How are health coaches, dieticians and therapists different?



Okay, so you’re a health coach. But what do you, um, do?

The term “coach” is still a point of confusion for many folks–and that’s totally understandable. After all, you can hire a coach to do all kinds of things–whip your kid’s football team into shape, help you change careers without falling apart, or even redecorate your house in the way that’s most “you.” It’s a pretty broad term.

Thankfully, as a health coach, my field is more focused–but it’s still a bit vague. With so many other similar-sounding professional titles in the health realm (therapists, dieticians, nutritionists), how can you tell what’s going to be most beneficial for you?

Here are some of the major differences between therapists, dieticians or nutritionists, and coaches. Each takes a different approach to life + health improvement, and each offer their own unique benefits.



  • Use a past-centered approach to facilitate mental healing.
  • Focus on unresolved issues and absorb information.
  • Typically offer contact between sessions only in the case of crisis + difficulties.


  • Use a now- and future-centered approach to facilitate measurable change.
  • Focus on goals, desires and taking action, and act on information.
  • Usually offer contact between sessions as a regular part of service (with primary focus on accountability and celebrating your wins)

Let’s say you’re a woman in her late twenties who’s trying to get back to her mid-college weight. If you work with a therapist to make this happen, you might hear her say:

“Throughout your childhood and teen years, you read in magazines and saw on TV that being skinny means being loved and successful. How did that make you feel?”


Dieticians and nutritionists…

  • Use a largely numbers-based approach to achieve target weight (think: calories in vs. calories out)
  • Take only food into account when creating a strategy
  • Focus on the act of eating/drinking itself


  • Use a whole-food centered approach (they’d likely suggest a food that might be higher in calories, but that’s much closer to its natural state–like blackstrap molasses instead of Splenda)
  • Take lifestyle, work hours and other stressors into account when creating a strategy
  • Focus on the whys behind eating, rather than viewing the act of eating in isolation

If you work with a dietician or nutritionist to achieve your health goals, you might hear him say:

“You want to lose 35 lbs, and we can certainly make that happen. We’ll put you on a regimen that restricts your intake to about 1,600 calories a day, and you should be able to reach your goal weight by September.”


I went more in depth with this one, because it’s what do (so I have more information about it!) Working with a health coach, you might hear something like this:

“Let’s talk through what your goal to lose 35 lbs entails, and to get clear on the other desires and needs connected to it. It sounds like you know that your current weight puts you at risk for [diabetes/cardiovascular disease/XYZ], since it runs in your family, and you want to create a lifestyle in which food isn’t the only thing you look forward to each day.

“What approaches have you taken in the past to reach a healthy weight, and how much did you enjoy the process of those approaches? Most of our lives are spent in process, not at finish lines, so it’s important for us to sketch out a plan that actually feels like a sustainable lifestyle—not something to jump in and out of before and after bikini season.

“We all attach different thoughts and emotions to the things we want. What do you believe that reaching your goal weight will bring? Confidence? Sexiness? Freedom? Let’s discover which of those desired results are most important to you, and come up with some ways to create those feelings now, rather than depriving yourself until you’ve accomplished your long-term goal. How does that sound?”


Curious to know more about how health coaching works, and what it can do for you?Here’s what you + me would look like.

What questions do you have about health coaching, or about approaching lifestyle change in general? Do you work best flying solo? With one-on-one accountability? With group support?

PS: Health does not equal torture5 apps for easy meal planning + shopping


This post originally appeared on Eat Well. Party Hard.


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