What does a nutritionist do?

Though food and diet have always had an important connection to maintaining good health and preventing illness, many in the medical establishment have downplayed the role of dietary factors in healing disease. Fortunately, those who study nutrition believe that “you are what you eat,” and they bolster that belief with scientific evidence that diet profoundly impacts disease and overall health.

Nutritional therapists are specialists who use diet and nutritional supplements to prevent and treat disease. When you visit a nutritionist, he or she will interview you and devise a plan for incorporating the right kinds of foods and supplemental nutrients to address your health issues. A nutritionist may also recommend exercise as a companion to a dietary regimen.

If the nutritionist suspects a nutritional deficiency or lack of digestive function, he or she may order lab tests of your urine, blood or hair. Muscle and reflex testing may be part of your initial visit, along with an examination of your eyes, fingernails and skin tone.

Common nutritional treatments include an elimination diet to help identify your problem foods, a food-combining diet, or a detoxification diet. You will probably be asked to keep a diary of the foods you eat as part of your therapy.

Key principles of nutrition

Two basic concepts guide those who practice nutritional therapy:

1. Digestion of food and elimination of waste products are the keys to health. No system or cell in the body can function properly if it’s not well-nourished. For this reason, nutritionists pay close attention to the state of the digestive tract, digestive acids in the stomach and enzymes in the pancreas, the ability of the liver to efficiently detoxify the body, the presence of beneficial bacteria that insure intestinal health, and the ability of the colon to conduct waste out of the body.

2. The quality of food is essential to health. Nutritionists focus on advising clients to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and antibiotic-free meats. Among the nutritional hazards of today’s diet are highly processed “junk” food, produce that has been sprayed with toxic chemicals, food grown in nutrient-poor soil, and meats from animals that have been treated with antibiotics and steroids.

Which types of conditions are best treated by nutrition?

Almost any health problem will improve if you eat a balanced diet and cut back on saturated fats, salt, sugar and caffeine. However, if you experience long-term symptoms for which conventional medicine finds no cause, consider consulting a nutritionist. Many unexplained ailments can be traced to either subtle food allergies or a condition called “leaky gut syndrome.”

Among the conditions that nutritionists routinely address are:

Digestive disorders

Gastrointestinal trouble, including irritable bowel syndrome

Nutritional imbalances

Food allergies or sensitivities

Blood sugar imbalances

Weight loss or gain

Fatigue and chronic fatigue syndrome

Headaches, migraines

Food cravings


High blood pressure

Cardiovascular problems

Training/education required

Nutritionists are qualified to address your dietary needs but are not qualified to make medical diagnoses or provide medical care. They spend two to four years studying physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, biology and chemistry and nutrition and may be required to be licensed or certified to practice, depending upon the state. Generally, the requirements are a minimum of a bachelor’s degree with science emphasis. To become a certified clinical nutritionist, the person must have logged at least 900 hours of medical and clinical nutrition.

What to look for when choosing a nutritionist

Find a practitioner with whom you can communicate openly and with whom you have a good rapport. Also, select someone who’s sensitive to your particular needs and circumstances, especially if you’re dealing with weight issues or with food allergies, which can be frustrating to pinpoint. Ask if the nutritionist is registered or certified.

Some Medical Doctors specialize in nutritional medicine. They would be a good choice if you have a condition such as diabetes, cancer or heart disease that requires medical monitoring.

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