking to do further study in Nutrition and gain professional qualifications, or if you are seeking out the most appropriate professional to help you with your particular health goals, it is important to understand some of the key differences between the very broad and diverse fields of nutrition and how they are actually put into practice.
1. What level of education
2. Whether intended for clinical or non-clinical applications
3. What level of nutrition intervention employed
4. What approach does the model, paradigm or philosophy take
5. What area of focus or specialty is achieved
In this pursuit, some level of acknowledgement of the natural order of the body and it’s surrounding environment through the principles of Functional Medicine may be considered desirable (to obtain personalised insights, goals and outcomes for peak potential).