Physical activity and healthy eating are part of the foundation for living a healthy lifestyle and for optimal well-being. It’s difficult for clients to reach their health and fitness goals without both exercise and nutrition. Many active individuals have little or no nutrition knowledge or get caught up in many of the nutrition myths that circulate in the media. It’s important to focus on factual nutrition information and set the record straight so you and your clients are well-informed to understand the science of nutrition.
Many exercise enthusiasts will approach personal trainers and fitness professionals with questions about nutrition or request strategies to help improve eating habits. It’s important to understand how to share nutrition information with your clients in your role as a fitness professional. Part of working in the fitness industry is helping your clients achieve their wellness goals and a piece of that puzzle is healthy eating and nutritional habits.
In this post, we will explain the details about personal trainers giving nutrition advice, what nutrition advice can be shared with clients, and the legal implications of giving nutrition advice. This will help you understand why this topic is important and provide suggestions if you are new to personal training.
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Can Personal Trainers Give Nutrition Advice?
Personal trainers can give general nutrition advice to their clients within the realms of their education and experience. Many professionals have taken undergraduate nutrition courses, obtained additional nutrition certifications, or completed nutrition-related continuing education courses.
The best bet is to keep the nutrition tips, strategies, and advice geared toward broad and general recommendations. It’s helpful to understand professionals in the nutrition world, nutrition certifications and continuing education available for personal trainers, and the details on what information personal trainers can actually share with clients.
Professionals in the Nutrition World
Registered dietician nutritionists (sometimes just called registered dieticians) are the highest credentialed professionals in the nutrition world. They have completed at least an undergraduate degree in nutrition, dietetics, or a similar field. They have also completed a supervised practice or internship and passed a national certification exam. Some registered dieticians (RDNs or RDs) may have additional education, such as a master’s degree and some have been licensed by the state where they practice.
Registered dietitians can provide specific nutritional counseling, meal planning, and medical nutrition therapy. They have the knowledge and background to provide individuals with proper nutrition information. They work in hospitals, nursing homes, universities, and a variety of other organizations.
A nutritionist is a more general term, usually referring to someone who has some nutrition experience or education. Nutritionists do not go through the education and experience as registered dieticians do. Nutritionists should only provide general or broad nutrition information. The general population usually doesn’t recognize the difference between a registered dietician, a nutritionist, health coaches, or other nutrition professionals.
Personal Trainer Nutrition Courses and Certifications
There are also a number of certifications available for personal trainers to supplement their nutrition knowledge. This still means you should follow the recommendations to only provide general and broad nutrition information, but gives you a credential in the nutrition world.
The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) offers an ISSN nutritionist certification and a nutrition and fitness coach certification. The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) has a certified nutrition coach credential. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) has a fitness nutrition specialist program course. The American College of Sports Medicine has a number of nutrition-related courses and courses bundled for continuing education credits.
One of the most reputable and respected certifications for sports nutrition is from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN). They have two certifications available and you must meet certain criteria to be eligible to take one of the exams. This credential is specific to the area of sports nutrition, whereas the other certifications have a more general focus.
Before deciding on a nutrition certification for personal trainers, do your homework and research the organization, costs, and requirements. Some may require continuing education credits, whereas some may count as continuing education for your current certification.
None of these certifications make a difference in what personal trainers can and cannot share with clients. They just give a fitness professional extra knowledge and education to ensure they are sharing relevant and science-based information with clients.
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Nutrition Information That Personal Trainers Can Share With Clients
Regardless of the personal trainer career path chosen, it’s evident that fitness professionals will be asked for nutrition advice. The nutrition information that is suitable for personal trainers to share with clients includes general and broad nutrition recommendations. This includes advice from reputable organizations and well-known nutrition recommendations.
Think about the general information that can be readily shared with clients and information you would learn in a basic nutrition course. Examples include:
- MyPlate recommendations (“half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables”).
- Information about specific food groups (“eat more fruits and vegetables,” “make half of your grains come from whole grains”).
- General tips on healthy eating (“spread protein consumption throughout the day,” “cut back on late night unhealthy snacks”).
- Guidance on how to plan and prepare healthier meals (“grilled and baked are healthier than fried,” “plan your weekly meals before grocery shopping”)
- General nutrients within the food groups (“dairy foods like milk and yogurt are great sources of calcium and vitamin D”).
