Licensed professionals are more reliable than people who merely call themselves nutritionists. (BIGSTOCK)

Think you’re an expert at eating well? No, you probably don’t. More than half of the people in a 2012 survey by the nonprofit International Food Information Council Foundation said it was easier to prepare their taxes than to figure out what they should eat for better health. ¶ You probably hire someone to help with your taxes, so why not get help for your diet? An expert on food and nutrition might not cost as much as you think, and getting tips on healthful eating can help you stick to a good routine.

People with diabetes, heart disease or weight problems may especially benefit. Dietary changes can help those conditions and in some cases reduce or even eliminate the need for medication. A food and nutrition expert can also help with digestive disorders such as celiac disease, colitis and food allergies. Athletes and women who are pregnant, trying to become pregnant or breast-
feeding are also good candidates for professional dietary advice.

Nutritionist or dietitian?

So where do you look for help? In some states, people can call themselves nutritionists without any qualifications, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association). But registered dietitians are different. They must have at least a bachelor’s degree with specific course work and training in nutrition and dietetics, and must pass an examination administered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration. They must also complete continuing-education classes to maintain their professional status.

The advice you get from such professionals will depend on your age, sex, weight and medical history, as well as such factors as your lifestyle, food preferences and nutrition concerns. You’ll receive a personalized plan to meet your overall eating or health goals, says Melinda Johnson, a spokeswoman for the academy.

Depending on your needs, you might come away with weekly meal plans, recipes for healthy dishes or a new understanding of how to read food labels. A registered dietitian might even accompany you to a grocery store, visit your home to help you stock a more healthful pantry or review the best options on menus at your favorite restaurants.

Regardless of your goal, a registered dietitian will almost always want to know what you usually eat. To save appointment time and improve accuracy, keep a food diary for a week before your first visit. You might try a phone app such as MyFitnessPal or SparkPeople to keep track of your daily meals.

If you’d rather not keep a written food journal, take pictures of your meals. Bring your partner or a friend to your appointment for backup, and take notes.

Finding a pro

The best way to find a registered dietitian is to ask your doctor for a recommendation. (Your health insurance may cover referrals made for medical reasons.) You also can go to the dietetics academy’s Web site,, and click on “Find a registered dietitian.” Professionals with specific expertise can be found, including those who specialize in vegetarian or gluten-free diets and those who work with people who have cancer.

You can also search for registered dietitians who focus on your area of concern, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or weight loss. Some other free resources to consider include grocery stores and hospitals. Many have registered dietitians on staff who provide nutrition advice, classes or lectures.

Bottom line: Beware of “nutritionists” who might try to sell you unnecessary and costly vitamins, minerals and dietary supplements. Instead, stick with practitioners who are registered dietitians.

Some insurance providers, including Medicare, will cover nutritional counseling by a registered dietitian for certain conditions, such as diabetes and kidney disease, when you’re referred by a licensed health-care provider. Without insurance, the cost can vary from $50 to $250 per visit, depending on the practitioner and where you live.

Copyright 2013. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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