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There’s no question that there is a need for health and wellness guidance in our modern day times. Many are plagued with less than ideal health brought on by poor diets, sedentary lifestyles, compulsory consumption, fast-paced lifestyles, and a mountain of stress. Yet, enacting positive behavior change on your own may seem overwhelming.
Nutrition therapists and health coaches are two professionals within the wellness industry that strive to help others lead healthier lives, yet these professions are not equal. It is important to distinguish the qualifications and scope of practice for nutrition therapists and health coaches not only for the well-being of their clients, but for their own legal protection.
This article will shine some light on the differences between two professional wellness paths – nutrition therapist and health coach – including education, scope of practice, and credentials.
To begin, we’ll define the goals and philosophy of health coaches and nutrition therapists.
What is a Health Coach?
Health coaches pursue an education through a program certified by the NBHWC, the National Board for Health & Wellness Coaching. The NBHWC defines the profession as the following:
“Health and wellness coaches partner with clients seeking to enhance their well-being through self-directed, lasting changes aligned with their values. In the course of their work, health and wellness coaches display an unconditional positive regard for their clients and a belief in their capacity for change, honoring the fact that each client is an expert on their own life, while ensuring that all interactions are respectful and non-judgmental.”
As a certifying body, the NBHWC outlines basic curriculum requirements for educational programs training health coaches. Certified program requirements include a minimum of 75 hours of training covering topics such as:
- Coaching structure, including preparation and organization
- Coaching process, including client relationship, trust, active listening, quality questions, framing and reframing
- Health and wellness from a whole-person perspective, including recognizing chronic disease risks and familiarity with nutritional recommendations set forth by government or health agencies
- Professional conduct and ethics
Notably absent from their curriculum is science-based education in nutrition, which precludes health coaches from making dietary recommendations to their clients.
Upon completion of a certified program, health and wellness coaches are eligible to take the board exam given by the NBHWC in partnership with the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) to achieve the National Board Certified credential, NBC-HWC.
What is a Nutrition Therapist?
A nutrition therapist, more broadly referred to as a holistic nutrition professional (HNP), is a practitioner who specializes in holistic nutrition principles. They recognize that one’s picture of health is colored by various individual experiences of life: physical, biochemical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and environmental. HNPs receive a clinical education that they use to make science-based recommendations in addition to health coaching skills that promote desired behavior modifications for their clients, while honoring a holistic perspective and bio-individuality.
Like health coaches, nutrition therapists are regulated by an organization that defines the minimum standards for education and certification. The National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP) sets forth the educational standards for HNPs and offers an exam for qualified practitioners to become Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition, adding the letters “BCHN” to their names.
Let’s take a closer look at the educational criteria to become a board certified holistic nutrition professional.
Science-based education is where the main distinction between health coaches and holistic nutrition professionals lies. Prospective nutrition therapists attend programs certified by the NANP, like Nutrition Therapy Institute, who must offer a minimum of 1080 credit hours of holistic nutrition training in order to adhere to the NANP’s educational standards.
The NANP requires that holistic nutrition courses cover a wide range of human health matters, such as: nutritional support for organ systems, diet analysis, popular diets and their therapeutic applications, menu planning, environmental influences on health, topics in current research, and how to recognize symptoms of nutrient deficiency or excess.
The curriculum requires an in-depth study of nutrition, including:
- Anatomy and physiology
- Biochemical concepts of nutrition
- Comprehensive study of macronutrients of micronutrients
- Influences of digestion and detoxification
- Nutrient requirements for children, men and women in all stages of life
- Sports nutrition
- Uses of herbs and supplements
- Business principles
HNPs learn how to effectively coach their clients to make lasting and effective behavioral changes, as health coaches do, by learning to build relationships based on trust and positive regard, practicing active listening, invoking great questions that inspire the client to assess their values in a new way, and framing and reframing attitudes and beliefs.
Though both professions acknowledge and cooperate with their client’s inner wisdom using positive interactions and motivational interviewing techniques. Holistic nutrition professionals sit atop a much stronger educational foundation to guide their clients toward their health goals. This science-based education broadens their scope of practice and enhances their ability to motivate dietary and lifestyle behavior changes by empowering their clients with knowledge.
Scope of Practice
Scope of practice refers to the services a practitioner is competent to perform and permitted to take according to the terms of their professional credentials. Laws and exemptions vary from state to state, so it is important to know the limitations to your scope of practice based on the certification you hold.
In all states, the prohibited activities for both health coaches and holistic nutrition professionals include the following: diagnose, treat, prevent, prescribe, heal, reverse, or cure any disease or health condition.
Common to both scopes of practice is the ability to assist with behavioral modification consistent with treatment plans offered by their licensed health care providers.
In addition, nutrition therapists may dispense evidence and science-based recommendations based on holistic principles in order to inspire active lifestyles and teach healthy eating habits, something that is outside the scope of practice for a health coach.
As previously mentioned, both health coaches and HNPs are eligible to become board certified from their respective agencies, the NBHWC and the NANP.
In order to become eligible to sit for the NBHWC board certification exam, you must first:
- Complete an accredited NBHWC training program
- Perform 50 health and wellness coaching sessions
- Have an associate’s degree or higher or have 4000 hours of work experience in any field
To become Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition you must:
- Complete an approved NANP training program from a holistic nutrition school like Nutrition Therapy Institute (NTI)
- Pass the board exam
- Complete 500 contact hours, of which 250 must be directly with a client and 250 can be indirect
- Obtain continuing education units (CEUs) annually to retain BCHN status
As an approved educational institution by the NANP, all NTI graduates are eligible to take the exam to become Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition. Graduates of NTI are awarded the title of Nutrition Therapist Master (NTM), which they can use to pursue a number of careers based on their passions.
The Future of Health and Wellness Professions
Though both of these professions fall into a grey area in terms of data collection, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects that similar professions, “Dieticians and Nutritionists” and “Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers” will experience an increased job outlook of 11% and 17%, respectively, between 2020 and 2030, much higher than the average growth of 8%.
There’s no better time than right now to pursue your passion for holistic nutrition and help others attain their health and wellness goals.
About the author
Karyn Lane is working towards her holistic nutrition certification in NTI’s Nutrition Therapist Master Program. She finds her chemistry degree a useful tool in her study of holistic nutrition and loves to treat herself as a laboratory for new recipes and cooking techniques. You can follow her on Instagram @feel.alive.nourishment.
About Nutrition Therapy Institute’s Holistic Nutrition Certification
Nutrition Therapy Institute (NTI) is a leader in holistic nutrition education. Since 1999, NTI has provided students with the highest quality in nutrition training by offering comprehensive holistic nutrition courses online and in-person to help students achieve thriving careers as holistic nutrition therapists in the field of holistic nutrition counseling and wellness. Interested in starting our holistic nutrition courses and earning your holistic nutrition certification? Attend an informational webinar to learn more by signing up HERE.
Chart by Karyn Lane
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