Get the Basics...
  • A proper diet is essential to meeting personal fitness goals.
  • Personal trainers can give diet advice and offer meal plans, but it is illegal for them to provide any plans intended to treat a medical condition such as obesity.
  • Trainers who are not licensed nutritionists must offer diet counseling rather than actual meal plans to avoid penalties.

Your diet impacts everything. From your energy level to the appearance of your skin, eating right is about so much more than merely counting calories. To get the most out of your personal training sessions, you’ll have to follow a proper diet plan outside the gym to ensure you’re taking in enough vitamins and proteins.

However, there is a gray area that many personal trainers and clients stumble into when it comes to meal plans.

Picture the following scenario:

You hire a personal trainer because you want to lose 60 pounds. Your doctor has told you that you should follow a proper diet to lose weight, and you relay this info to your new trainer. In turn, they write you a personalized meal plan that you are to follow every day in order to lose weight fast.

Is this a legal situation? You might be surprised to find out that the answer depends on how the meal plan was presented.

What is a meal plan?

A meal plan is a series of meals designed to be prepared and consumed over a period to produce a desired outcome such as losing weight. In most cases, a meal plan is intended to be followed in conjunction with routine exercise and under the supervision of a personal trainer or licensed nutritionist.

Most low-calorie diet meal plans you find online from reputable sources are designed by registered dieticians.

Personal Trainer vs. Nutritionist

A personal trainer is typically a self-employed individual who has undergone a fitness training program and earned a certificate. They aren’t required to have a license to operate. A nutritionist or registered dietitian (RD) has a degree in health and nutrition and is accredited by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

RDs and nutritionists have spent years studying the human body, learning about proper nutrition, anatomy, and more to provide medically-sound diet advice. Personal trainers, no matter how skilled or well-intentioned, do not have this level of medical knowledge and are therefore typically dissuaded or legally prohibited from administering health-related meal plans.

Is it illegal for my personal trainer to give me nutrition advice?

If your personal trainer offers you a meal plan to follow along with your exercise routine, this isn’t inherently illegal.

Personal trainers are allowed to offer basic dietary advice, but the way this advice is delivered plays a large role in whether or not it’s legal.

At the time of this article’s publication, 46 US states have rules in place regarding certification requirements for nutritional counseling. While the licensure requirements vary among states, the Illinois SB2936, which is known as the “Dietitian Nutritionist Practice Act,” is a common representation of other state’s laws regarding unlicensed nutritional counseling. The Act states:

“Any person who practices, offers to practice or holds oneself out as being able to provide dietetics and nutrition services without being licensed under this Act shall…pay a civil penalty to the Department [of Financial and Professional Regulation] in an amount not to exceed $10,000.”

The Register of Exercise Professionals has a page on their website dedicated to nutrition advice and lays out some legal guidelines that L3 personal trainers should follow. They state that trainers “should only provide general advice on healthy eating, rather than give specific, prescriptive advice.”

Ultimately, the legality of a personal trainer offering nutrition advice boils down to whether or not said advice is prescriptive. If your trainer tells you that you should eat more chicken because the protein will help you build muscle mass, this could be considered nutritional counseling.

Instead, a trainer should veer from offering incredibly detailed meal plans and focus on offering alternate food suggestions and other basic diet tips that their clients can follow and use to shape their own diets.

Personal Trainer Diet Plans and Their Effectiveness

Understanding meal plans and what factors contribute to a successful diet can help you determine whether or not your trainer is offering sound nutrition advice. First and foremost, eating healthy is a choice that can’t be constrained to any meal plan. Your trainer can give you recommendations on what types of food you should eat, but what you wind up preparing and consuming is up to you.

There’s plenty of scientific evidence to support that eating too much saturated fat, sodium, and sugar is bad for you. There is even proof that artificial sweeteners found in diet sodas and other “diet” products do more harm than good.

Instead, the healthiest diets are based around starchy foods like potatoes, incorporate all five food groups, and include plenty of water to keep you happy and hydrated.

The Final Word on Personal Trainer Meal Plans

Your personal trainer is there to help you achieve your fitness goals and adopt a healthier lifestyle. Since your diet plays such a large roll in your overall well-being, it’s natural to ask your trainer for tips on how you should be eating.

While general diet advice is welcome, restrictions against personal trainer diet advice are increasing across the United States. Licensure and diet laws are a primary focus of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and you should ask your personal trainer if they’re familiar with the licensing requirements in your state as well as their own background in nutrition before following any meal plans they offer.

If you are obese and working with a personal trainer to lose weight, you should also hire a registered dietician to counsel you and provide you with meal plans.

Some personal trainers are licensed nutritionists as well, so it’s really just a matter of research and personal needs before you can find the right match.

Last but not least, don’t forget to do your own research on healthy diets. It’s easy to be duped by celebrity endorsements and websites that promise fast results with zero effort, but getting in shape and staying healthy is an investment worth the hard work. Talk to your doctor to make sure you’re eating the proper diet for your medical needs.