The Difference Between a Doctor, a Nutritionist, and a Health Coach

What's the difference between a doctor, a nutritionist, and a health coach? If you're at a point where you feel like you've tried everything with no luck, and you want to talk to a professional, let's delve into the difference between each.

Personally, when I was 40 pounds overweight, I hated the idea of seeing a nutritionist.

I felt like I knew everything I was supposed to do and that it would be a total waste of money. Plus, weren't they just going to tell me to eat less and exercise more? I couldn't really understand the value.

I did like the idea of seeing a personal trainer, because I thought fitness was the key to looking good. But I knew that my eating habits were out of control (especially sugar cravings). I knew deep down that working out with a pro wasn't going to cut it.

But there's actually 4 different kinds of practitioners you can talk to about diet. And, each one is going to give you a different outcome with your goals.

So read on to get clear on what each does before you make your call (and, you can grab this free chart to give you a visual on who to call, when, based on your condition). 

The difference between a doctor, nutritionist and health coach

Medical Doctor - Keyword: Medicine

Pros: Medical Doctors are trained in...wait for it...medicine! So, if you go to a doctor, they're most likely going to give you some medication.

I can see two benefits of going to a doctor: the first is when you're in pain (like you have a fever/headache and you want quick relief), or if you need surgery.

Cons: But when it comes to nutrition, I like to think of medication as like a bandaid on a cut that needs stitches. It can help you feel better but it's not addressing the cause or how to fix it long term.

So if you have any chronic conditions - like bloating, constipation, fatigue, skin conditions, or a whole bunch of other things that just make you feel a bit dull, then a medical doctor is not who you want to see.

Plus, some people have side effects to medications. Which, they wind up getting a different medication for.

Nutritionist - Keyword: Diet

Pros: Nutritionists (also known as Registered Dietician) are great at explaining information about different nutrients and biochemistry. They can help you plan a diet for weight loss or healing diet for whatever your specific health goal is.

So if you have a specific goal - like losing x amount of pounds by summer beach time, or gaining more energy for a fitness competition - then nutritionists can help you formulate a plan for that.

Cons: Nutritionists tend to be more diet-focused. There are so many other things that could keep you from losing weight, from stress in your life to your lifestyle to your thought process. And that's not something that *most* nutritionists work through, necessarily.

Also, most nutritionists will have a long chat with you when you first come to them, and then have very short follow up sessions just to tweak anything going on in your diet. So again, nutritionists and dieticians are diet focused.

Functional Nutritionist - Keywords: Healing with a blend of science & holistic concepts

Pros: Functional Nutritionists are like a blend between a Nutritionist and a Medical doctor.

They can do tests to check which nutrients your body needs (overriding any guesswork) and they will also discuss with you how your lifestyle impacts your health, not just food.

So basically, a functional nutritionist will help you heal with food from both a scientific and holistic standpoint.

Cons: Honestly I can't think of any cons because functional nutritionists are really the best of both worlds and I recommend them. But one downside is that they could be more expensive to work with than other practitioners because you'd have to order lab tests.

So, I would go to a functional nutritionist if you feel like something is "wrong" and you want to have test results with a game plan.

Health Coach - Keywords: Accountability, Strategy

Pros: Health coaches are trained to ask you the right questions to trigger you to think deeply about your food and lifestyle and encourage lasting changes.

Unlike with medical doctors, nutritionists, and functional nutritionists, clients are more likely to see a Health coach for packaged sessions.

In other words, instead of just going once and getting a diagnosis, you will meet every week or two for 1-6 months). This way, you can have someone help you with accountability and strategy in getting healthy.

Health coaches are great supporters and a resource for health information that could work for you, long term. They help you make lasting changes.

Cons: Health coaches are typically not trained to help people with chronic issues or diseases (though some are, it depends on the health coach).

They are more suitable for people who maybe want to lose weight or adopt a better lifestyle and are having trouble making it work.

So if you have any specific hormone issues, chronic conditions or diseases, then I wouldn't see a Health Coach until after you've seen one of the practitioners above and need help on sticking to your regime.

Personally, I'm a health coach.

One reason why the first chat I have with people is free is because after talking about their concerns and goals, sometimes I find that they might need a different kind of attention (and other times we're a great fit!)

What's your experience been like talking to a health or weight loss professional? Leave a comment!