In an ideal world, when you visit the grocery store, you’ll have already planned a full week of balanced, nutrient-dense meals that fuel your activities and promote restful sleep.
Using that menu plan, you’ll create a list (after first evaluating what’s already in your fridge and pantry), selecting mostly foods from the “fringe” of the store, and you’ll definitely remember to eat a filling snack before you start wandering through those aisles. When you arrive home, it’ll be a breeze to do your meal prep for the week and set yourself up for total success. And you’ll use every last vegetable in the crisper — in a meal, not for compost.
That’s the dream, but very few people have the time and inclination to make it a reality. The truth is that most of us have already acquired all of the skills in the kitchen that we’ll ever possess in this lifetime. You may also realize that when it comes to meeting fitness goals, the key isn’t your workout, it’s what’s on your plate. Changing your habits is hard.
Even if you’re just trying to get into some kind of shape that isn’t “entirely sedentary,” it’s natural to wonder if hiring a nutritionist, or a dietitian, is worth the cost. How much do they charge? What’s included in the service? How transparent must you be about your evening Oreos-with-milk ritual? What do they expect of me as a client?
Pour yourself a cup of tea and step into our kitchen, where all will be revealed.
How Much Does a Nutritionist Cost?
Hiring a nutrition expert can cost anywhere between $25 and $225 for an initial hour-long consultation, while rates for follow-up visits are typically lower. For a registered dietitian (RD) specifically, you can expect to pay anywhere between $75 and $225 for the onboarding session.
Working with certified nutrition specialists (CNSs) can be more affordable than hiring an RD. Some consultants will provide one free upfront appointment and wait until the second appointment to charge, so always ask what’s included.
Why is the range so wide for an initial consultation? There are a number of reasons why one food expert might be more expensive than another, including how much expertise a self-proclaimed nutritionist might have, their geographic location, how many years they’ve been in business, and whether or not they rely on additional income by selling dietary supplements or other extras.
The first appointment is typically the longest and most involved for both the RD or CNS and you as the client, which is why it’s also the most expensive. Follow-up visits are important to ensure that any changes you’re making to your diet are actually working, but they won’t take as long and usually cost less than the initial consultation. Many RDs and CNSs will offer package deals, where clients can book several appointments for a flat rate.
One thing to note: Visiting an RD or a CNS might be covered by some health insurance plans, depending on the reason for the visit and the expert you choose to see.
OK, so Why Is The Hourly Rate so Hard to Pin Down?
Like most services, the price you can expect to pay for advice from an RD or a CNS varies according to where you live, where the service provider operates, the specific service they provide, and their level of expertise.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that the mean hourly wage for dietitians and nutritionists in 2021 was $31.55, which translates to about $65,620 in annual salary. Those dietitians and nutritionists were employed in medical and surgical hospitals, outpatient care centers, nursing care facilities, special food centers, and similar industries.
Nutritionists and dietitians working one-on-one with clients in a private practice setting will almost always charge a higher hourly rate than the nutritionists and dietitians who are employed by health care systems. The BLS did not differentiate between registered dietitians and certified nutritionists, so these numbers encompass both.
Geography also has a say in how much a nutritionist or dietitian costs. The BLS statistics show that in California, salaried nutritionists and dietitians can expect to earn slightly more: $39.61 was the state mean hourly wage, which jumped as high as $49.63 in the San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara metro area. By contrast, the lowest hourly wage for nutritionists and dietitians can be found in the non-metro areas of East Georgia ($15.49), while the state of Mississippi had the lowest statewide hourly wage for this profession ($21.15).
Experienced RDs and CNSs can (and typically do) charge more for their services. But an RD who has a retainer deal with a professional sports team, for example, might then decide they can accommodate lower rates in their private practice. Some RDs and CNSs might also use a sliding-scale payment system. It often pays to shop around and ask specific price-versus-value questions!
What Do All Those Letters Really Mean?
Compared with a CNS, an RD is likely to have more experience, including more clinical experience. An RD must complete coursework in anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, microbiology, food service systems management, and other required classes. These can be completed either as part of a coordinated dietetics program, which includes an internship in the program, or a didactic program, in which case the internship (at least 1,200 hours) must be completed after the coursework.
Nutrition therapy is fully regulated and licensed in some states, but not all, and there are significant differences between an RD (registered dietitian), a CNS (certified nutrition specialist), and an unlicensed nutritionist.
