What exactly is a health coach?


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The field of health and wellness coaching is growing, yet many still ask, “what is a health coach?” To be honest, I’d never really understood what a health coach was before I became one myself. So today, I’m answering that question.

what is a health coach

If you had asked me that question, “what is a health coach” just a few years ago, I would have looked at you with a blank stare. And maybe replied with… “a health what?”

I knew of medical doctors, researchers, PhD’s, acupuncturist, even functional medicine doctors. I did work in healthcare after all. But health coaches, not so much.

Yet today, I’m now one. And for very good reason.

Our narrow focus on sick care

Think for a moment how much time your doctor spent with you during your last visit? 15 minutes? Maybe 20? If you’re lucky, right?

Studies have shown that a large percentage of primary care physicians book patients in 15-minute intervals. Ever feel like your doctor has his eye on the clock more than you? 

He does. He has too.

Because in that short period of time your doctor needs to quickly assess your symptoms while strategizing remedies to make those symptoms disappear. His or her primary goal is to stabilize you and get you on your way.

Many times, your doctor will do this by leveraging prescription drugs, which may not have been necessary. And the thought of using non-drug alternatives? Not even considered.

So you’re no longer on your deathbed coughing up a lung? Success! Even though you’re clearly not the poster child for abundant health. 

But it’s what they do. It’s what they can do – focus on sickness.

And in all honesty, it’s not an enviable position.

Does your doctor have time to chat with you about your health habits or nutrition? Nope. Time to discuss your lifestyle and activity levels? Nope. And clearly, no time to discuss any added stress in your life from a crappy boss or a bad relationship.

But not so surprisingly, these are exactly discussions that may actually keep you well. And out of the doctor’s office to begin with.

The complex medical arena

Even if your doctor did have the time, the truth is they’re not trained in these areas. They never acquired the skill set of how to develop a long-term plan to keep you healthy and motivated, while holding you accountable. Not part of med school curriculum.

And they sure as heck didn’t acquire much nutrition guidance – a major building block of wellness – during med school either.

Instead, science has gotten so complex with genomics, the microbiome, diagnostics, medical devices and personalized pharmaceuticals that doctors have become extraordinarily niche focused.

Think for a moment how often you get referred from one doctor to another? Probably quite frequently. And what’s the reason they provide? Something along the lines of… your health concern is “out of their specialty.”

Today’s doctor are required to have more depth of knowledge in a narrowly defined niche – and much less breadth. With vastly less time for personal interaction and “tell me about your self-care routine” chatter.

Our modern healthcare landscape creates the need for health coaches

Not only has science changed the healthcare landscape, but our diseases have changed as well. Acute diseases are being outnumbered by chronic diseases, at an alarming rate.

According to the CDC, “As a nation, we spend 86% of our health care dollars on the treatment of chronic diseases. These persistent conditions—the nation’s leading causes of death and disability—leave in their wake deaths that could have been prevented, lifelong disability, compromised quality of life, and burgeoning health care costs.”

And preventable, chronic diseases – most of which are lifestyle-derived – are not what our current medical landscape is well equipped to manage.

You can’t pop a pill for a lifestyle-related disease.

Enter health coaching

Many health coaches, like myself, were propelled to become health coaches after personal experience with this gaping hole in our healthcare system.

The short of it goes something like this: after years of frustration, non-personalized attention and unremarkable results, we learned to heal ourselves through simple nutrition and lifestyle changes.

Wait what? That’s really possible?

Not only is it possible, I left my career in corporate healthcare – having worked for a world-renowned cancer research facility, national diagnostic imaging company and cutting-edge molecular diagnostics laboratory – because of it.

Yep, I believe that strongly in the power of health coaching.

So what exactly do health coaches do?

In a nutshell, we support our clients to achieve their health goals (as varied as they may be), through lifestyle and behavior modifications. Everything from losing 10 pounds, to de-stressing and gaining energy, to improving nutrition and even helping to tame an autoimmune disease.

An added bonus of a health coach? We listen. Not only are we trained wellness authorities (I’ve personally studied over 100 dietary theories), but we mentor, inspire, guide and motivate our clients to cultivate positive health choices. It’s heart-centered health care at it’s finest. 

The reality is that most people know what they need to do to be healthy, but they just don’t do it. You know that eating a Twinkie is not healthy. That’s not rocket-science. But there’s a lot of factors that go into why you still eat it.

We have the time to delve into that…medical doctors don’t.

