As the field of functional medicine grows there is a greater and greater need for a functional medicine nutritionist to work hand in hand with a functional medicine doctor. Just like a dental office will include a dentist and a dental hygienist; a team approach is typically required to deliver comprehensive functional medicine programs. A functional nutrition practitioner can be credentialed in a variety of ways. Some are registered dieticians, some start with training in clinical nutrition or more integrative and natural medicine nutrition programs that are becoming more popular. If you are wondering how to become a functional medicine nutritionist let’s first discuss the larger topics of human nutrition and functional medicine and how they intersect and overlap.
Nutrition and Functional Medicine
Nutrition and functional medicine have always been linked together as the pioneers of functional medicine all had strong backgrounds in human nutrition and extended that work into the creation of the new field of functional medicine. The first generation of functional medicine practitioners were mostly licensed in other areas such as naturopathic medicine, chiropractic, Chinese medicine or were trained in conventional medicine. If you attended a functional medicine conference in 1992 as I did, you would have seen DC’s, ND’s, PhD’s and MD’s and LAc’s all learning together. When I was first starting my practice in the 1990’s there were not many nutritionists (RD’s) involved in the field. Now we are seeing a significant shift as doctors of various backgrounds realize the only way to help the large numbers of patients now looking for functional medicine services is to work alongside trained functional nutritionists.
The journey to becoming a functional medicine-oriented nutritionist can start in a variety of ways. If you already have a degree such as an RD or other nutrition certification then one can simply add to that existing training by attending a functional medicine coaching program or nutrition program such as Functional Medicine Coaching Academy or Andrea Nakayama’s Functional Nutrition Lab. If you are new to this work then you can still attend one of those programs but you’ll likely need to take more advanced courses and certification programs to round out your knowledge base.
There is also the general topic of human nutrition and functional medicine and how clinical nutrition training relates to all of this. One needs extensive education in the general area of human nutrition, human physiology and biochemistry to really “get” what is happening within functional medicine nutrition programs. Some folks do this with a collection of educational trainings and conferences and others seek out a formal degree. Regardless of how you obtain all this additional knowledge it requires at least an additional two or more years of intensive study to cover all the topics required to work effectively in a functional medicine clinic setting as a nutritionist. One needs to understand amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, toxins, hormones, digestive health, immune function, cardio-metabolic issues, brain health and of course digestive system health. In addition, one needs to develop skills in terms of patient coaching, motivation, how to design effective programs and how to take a history and really understand the underlying cause of a person’s health problems. We often confront and need to address issues such as addiction, sexual or physical abuse in childhood and grief. I’m not talking about becoming a therapist or counselor but one needs to be able to assess people and refer out as needed to other health professionals from psychiatrists for mental health concerns to personal trainers for patients that need to learn how to exercise properly.
A functional nutritionist therefore needs both specific and focused training as well as a broad and general understanding in areas from human nutrition to human behavior change. For the right person it can be an incredibly rewarding career.