Most trainers I speak to have no idea how much nutrition advice they're allowed to give to their clients, with and without all of the nutrition certifications available. In this post we'll unravel the mystery of what you can and can't advise your clients, when to refer out and when to utilise modern technology.
Is it important for personal trainers to give nutritional advice?
Yes, of course. I'd feel pretty confident in saying almost every client has asked their personal trainer about nutrition.
Ask any personal trainer and they'll tell you that abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym. That's because nutrition is a huge factor when it comes to consistent and safe fat loss.
So much so that on most fat loss pyramids, exercise is almost never the biggest variable and sometimes exercise isn't a variable at all.
This Fat Loss Pyramid by Bodybuilding.com, like many others, emphasizes a calorie deficit while neglecting to even mention using exercise as a form of fat loss at all.
So what's a personal trainer to do when all of the research and science points to what you put in your mouth as being more important than how fast and far you can run for fat loss?
There are a few reasons why it’s vital that you as a personal trainers can give informative nutritional advice.
First of all, many clients will expect you to know the answers to many nutrition related questions, some even may ask for diet plans. You can’t pull that information out of thin air because your suggestions could have an adverse impact on the client. Especially if they have specific needs or allergies.
On the other hand, you’ll want your clients to get the best results possible while working with you. This means that outside of the 2-4 hours per week you're with them, they need to eat the right amount and a variety of food that support their fitness goals and the exercise regime you prescribe.
Knowing how to coach your clients to follow new nutrition habits and also advise them on calories, macronutrients and portion control is essential regardless of the nature of their goal.
Whether they are on a weight loss or a body building journey, what goes into their body will have an impact on their success. It's your job to make them understand this and help them change their lifestyle.
Is it legal to give nutritional advice?
Yes. But as always... it's complicated.
It depends on what type of advice you give and how you package it.
If you’re up to speed with your knowledge of nutrition, you can absolutely offer healthy eating advice to otherwise healthy people.
However, you start to walk on thin ice when you prescribe nutritional changes specifically to treat disease. Only Medical Doctors (MDs) and Registered Dietitians (RDs) can prescribe nutritional therapy.
What does this mean to you though when a client asks for advice?
Well, you can suggest nutritional changes based on well established resources from credible organisations like ChooseMyPlate.gov, Diabetes.org, and Heart.org.
For example, you can recommend a diet full of vegetables to clients based of off the Choose My Plate resource. And, if they’re reluctant, which they probably will be, you can suggest ways of incorporating them into their meals.
You can educate your clients about the importance of phytonutrients and healthy fats.
You can encourage clients to eat more lean protein and suggest some tasty, easy-to-prepare sources.
You can even offer recipes as long as it isn't to treat any type of disease.
Simply put, you can discuss the foundations of a good diet with your clients and provide them with the tools they need to accomplish their goals.
Surprised? Me too. But it turns out there aren't many laws in pace when it comes to offering nutritional advice. Things only start to get serious should you start prescribing food groups or supplements to cure, treat or diagnose your clients.
What credentials will I need to give nutritional advice?
It depends. I know... it's frustrating!
Given that it's perfectly legal to offer nutritional advice, the only issues you might have are when it comes to offering your clients meal plans.
In the UK for example, it is outside the personal trainers scope of practice to offer a meal plan because it's classified as prescriptive.
Prescriptive is a big no no, remember.
In the US for instance, it depends on your location. Each state has different rules and guidelines when it comes to the advice you can provide and the level of qualifications you require.
You can use the Nutrition Advocacy Map below to find out what kind of advice you can offer in your state.
The situation in Australia is similar to the UK, as a personal trainer. You can only give healthy eating advice and help your clients understand the dietary guidelines and how they affect their lives.
In short then, to offer meal plans you need to have a qualification that stipulates you can offer prescriptive nutrition.
So you might wonder, what if I offer a meal plan and nobody finds out?
Most likely nothing and nothing will until a problem arises. E.g. a client of yours develops a health problem as a result of your detailed meal plan advice and decides to take legal action.
Your insurance provider won't cover you because you were operating out of your scope of practice. Not to mention the ethical aspect of it when realising a client's life was at risk because you overstepped your guidelines.
My advice would be to get a decent nutrition therapist qualification. You'll gain heaps of knowledge on how the human body works, a skill-set to efficiently advise and guide your clients through their nutritional transformation and you'll be qualified to prescribe specific and detailed meal plans.
What are the top four nutritional courses for personal trainers?
There are currently hundreds of courses available to educate yourself about nutrition.
However, some courses stand out from the crowd and get more attention than others for the skill-set and systems they help personal trainers build so they can help their clients efficiently.
Here are my top three:
Precision Nutrition Certification
The Precision Nutrition course includes two primary components: the science of nutrition, and the art of coaching. It’s a self-paced program that anyone can take online if they want to increase their education. Students use textbook case studies and samples alongside their digital worksheets to make their way through the subject.
Their level 1 is currently priced at $799 which is pretty competitive when you consider the reputation they have.
NESTA’s Fitness Nutrition Coach course
The NESTA Fitness and Nutrition program teaches all the basics of nutrition and how different elements can affect human health. It also offers information on the best ways to assess your client’s nutritional needs and design a custom-built approach while providing practical tips for boosting performance and getting better results.
At around $300 it's pretty accessible to most trainers.
I.S.S.A.’s Fitness Nutrition Certification
The I.S.S.A’s program lasts for between two and eight months, and students complete the course online. It provides personal trainers with information and facts that will assist them in developing individualized nutrition plans and strategies. With this course, people benefit from an online forum where they can discuss issues with other students.
The MNU Certification!
Mac Nutrition is the world’s first ever 12-month, evidence-based, online nutrition course for personal trainers that can be completed alongside full-time work, from anywhere in the world!
Personal trainers will go from knowing very little, to being able support clients in achieving a wide variety of nutrition related goals.
The MNU Certification is an online nutrition course that also offers fitness professionals practical days with fellow classmates for face-to-face teaching and a chance to apply hands-on elements of the course.
Personal trainers don’t have to give nutritional advice, and it’s still possible to operate and earn your living without taking a nutrition course. You can say no to clients or outsource.
With that said, stop and think about your clients. Most clients' biggest challenge is not necessarily their activity levels, but what and how much they eat.
Unless you work with athletes or bodybuilders who either have their nutrition mapped out by a dietician or have the understanding of what they need to eat to support their goals, your clients will definitely benefit from some nutrition help.
You can either provide that yourself or work with a professional that can help you with that.
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