But there’s good news! Many traditional doctor’s offices have now realized the importance of health coaching for filling this nurturing and hand-holding gap – to keep patients motivated and accountable.

So they’re adding trained health coaches to their staff. A definite win for the patient!

A more positive wellness future

As medical doctors and traditional healthcare increasingly embrace the field of health coaching and proactive wellness, I’m hopeful that we’ll begin to reverse the statistics on preventable, lifestyle-related chronic diseases.

The future can be bright. Glowing even.

If we can partner a “back-to-basics” approach of nourishing food and wholesome living, with advancements in genomics, epigenetics, medical devices and the microbiome (which is sure to provide awesome, geeky insights), we might just be able to reverse the trend of ever increasing diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disease, some cancers and much more.

Now that’s a healthcare future that get’s me excited!

More Health Coaching Information

If you’d like to learn more about the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN), the health coaching program I attended, take a look at their modules and curriculum guide.

About the author

Lisa Bryan

Lisa is a bestselling cookbook author, recipe developer, and YouTuber (with over 2.5 million subscribers) living in sunny Southern California. She started Downshiftology in 2014, and is passionate about making healthy food with fresh, simple and seasonal ingredients.

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  1. How do I go about working with a health coach, do they take insurance? What are the costs involved, if not?

    Thank you for your website and all the recipes you share.

  2. It seems like a good thing but is there enough fluid income to actually get paid for the profession . I’ve. Been in the medical flies for 30 year and yes I believe it would be a great benefiting to a lot of family clinic !

  3. Hi. I’ve been sick for years and I’m trying to find answers. It has been so difficult for me because I went to many doctors with no answers. I tried to “self heal” with diets, exercise, supplements and I’m still sick. I was wondering how to find a naturopathic doctor to maybe finally get diagnosed with an autoimmune disease because I cannot pin point or figure it out on my own. In live in California and was wondering if you know where I can start to get diagnosed and find the best naturopathic doctor or if you have any recommendations that would be great. I love love your website and thank you for all your amazing recipes and content. Thank you 

    1. Hi Ellie – Sorry to hear of your health issues. I’d recommend googling your location and then the type of doctor that you’re looking for. Best of luck!

    1. Hi Cindi – no, you don’t need a medical background as health coaches do not prescribe medical advice.

  4. Do u need any prior  knowledge or background of any sort with regard to nutrition science, human anatomy , psychology, or anything like this to take up this profession. Do IIN teaches you basics / foundation of all this?

    Also Do you have a  mock video/ conversation with a client/patient which you can share .

    1. Hi Rashmi – prior knowledge in any of those fields is always a benefit to becoming a health coach. IIN teaches you the basics of different dietary theories and coaching practices, but it’s not a science program because you’re not prescribing medication or providing medical advice. You’re coaching your clients to adopt healthier habits. And yes, you do have mock client conversations as part of the program.

  5. I think it is so interesting that you mention that as a nation, we spend 86% of our health care dollars on the treatments of chronic diseases. My cousin suffers from some diseases in this category and she would benefit from seeing and talking to a professional. Thank you for all this information that will help us make a good decision when we have to choose a health coach.

  6. Wow, I hadn’t known that acute diseases are being outnumbered by chronic diseases. I have a brother that really wants to get in shape and do his best to prevent himself from getting any chronic diseases as a result of poor lifestyle choices. I will be sure to tell him about health coaches and advise that he look into them to be able to give himself peace of mind that he is doing something that will make a positive impact in his life.

    1. That would be a wonderful thing to mention to your brother Sandra! Health coaches can definitely provide that extra layer of accountability and motivation that many people need to stay on course with positive lifestyle choices. :)

  7. Now where to get started! Thank you so much for such a great breakdown of WHAT being a health coach really is! After dropping 116lbs (and still going – 24 more to go!) I transformed my life because I was tired of being in an abusive relationship, having no energy, high anxiety, and being obese. I work in the financial industry and now want to change careers to help others accomplish what I have…and more. Thank you so much for such a great piece of information!

    1. Hi Chrystal – I’m glad you found the post helpful and informative! Big kudos to you for dropping 116lbs and transforming your life – that’s amazing and you should feel enormously proud of yourself. It sounds like your story could definitely inspire and help others if you decide to pursue health coaching. Best wishes!

  8. I like what you said about the role of wellness coaches and how they are there to inspire, guide, and motivate clients. When it comes to being comfortable with your body and your health, I think that hiring a wellness coach is a wise decision. If I were to require such services, I would make sure to do some research online in order to find a wellness coach in my local area that has amazing client reviews.