An RD must meet the most rigorous training and certification levels out of the three. Registered dietitians should have four-year bachelor’s degrees with an emphasis in nutrition science, followed by an internship program in a dietetic specialty.
Most states license dietitians, or at least protect the use of the title “dietitian,” but there are a handful of states with no statutes or regulations:
A CNS must pass an exam and complete some coursework and supervised practice hours, but the requirements are not nearly as stringent as those for an RD.
The nation-wide Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics licenses registered dietitian nutritionists as well as nutrition and dietetics technicians, who must work under the supervision of a registered dietitian. The American Nutrition Association licenses certified nutrition specialists.
What Can a Nutrition Expert Do For You?
Samara Shein, an RD based in the Chicago area, says that she hears this comment all the time: “I don’t feel good, and I just want to feel better.”
“That can pertain to energy, to digestion, to sleep,” she notes.
“The worst thing for a dietitian to hear is, ‘Just send me a meal plan; I’ll follow it,’” says Lisa Andrews, a registered dietitian who’s based in Cincinnati.
“If we hand athletes meal plans, they end up in the garbage,” agrees Leslie Bonci, the sports dietitian for the Kansas City Chiefs football team (she’s previously worked with the Pittsburgh Steelers as well as NHL and MLB franchises).
The best dietitians and nutritionists will take the time to learn about your eating habits, culture, goals, preferences, and more. Instead of providing a strict meal plan, they’ll offer some tweaks or guidelines to help you meet your objectives without reinventing the wheel (or your diet).
“I have several athletes who don’t eat breakfast,” shares Bonci. “One of them said, ‘I’m too tired to chew in the morning.’” Instead of asking them to eat a full meal when they clearly aren’t interested in food, she suggests periodic snacking to fuel their activity levels, especially before and after a workout.
“I ask about their food preferences and tolerances — do they cook and do they eat out, how many meals a day do they eat, are they vegetarian, do they have any medical history?” explains Andrews. “What do they like to eat? What’s convenient? What’s the cultural background? What have they tried in the past, and what worked?”
Shein says that she asks questions about both the quantity and quality of food. “Quality can get overlooked,” she explains. “I have a lot of people who come in and are like, ‘I think I’m eating enough,’ and you look at the quality and it’s nutrient-poor foods.”
Quantity, of course, has its place — and not just in terms of overeating. “I could write an entire article about how undereating can cause stubborn weight loss and even weight gain,” Shein says.
Bonci tries to dig into lifestyle questions beyond food intake, including:
How much time do you have to spend on eating?
What does your food budget look like?
Do you like to cook? Do you enjoy it?
A dietitian may ask you to complete blood work with your doctor and send them the results, or ask to consult with your physician about any medical issues. In fact, if a nutrition expert at any level doesn’t suggest that you talk to your physician first about your goals… that’s a red flag.
“I can give you tips, but I'm not a doctor and I'm not going to know some of the things doctors know,” says DeRonn Turner, a cookbook author and plant-based nutrition expert in the Denver area.
You can expect to fill out a food diary or log for your nutrition expert; this might be as simple as taking photos of everything you eat. Spend at least three days tracking your food and beverage intake, and try to include one weekend day in the diary.
Bonci says she works with clients trying to achieve fitness goals by using a “prepare/repair” philosophy: What events or experiences are they actively preparing for currently? What events or experiences have they recently completed? “You are either in a position of preparing for what you’re going to do physically, or repairing from what you did so you can do it again,” she explains.
“I try to change the fewest things possible for them,” says Andrews. “If you change everything, they’re like a turtle on their back — they can’t do any of it.”
How Do You Find a Nutrition Expert?
One of the best places to start your search is the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which has a search portal for qualified in-person and telehealth nutrition practitioners who have registered with the academy.
Your health insurance plan might also cover the cost of working with an RD if you’re in a state that licenses them. Start with your insurance network to ask for in-network providers and to see if you can get some of that cost covered.
If you don’t find what you’re looking for there, you can use a trusty Google search, or even poke around on social media. There’s no shame in checking out the offerings of your favorite influencers. Just remember that they (probably) aren’t medical professionals, or medically trained at all, and their advice is geared toward the widest range of audience members possible. That might mean picking and choosing what seems like it will work for you, and then discarding the rest.
“You can go online and do a generic program, and it's not necessarily harmful or bad,” explains Shein, “but you're probably a human being with other things going on. Working with somebody on a personal level, they're going to dig into those other things that may not seem obvious that would be supportive to your fitness goals.”