Chip Allman-Burgard

Health coach Chip Allman-Burgard, left, talks with client Myron Mix at Urban Orchard grocery store in Andersonville. Allman-Burgard makes it clear to his clients that he is not a registered dietitian, but, he says, “it’s often precisely why they choose me.” (Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune)

Less than 9 percent of the organization's annual operating budget comes from outside groups, said Joan Salge Blake, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "The academy is very sensitive to even the perception of conflict of interest that may occur," she said, adding that the organization maintains transparency and issues only credible, science-based nutrition information to consumers.

And though licensure favors registered dietitians, the group says laws are "not an attempt to control any market" and don't affect those who simply describe the nutritional value of products. Regulation would, however, provide "recourse for victims of unqualified and unscrupulous individuals dispensing improper advice," the group says.

Health coach Allman-Burgard said he trained through the New York-based Institute for Integrative Nutrition, which offers a yearlong online course. He said he works in conjunction with a medical doctor at his company, Naturally Fortified, and makes it clear to his clients that he is not a registered dietitian.

In fact, he says, "it's often precisely why they choose me."

That was the case for Dias Hill, 32, who was faced with gallbladder surgery. Instead, she hoped Allman-Burgard could help her change her lifestyle "without resorting to unhealthy dieting or medication." The two began working together in May. Today she credits him with helping steer her down the right path and instilling habits that she enjoys, such as her green morning smoothie made with vegetables, fruit, chia or flaxseed, and raw nuts.

"A dedicated health coach offers you something critical: coaching," she said. "It was amazing to work with someone committed to my well-being."

Among the many registered dietitians who work in health care settings is Eric Sharer, who counsels patients at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment in Skokie on what foods to eat, how much, and whether certain supplements might be dangerous in conjunction with treatment.

Sharer said he believes there's a place for alternative nutritionists, as long as they are well-trained and licensed.

"I've had patients see a practitioner for nutrition counseling and end up on a very unbalanced, potentially health hazardous diet," said Sharer, who also conducts cooking classes for patients going through chemotherapy and radiation treatment. "I've also had many patients buying products they find on the Internet, which often have little health benefits or could be potentially dangerous."

Ineffective or misleading nutrition advice doesn't have to be life-threatening to have an impact, say licensure proponents. In some cases it can cause people to lose faith that lifestyle changes will work.

Chicago-based registered dietitian Monica Joyce recently saw a 24-year-old-client who had been taken off dairy and gluten by another practitioner. But the woman wasn't lactose or gluten intolerant, Joyce said.

"She was confused about what to eat and frustrated by the limitations of the diet. She missed some of her favorite foods yet she hadn't lost any weight on it and was miserable," Joyce said. "The information that people receive from non-RDs is usually fragmented and diluted and sometimes downright wacky."

Bellatti advises that "rather than going by whatever title someone has, go by what they say. "In the same way that an RD who thinks nothing of recommending highly processed 'diet foods' should raise a red flag, so should a nutrition therapist who tells you that you need to subsist on a liquid diet for a week to get rid of toxins."

Twitter @juliedeardorff