Eating healthy is at the core of preventing disease and living longer. But figuring out exactly what foods to eat every day can be overwhelming.
Nutrition counseling involves receiving personalized, one-on-one dietary guidance and advice from a registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN).
What are the benefits of nutrition counseling? It can help you manage and prevent chronic disease, improve your sleep and energy, and more.
Nutrition is a vital part of aging well. For older adults, unhealthy eating habits can increase the risk of acute and chronic conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, and certain cancers. Malnutrition—or the lack of nutrients needed to thrive—can lead to a greater risk of falls, a weakened immune system, decreased bone mass, and slow wound healing.
While most of us know that eating well can help us live a longer, healthier life, putting it into practice every day isn’t always simple or easy. Sometimes it’s helpful to have someone guide us in making the right food choices. That’s where nutrition counseling comes in.
What is nutrition counseling?
According to the ACL Nutrition and Aging Resource Center, nutrition counseling “provides personalized guidance to individuals who are at nutritional risk because of their health or nutritional history, dietary intake, chronic illness, or medication use.”
Nutrition counseling is typically provided by a registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietician nutritionist (RDN). Through a supportive, one-on-one counseling process, an RD/RDN can help you understand how diet affects your overall health. They can also help you plan healthy meals that meet your daily nutrition needs and lifestyle. It’s important to understand that nutrition counseling is not a quick fix. The goal is to make gradual, sensible dietary changes you can maintain over the long term.
What is a registered dietitian?
A registered dietitian or registered dietitian nutritionist is a food and nutrition expert with extensive education and training. The RD and RDN credentials have the same meaning; both show that a person has met the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s strict guidelines for certification. While RD was the original credential given to certified dietitians, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics added RDN as an option in 2013. The addition of “nutritionist” to the credential conveys that dietitians are highly trained in nutrition and the role it plays in human health and wellness.
Beyond offering nutrition advice, RDs and RDNs provide Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT), an evidence-based medical approach to treating certain conditions. These professionals work in a variety of environments including hospitals, private health care practices, and community centers. Some work with clients over the phone or remotely through video conferencing.
It’s important to know that a nutritionist is not the same as an RD/RDN. All dietitians are nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are certified and registered dietitians.
What happens during nutrition counseling?
Every nutrition counseling program is different. However, in general, the dietitian you meet with will spend some time getting to know you and your cultural preferences, budget concerns, medical conditions, and goals for the program. They may:
- Review your general health and medical history. Your RD/RDN may ask about food allergies or sensitivities, digestive issues, or health conditions that are affected by the way you eat. They may request a list of medications or supplements you’re taking. They will also want to know about your physical activity level, current eating habits, and where you struggle the most. Your RD/RDN will be looking for signs of nutrient deficiencies such as hair loss or severe muscle cramps, since this may mean you’re missing key vitamins and minerals from your diet.
- Explain the basics of good nutrition. You’ll learn how different foods impact your health and the way you feel. Your RD/RDN may also teach you how to read food product labels, understand the number of servings per container, and visualize what individual serving sizes look like. You may be given informational materials to take home with you.
- Show you how to make mindful food choices. Your RD/RDN may help you recognize negative thought patterns and emotions around food. They can also help you identify hunger cues and improve your relationship with foods and beverages. This can prevent problems like compulsive eating, yo-yo dieting, and binge eating.
- Help you prioritize dietary changes and set goals. Taking into account your unique needs, your RD/RDN will help you understand your calorie requirements. They will explain what dietary changes you should focus on first and help you set realistic goals.
- Create a personalized nutrition plan. In creating your action plan, your RD/RDN will consider your ideal calorie and nutrient intakes, food preferences, and budget. They may also provide you with sample meal plans and healthy, culturally relevant recipes you can try out at home. Some dietitians may also show you how to make minor adjustments to food preparation without sacrificing flavor and enjoyment.
During your nutrition counseling appointment, you'll be able to share any concerns you have and ask questions. You should expect to schedule one or more follow-up appointments, which will allow your RD/RDN to monitor your progress and make necessary changes to your eating plan.
What are the benefits of nutrition counseling?
Nutrition counseling can help improve your health and wellness in many ways. Its benefits include:
1. Preventing and managing chronic conditions
Along with other lifestyle changes, improving the way you eat can lower your risk of developing hypertension, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and other chronic conditions.
If you already have a chronic disease, nutrition counseling can help ease some of the physical symptoms you’re experiencing or even reverse the condition altogether. For example, if you’re diabetic, losing weight through dietary changes could help bring your blood glucose down to normal levels.
2. Achieving a healthy weight
Obesity is a common, serious, and growing health issue in the U.S. Between 2017 and 2020, the rate of obesity was 41.9%—a 37% increase from just a decade before.1 Carrying too much extra weight can increase your risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and even COVID-19 complications. It can also affect your mobility and overall quality of life.
Although it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, good nutrition is key when it comes to reaching a healthy weight. Nutrition counseling may help you shed pounds by making you aware of how many calories you need for your level of activity. You’ll also learn how to get the proper balance of nutrients. There is a full range of treatment options for those living with obesity. Speak with your health care provider to find the path that’s right for you.
Likewise, many older adults experience changes in their metabolism and appetite, putting them at risk for unintended weight loss and malnutrition. If you've had unintended weight loss and you’re struggling to maintain a healthy body weight, an RD/RDN can help you create a plan to gain weight at a slow, safe pace.
3. Feeling better overall
Improving the quality of what you eat doesn’t just reduce your risk for disease. It can also help increase your energy levels, enhance your sleep, improve your digestion and bowel movements, boost your mood, and even sharpen your thinking and concentration. When you combine a nutrient-dense diet with smart lifestyle habits like exercising regularly, staying socially connected, and avoiding smoking, your body can function at its best.
4. Developing long-term healthy habits
Nutrition counseling focuses on helping you gradually improve your eating habits through individualized, practical, and manageable changes. Once you have the tools and knowledge to make better choices, it becomes second nature. One good choice followed by another leads to healthy habits that can last for the rest of your life. Your RD/RDN is an important part of your medical care team. They can help you prevent a decline in your health and keep your immune system working properly.
How can I get nutrition counseling?
The best place to start is asking your doctor if nutrition counseling is right for you. They may be able to refer you to a program where you live.
You can also contact your Area Agency on Aging to ask about senior nutrition programs in your community. Many programs include services such as nutrition screening, education, and counseling. Find local aging services providers by visiting the Eldercare Locator and entering your zip code.
Good nutrition starts with SNAP
If you’re having trouble affording healthy foods, it’s worth finding out if you qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). With an average benefit of $104 per month (for a one-person older adult household), SNAP helps people with low income put more nutritious meals on their table.
Just ask Randolph Hamilton, age 68. Randolph visited one of our Benefits Enrollment Centers (BECs) for help in replacing his SNAP EBT card. When asked why he participates in SNAP, he teared up, explaining, "I get SNAP so that I can eat and not worry about going hungry."
Visit NCOA's BenefitsCheckUp.org and enter your ZIP code to find out if you meet the income limits for SNAP.
1. The State of Obesity: 2022, Trust for America's Health. Found on the internet at https://www.tfah.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/2022ObesityReport_FINAL3923.pdf