    1. Yes, reviews from other clients really gives you a sense of that coach’s expertise. It’s always a good idea to seek out that info. :)

  9. I am definitely interested in how to not only promote my own healthy well being, but how to spread that to my family. As a new mom, it is so important that my daughter see me living a healthy lifestyle as well as encouraging others to be healthy as well! If you have any tips on how to spread the wealth to a family – I would love to hear!

    1. Hi Allina – that’s wonderful you’re interested in wellness not only yourself, but that of your family as well. That’s what motivated me to become a health coach! If you feel health coaching is an appropriate path for you, make sure to check out the other posts I’ve written on health coaching and you can click the link to receive more information about IIN, the health coaching program I pursued. :)

  10. Hi, Lisa!

    I love your YouTube channel and website, especially your meal prep videos + downloadable PDF. It’s immensely helpful and you have no idea what it means to have a resource like this available to make it easier for me to eat well and recover from my autoimmune illness.

    The mention of my autoimmune disease brings me to my question. You mentioned that one of your four autoimmune diseases was psoriasis. If I may please ask, have you been able to get it into remission, and if so, was there a certain dietary protocol that you followed (Autoimmune Protocol/AIP, GAPS, Pagano, Wahls Protocol, Whole30)?

    This disease is negatively effecting my quality of life, so some information about how you recovered would be SO HELPFUL and greatly appreciated.

    Thank you so much!

    1. Hi Sarah! So glad you’re enjoying my website and videos! My psoriasis started 7 years ago (in my mid 30’s), during a time of immense stress and just months after I was diagnosed with 2 of my other autoimmune conditions. I went through massive dietary changes because of my celiac diagnosis (affecting gut bacteria) and had heightened stress (work, etc) – which all affects the immune system. So I believe that year my immune bucket just filled up and overflowed with the load and triggered psoriasis. Today, I find stress to be the biggest culprit of any psoriasis flair (keeping in mind that I eat a clean diet). I’ve tried all of those protocols at some point in time and they definitely helped me to understand my body and what I may be sensitive to, especially in the early stages after I was diagnosed with celiac. But for me (and I believe most) it goes beyond food and diet. I always say that my psoriasis is now my first “red blinking light” that my immune system is “off” – and that is usually from lack of sleep, too much stress or too much indulging (usually sugar). I hope you can get to the root of yours as well! :) x

  11. I’m considering a new career path as a Health Coach and wanted to know more about it and if I’m heading toward a great route or down a dead-end road. Thank you for taking time to share your insight, experiences and information. I’ve already enrolled with Institute for Integrative Nutrition with a start date in September. However, I’m still cruising information to be assured I’ve made a good career and school choice for myself.

    1. Glad you found this post helpful! I’m definitely very happy with my IIN experience and with the business I’ve created after receiving my certification. :)

  12. How did you like Integrative Nutrition? I have been looking at serval different programs and it would be nice to know the pros and cons from someone who has gone through their program.

    1. I thoroughly enjoyed it! And it was definitely the catalyst for my new career as a food blogger and YouTuber. I talk more about that on my other health coaching articles linked at the bottom of the post. :)

  13. Hi Lisa. Thanks for posting this. As a cynical Brit who happens to be very interested in a career change but wary of enrolling in something which turns out to be a rip off, it’s great to hear that the course (IIN) can be the foundation of something good. There are lots of online courses for Nutrition diplomas which can be completed in a month, and it’s a challenge to separate to honest from the less so . So if I choose IIN I will be sure to click through from your blog so you get some recognition :-)

  14. I’m currently half way through my BS Health and Wellness degree. It’s a bit different that I thought it would be. My interest is to help others be there best healthiest self. With my adrenals failing a couple years ago, I decided to do the holistic approach. It sounded like a great plan and a way to get in touch with the healthy parts of my body. I was empowered and wanted to educate others of the amazing results of eating as natural and balanced as possible. i don’t know where to start but I will find a way. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Michelle – it sounds like IIN would be a great supplement to your academic degree in health and wellness, with a focus on client-facing interaction and health coaching. Health coaching is definitely holistic in nature with the intent (as you mentioned) on helping clients reach their healthiest self. It sounds like this might be right up your alley! You can click on the link above to learn more about IIN and health coaching. :)

  15. As a fellow health coach, I appreciate you getting the information out there for what we do. You (we) are so needed! Thanks Lisa for all you do.