Value of Registered Dietitians vs. Health Coaches

Value of Registered Dietitians vs. Health Coaches

January 3, 2018
Retail Industry Insights

By Shari Steinbach, MS RDN, RDBA Contributing Editor

As wellness programs become more refined at retail, the need for employing health expertise is increasingly important. In addition to general nutrition recommendations, consumers are seeking disease management advice and expect their supermarket to provide the guidance. While many supermarkets have Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) on staff, some are also looking into the feasibility of hiring health coaches. Let’s take a look at the differences between these two disciplines and the value they may bring to the retail setting.

As far as educational background, RDNs have to have at least a Bachelor’s Degree in nutrition or an approved nutrition related field, (a Master’s Degree will be required by 2024), complete an accredited internship, pass an accreditation exam and maintain 75 hours of continuing education every 5 years. The RDN credential is overseen by the Commission on Dietetic Registration and RDNs are the only professionals allowed to conduct and bill for Medical Nutrition Therapy. For health coaches, a certification can be obtained from different entities and a program can often be completed in 6-months. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) health coach certification program allows individuals to take their exam if they meet a few requirements. For example, are at least 18 years old and have an Associate Degree in a health-related field. The program focuses on motivational counseling and promoting a healthy lifestyle.

From a credibility, liability and ROI stance, RDNs seem to be the best choice for advancing retail wellness initiatives and providing dietary advice to consumers, but what about a retail role for health coaches? Melissa Hehmann, MS, RDN, CDE, ACE-CPT, formerly with Meijer, worked with health coaches in a worksite wellness setting. She explained that health coaches were a valuable part of their team and provided more 'touch points' with employees. “They were trained in motivational interviewing and encouraged wellness participants on the goals that were created by an RDN, Pharmacist or Personal Trainer. Health coaches played a strong support role and dietitians often educated them to ensure proper diet-related information was being shared with clients”. Depending on the retail setting, Melissa feels there could be a place for health coaches at retail. Retail dietitians who provide counseling services may use health coaches to reach clients telephonically to keep them on track. This personalized service may contribute to client retention. A health coach could also be trained to conduct basic grocery tours and cooking demos, freeing up the RDN team to foster community partnerships and align wellness objectives with overall business strategies. “Health coaches should not replace RDNs but can provide another layer of support”. 

Jenny Pitcher, RDN, LD, CHWC, saw a value of obtaining a health coaching certification and used her skills in a retail setting. “It enhanced my nutrition communication skills and allowed me to provide a more client-centric approach to behavior change. As many retailers are realizing the value of providing nutrition consultations in their stores and pharmacies, the dietitian/health coach can be a real asset to helping clients adopt long-term nutritional modifications”. 

The bottom line is that consumers manage their health with food purchasing decisions and they will increasingly seek out those retailers who provide the healthy food options and educational programs that support their wellness journey. While the nutrition and food expertise of the RDN supports the need for them to lead wellness program development and educational efforts at retail, there could also be a supporting role for health coaches.