What is the Difference Between a Nutritionist and a Health Coach?

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Brown paper bag of fruit and vegetables, spilled on green background with words "Nutritionist versus Health Coach" beside it.

If you’re interested in nutrition, you likely love healthy eating and want to inspire others to improve their diets for greater well-being. There are so many options for how to work with clients and various career tracks to choose from. 

The most common options include becoming a nutritionist, a health coach, a dietician, or a wellness coach. You’re probably researching and considering each of these choices, weighing each path’s pros and cons to see if they fit your overall vision.

It’s important to take the time to really think through the many options, as making the right choice will greatly influence the way you work with individuals. Your goals, dreams, lifestyle, and overarching vision determine which career choice would be best for you and your future clients.

So where do you start with determining the best path for you? Here are a few differences to consider as you’re researching and making a decision.

How is a Health Coach Different From a Nutritionist?

So what is the difference between a nutritionist and a health coach? Both health coaches and nutritionists are part of the health niche and both work one-on-one with clients to encourage them in their goals of better health. They might even use similar approaches to coaching clients. The difference lies in their perspective and scope.

Nutritionists are specifically focused on a person’s diet and food intake. They might consider other health factors while helping people improve their wellness. But, generally, they always bring the conversation back to what their clients are eating and how they can make it healthier.

Here-in lies the difference. While nutritionists focus wholly on diet, health coaches utilize a more whole-person approach, taking into consideration the bigger picture of health beyond just food. They spend more time with their clients, working to build a connection and trust to support lasting change in a person’s life. Health coaches get to experience the satisfaction of seeing someone transform their life for the better.

They don’t work from just one perspective either. They consider a person’s exercise habits, food choices, quality of sleep, chronic health issues, and other health related considerations. It’s a more holistic approach to helping a person alter their health habits and improve their overall health and wellness.

Is a Nutritionist Different From a Dietician?

cartoon image of clipboard reading "Diet Plan" surrounded by vegetables, and a ruler.

Nutritionists and dieticians are both focused on food and nutrition. Some might practice similarly, but many approach their clients with different tool kits and views on what constitutes a healthy diet.

Nutritionists specialize in coaching people into better eating habits to improve their health. No specific degree is needed, though some states may have more specific rules about who can call themselves a nutritionist. Some nutritionists might have certifications, others might have degrees. 

Holistic nutritionists focus solely on preventative nutrition, such as helping clients lose weight or increase their intake of whole foods. 

They will take into consideration chronic health conditions while giving recommendations, but they’re not qualified to design diets specifically for alleviating those conditions.

Dieticians on the other hand, are medical professionals who specialize in therapeutic nutrition. They are trained to work with people struggling with disease and illness who need to alter their food intake to improve their conditions. 

Dieticians have extensive training from a medical perspective and are the right practitioners to work with if you’re needing medical care while improving from a diseased state. Many registered dieticians (you’ll usually see RD behind their names) work in hospitals and doctors send their patients to them when diet changes will help with a disease diagnosis.

Where does a Health Coach Work?

Older woman sitting at desk advising younger woman witting next to her.

Nutritionists typically work in places where nutrition advice is needed for a group of people, though some individual support can be part of the job description as well. They can be found working in schools, hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities, athletic departments, and cafeterias. 

In contrast, health coaches typically work in solo or group practices with other health and wellness practitioners. They often work for themselves or in partnerships with other holistic-minded professionals.

You might find a health coach working in a private physician-based practice, a group medical office, a wellness center, or a hospital. Health coaches also build their own practices, working with clients individually and in coaching groups. 

You can also find health coaches working with corporate wellness programs and companies. Hospitals and insurance companies are starting to appreciate health coaches more, as they work from a prevention perspective which lowers healthcare costs and helps keep people well.

The career scope for a health coach is quite flexible and allows coaches to build a career that’s the right fit for them. You’ll find health coaches in many settings where a preventative approach to health and wellness is utilized to increase people’s quality of health and life.

What Type of Degree Is Needed and What Pays More?

Nutritionists often have degrees in nutrition, but many also have focused certifications from nutrition training programs that exist outside of traditional universities. 

Dieticians typically have at least a bachelor’s degree in dietetics with extensive training, certification, and required licensing. They are considered the medically-approved experts in nutrition.

Health Coaches are trained in many ways, typically through a focused certification program from a specialized school. We’ve created an in-depth guide on becoming a health coach which you can read here.

Personal trainers also fit into the category of health professional, and they are trained through a certification program focused specifically on exercise.

The salary for each of these careers varies depending on where you live, your certifications and specializations, and where you work. Insurance rates for their practices will differ as well. 

The current average pay range in the United States for each career includes:

  • Nutritionist: $63,000
  • Dietician: $62,992
  • Health coach: $48,858
  • Personal trainer: $61,511

Source: salary.com

It’s important to note that health and wellness coaching is a flexible field, especially when coaches work for themselves. 

Building a business means that coaches can design programs at multiple price points and for a variety of different types of clients. This kind of flexibility gives health coaches more control over their income, leading some coaches to create six-figure businesses and beyond.

Health and wellness coaches also have great control over their work environment, leading to greater work satisfaction. Getting to work with people one-on-one, creating deep and lasting changes in others’ lives is an amazing way to create fulfillment in your own life. 

Thoughts from an IAWP Graduate

“The key difference to remember is a nutritionist focuses primarily on food and exercise to help with body weight, BMI, and health. They are usually referred to by your primary doctor and help with your physical body health.

A health or wellness coach looks at more than just what you need to keep your body healthy. They can provide support for better mindset, alternative health practices on a variety of levels, provide tools to break through challenges, and look at all parts of your life that are affecting your health.”

Molly Sommerhalder, Certified Holistic Wellness Coach and Certified Yoga Teacher at Swan in the Lotus Yoga and Wellness, LLC

How Do I Become a Health Coach?

Young woman at market with basket of fruit and vegetables reaching for an apple.

Becoming a health coach is a career path that works well for adults ready for a career transition, as well as those just getting started on their career journey. It’s perfect for those who really want to make a difference in the lives of others, as well as build businesses that support their families and lifestyles.

If you’re more interested in working with people from a holistic perspective, you might instead consider becoming a Holistic Wellness Coach, which is a highly specialized type of Health Coach. 

While health coaching can help clients make significant changes in their lives, the holistic approach that wellness coaches use can help people see connections in their health from a bigger, whole-life view. 

A holistic approach to coaching allows a client to see the connection between their stress at work and their chronic binge eating, for example. This perspective isn’t always utilized in traditional nutritionist or health coaching models. 

Having a specialization in holistic wellness allows you to get laser focused with clients, creating long-lasting change, and increasing the value of your offerings. In addition, a specialization can allow you to charge more for your services and do work in the world that makes a big impact. You can learn more about what you might want to consider before becoming a Wellness Coach in our article here.

If you’d like to help others find more joy and fulfillment in their lives, bodies, and minds, becoming a Holistic Wellness Coach might be the perfect fit for you.

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Suzanne Monroe Founder of IAWP

About the Author

Suzanne Monroe

Suzanne Monroe is the author of The Holistic Cookbook & Lifestyle Guide: 12 Weeks to a Healthier, Happier You, the co-author of 101 Ways to Improve Your Health, and is a health and business expert appearing regularly in the media. Suzanne was inspired to create the IAWP Wellness Coach Training & Certification Program in collaboration with other leading health experts in order to inspire people to create meaningful careers and spread the message of wellness.