- Heart-healthy eating tips from the American Heart Association.
- Articles or tips from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- Basic information from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- Websites with healthy recipe ideas.
- General ergogenic aids or nutritional supplements that have a benefit on exercise performance based on current research or recommendations.
When meeting with clients, you can supplement the meeting with healthy eating handouts. The MyPlate website has a number of great general handouts that fitness professionals could use to help educate clients on making healthy eating choices.
Nutrition Information That Personal Trainers Cannot Share With Clients
There are a few areas that personal trainers should not and are not qualified to give nutrition information on. This includes specific, prescriptive, and detailed information, especially when it comes to medical conditions or diseases. As a personal trainer, you want to help your clients but information that is too specific that could cause harm or an issue with a specific medical condition is off-limits.
This information is off-limits because personal trainers are not qualified to give individual nutrition counseling. Fitness professionals should leave this to the registered dieticians who do have the background necessary for nutrition counseling. Examples include:
- Specific meal plans (recommendations for an individual after bariatric surgery or a meal plan for someone with Type 2 diabetes).
- Specific recommendations for diseases (cardiovascular disease, cancer).
- Medical nutrition therapy (nutrition recommendations to treat a medical condition like disordered eating or autoimmune disorder).
- Recommending a diet to treat a health condition (using a low-carbohydrate diet to treat obesity).
- Specific supplement recommendations (recommending a specific amount or specific brand of a probiotic supplement).
Anytime you feel like the information requested is beyond your scope of practice or outside of your area of expertise, you can recommend that your client meet with a registered dietician or ask their physician.
The Gray Areas of Offering Nutrition Advice
The nutrition information that personal trainers can provide to clients is not as cut and dry as it may seem. There is definitely a gray area when it comes to information you can provide. While general and broad nutrition information is suitable to share, there is an area between the broad and the specific that falls into a gray area.
Meal planning for clients should typically be avoided by personal trainers. It would be ok to share healthy recipes or healthy meal ideas, but keep it general.
You can use a resource like MyPlate to help clients calculate their daily calories or the amount from each food group recommended for their age, gender, and activity level. You should avoid calculating specific macronutrient information.
When it comes to specific amounts or dosages of supplements, this is also a gray area. For example, there are recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) that are established and well-known for many vitamins and minerals. While you could share with an adult that they need 1,000 mg of calcium daily, you should not recommend they add a calcium supplement of 200 mg.
Multi-vitamins are a type of supplement as well that can be a gray area. Some organizations, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend a daily multivitamin to supplement the diet for most adults. This is general guidance and could be shared with a client but stay away from recommending specific amounts of different vitamins and minerals.
When it comes to the gray areas, it is always better to err on the side of caution. As a fitness professional, you do not want to cause harm to any of your clients. You also want to safeguard yourself against any legal action and to protect your reputation.
How to Give Nutrition Advice Legally
You may be wondering, how do I give nutrition advice legally? Each state has different legal implications when it comes to nutrition advice and nutrition counseling. There are also some definite gray areas when it comes to professionals providing nutrition advice.
All personal trainers should have liability insurance coverage to protect against legal action. It is rare that a client would bring legal action against a fitness professional for providing nutrition advice, but you want to ensure you are protecting yourself against the possibility of this happening.
As a personal trainer, the safety of your clients should always be at the forefront of your mind. Just like you would not recommend for a client to do an unsafe exercise or exercise in unsafe conditions, the same is true of providing nutrition information. Anything broad and general is safe, but anything too specific could potentially be unsafe.
Some states have specific regulations on the usage of nutrition counselors, registered dieticians, and other similar professional terms. Make sure you review your state and local laws to prevent any issues with the improper use of these terms.
If you work for a fitness business, organization, or company, your workplace may also have specific recommendations on the type of nutrition advice that fitness professionals can give. Review all organizational policies to ensure you know the specifics of what is allowed regarding personal trainers and nutrition advice in your company or business.
It’s important for all personal trainers to understand the dos and don’ts when it comes to personal trainer nutrition advice. For fitness professionals, sharing general and broad nutrition advice, tips, and strategies with clients is helpful. Leave the discussions of any specific nutrition recommendations for diseases or medical nutrition therapy for a registered dietician.
By providing the appropriate nutrition advice for your clients, you are helping set them up for success. Your clients will appreciate your assistance, which in turn could help create more loyal clients or referrals for new clients.
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