Ask an Expert: What Kinds of Nutritionists Are There? National Nutrition Month

March is National Nutrition Month and an excellent opportunity to learn about making informed food choices. Proper nutrition is critical. Not only does it keep someone feeling well on a day-to-day basis, but it can also help manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and many more. Thankfully, there are many professionals who can help clients determine how food and nutrition are affecting their bodies and what to do about it.

With so many professionals and titles in this field, it can be challenging for clients to determine who to go to for help and what kind of help a given nutrition expert can provide. Common titles in this field include clinical nutritionist, integrative nutritionist, dietician, nutritional therapist, wellness consultant, life coach, eating disorder nutritionist, and forensic nutritionist.

Unfortunately, most of these titles are unregulated, and it can be hard to know how much and what kind of education a nutritional expert may have.

What is a Forensic Nutritionist?

Forensic nutrition, for example, is a term used by Fiona Tuck. She is a qualified nutritional medicine practitioner, skincare expert, yoga teacher, and an accredited member of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society.

She shares, “[There] isn’t specific training or courses called forensic nutrition. As far as I am aware, ‘forensic nutrition’ is made-up terminology. For me, [forensic nutrition] is about looking at the clues the body gives, detecting underlying imbalances, looking at lifestyle factors, diet, and pathology work to determine what is going on at more of a biochemical level.”

An Expert’s Perspective on Nutritionists

Robin Foroutan, an integrative and functional nutritionist, looks at things a bit differently: “I’m always thinking about systems. For example, which system is likely out of balance and why? I’m looking for things like is there a need for detoxification, does the gut need support for healing, are there stealth infections that we need to deal with, are there low-grade chronic nutrient insufficiencies? I ask questions such as is someone truly not getting enough of that nutrient or do they have the genetics such that they require more for their own biology,” she shares.

Despite the intricacies of professional titles, nutrition can be relatively straightforward. According to Foroutan, “Don’t complicate it. Get really good sleep, work on stress relief, be sure you’re well-hydrated, get a little exercise outdoors every day, and eat a lot of vegetables. If you can do those things, you’re in a much better place than most of everybody else.

Continue reading to learn more about the field of functional and integrative nutrition from Foroutan, as well as her recommendations on what to look for when hiring a nutritional expert.

Meet The Expert: Robin Foroutan, Integrative and Functional Dietitian

Robin Foroutan is an award-winning registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in integrative medicine, functional medicine, and holistic healing. She holds a master’s of science in nutrition education from Columbia University and a bachelor’s of science in nutrition and dietetics from New York University.

Her passion is empowering individuals to discover the healing power of food, nutrition, and herbs and teaching people how to take better care of their bodies through gut healing, detoxification, and other natural ways of healing.

Integrative and Functional Nutrition

Much like there are specialized medical providers for specific illnesses, there are nutritionists who specialize in particular forms of nutrition. For example, Foroutan has specialized in integrative and functional nutrition, which she regards as a subset of functional and integrative medicine. “It’s the nutrition subset of the medical practice,” she explains.

She continues, “It’s utilizing a natural approach to healing as best you can, and if you need to, still using conventional type medicine. This could include things like prescription medications and surgeries if they’re indicated. We try our best to heal the body with more natural means. So, that might look like diet, stress relief, exercise, nutritional supplements, herbs, and things like that.”

For Foroutan, she sees this field of medicine and nutrition as the ultimate detective: “I will say that integrative and functional practitioners approach a problem quite differently. So, if you feel like you’ve been to a million doctors or you’ve talked to a million dieticians, that does not mean that an integrative and functional practitioner couldn’t help you in a much deeper way. I hope that gives a lot of people a lot of hope,” she shares.

Who Can Benefit From Integrative Nutrition?

“Nutrition care from a professional is for everyone, particularly with an integrative and functional approach. You can use integrative medicine for staving off diseases, disease prevention, and staying healthy throughout your life cycle. And you can use it for a natural way to approach a condition that you’ve been diagnosed with,” shares Foroutan. “It’s most helpful for people who live in a place where they know they don’t feel well, but they don’t have a diagnosable condition. So they’ve done the tests, and their tests are normal. That’s a horrible place to be because you know, you don’t feel good, and you know that something’s wrong. But the doctors that you’re seeing aren’t finding it.”

“That is when most people will find integrative and functional medicine helpful because what we’re looking for is going to be a little bit different, and the battery of tests that we do are going to dig a little bit deeper,” she adds. “We’re looking at nutrition status because sometimes deficiencies or low-grade chronic nutrient insufficiencies can trigger symptoms. We’re looking for things like stealth infections, toxicities, and mold exposure. We are looking for something that’s called ‘endo-toxicity,’ so our metabolic toxins are not getting eliminated properly.”

Functional and integrative nutrition can also be beneficial for clients who have been diagnosed with a disease. “Some clients will come to us with a diagnosis, and they have been told that there’s nothing that they can do. This is such a disservice because there is always something that you can do. A prime example would be irritable bowel syndrome. There are ways to reverse it, and there are definitely ways to mitigate the severity of the symptoms.”

Foroutan sees symptoms as clues. “Functional medicine speaks to the function of the body and restoring the optimum function of the body. So whenever there’s a symptom, you can trackback and say, ‘Alright, well if this is the symptom, these are possibly the systems that are not operating tip-top.’ If we dig into those systems and test around those or put together a protocol that emphasizes those systems and helps support those systems, you can get the symptom to shut off. It’s the body’s way of talking to you,” she says.

“Conventional medicine seeks to shut off that line of communication, whereas integrative and functional practitioners want to listen closely and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we think it’s saying, let’s see if we can find tests to confirm that.’”

What Kinds of Nutritionist Certifications and Credentials Are There?

Within nutrition science and dietetics, there are many different credentials and titles. “There are so many different terms, and most of us are doing similar things,” says Foroutan. “This has also been the case in medicine. First, there was Eastern medicine. And that became alternative medicine. Then we sort of evolved that definition to complementary medicine because it was sort of the merging of Eastern and Western. Sometimes it was alternative, but sometimes it also included conventional medicine.”

She adds, “Then it became ‘integrative medicine’ because it integrated the two. And then, it became ‘functional medicine’ and ‘functional nutrition.’ A lot of us regard ourselves as integrative and functional nutritionists, but you’ll still see people calling themselves ‘holistic.’ Sometimes, we get grouped with a subset of health coaches who will use the same terminology and don’t have the same level of education to back it up.”

This can make it hard to know what a practitioner means when they use a given title or credential. “It can get really confusing for consumers. There are all these online schools that offer certification. Some of them are fantastic, and others are really, really surface. It can be challenging to figure out who’s got the chops to back up what they claim and who’s really just sort of a really passionate amateur,” says Foroutan.

What to Look For In a Nutritionist

Thankfully, some terms are regulated and can help clients determine the level of education and training a nutritionist may have.

“To be a registered dietician, you have to have at least a bachelor’s degree. This is changing because it’s going to include a master’s degree soon, but, for now, you have to at least have a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics that includes anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, organic chemistry, and then you have to do 1,000 hours of supervised training. Then you have to sit for an exam,” shares Foroutan. This exam is through the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). Registered dieticians are required to maintain their credentials as well with continuing education credits.

However, according to Foroutan, there are lots of other options. “[Registered Dietician] is not even close to being the only legitimate credential. There are others that are equally rigorous and equally good. I think it’s important to look at where they graduated from and what kind of training they did. Ask if it is a certification where they just show up and maybe do a test at the end. Or does it require a true understanding of how the body works?” offers Foroutan.

“So there are a handful of credentials that are completely legitimate,” she says. “And then there are a lot of people that are well-meaning, very passionate amateurs that want to do this as a health coach, which is admirable. They can teach people to cook, read labels, and incorporate more vegetables and anti-inflammatory foods into their lives. You don’t need a big fancy degree to do those things.”

To ensure patients get adequate care, those providing nutrition services must understand their limitations: “There does come a point where practitioners would be wise to recognize what they don’t know. If somebody’s symptoms are behaving a little bit weird, they should acknowledge that maybe that’s not in their wheelhouse and escalate that up to somebody who has more training. There is room for us all in the field, but I think we need to be really honest and clear with where our specialty begins and ends,” remarks Foroutan.

March: National Nutrition Month

The month of March is designated as National Nutrition Month, and there are ample opportunities to learn more about food and nutrition. However, because of the vast amount of information, it is crucial to consider the source. “It’s a great time of year because here’s a great deal of information on social media,” says Foroutan. “You really have to think about who it is coming from, what kind of experience and training they have, and how long have they been in the field?”

To celebrate National Nutrition Month, Foroutan encourages everyone to explore the possibility of working with a nutrition expert. “My favorite comparison is that working with a dietician is like going to the dentist. You go to the dentist twice a year where you get a cleaning, you take some X-rays, and they let you know if your mouth is okay or not. If it’s not, they give you some pointers on how to rebalance,” she says. “You can utilize dieticians in much the same way. If you have a health concern or you’re not feeling well, then you might want to work with us in a little bit more depth, but it’s really feasible, depending on your insurance, to do check-ins every so often with a registered dietician who can give you specific pointers.”

Kimmy Gustafson
Kimmy Gustafson Writer

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with a passion for sharing stories of bravery. Her love for world-traveling began when her family moved to Spain when she was six and since then, she has lived overseas extensively, visited six continents, and traveled to over 25 countries. She is fluent in Spanish and conversational in French. When not writing or parenting she can be found kiteboarding, hiking, or cooking.