As a physical trainer, your clients hire you to help them reach a goal, and you commit just as much time and effort as (if not more than) they do. However, sometimes even the most dedicated clients are completely clueless when it comes to diet and nutrition.
That can be a serious barrier to their ability to achieve the outcome they desire. Their lack of knowledge can also come as a surprise to us—because as fitness professionals we are so aware of the power of the nutrition-exercise connection.
Here are some of the things your fellow fitness and nutrition professionals wish their clients knew about nutrition. Read on to brush up on your nutrition knowledge, research, resources and referrals so you will be prepared for similar encounters.
You Don’t Really Know What
Mindless eating, multitasking and just a simple lack of knowledge can
lead to wide discrepancies between your clients’ actual
diet and their image of it. “Clients tend to paint a very positive picture of
the calories they consume, and in their eyes many food choices contain less fat
and more protein than they really do,” says Bryan Vahjen, CNC, NASM Master
Trainer. “Until we start really tracking our current habits and putting the pen
to paper or using a food-logging app, it’s hard to gain a real understanding of
our current habits.” This glimpse at reality can set the stage for real change.
“Once we gain some visibility into our current habits, we can set macronutrient
targets and caloric ranges based on our basal metabolic rate and build a
successful strategy,” he says.
There Are No “Good” or “Bad” Foods
“Most people hear the word ‘carbs’ and relate [to it] as the plague,” adds David Paez, NASM-CPT, CES. They do this because there is a common misunderstanding that carbohydrates make you fat, says Geoff Lecovin, MS, DC, ND, LAc, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, FNS, WLS. But current research suggests otherwise. “According to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s position stand on body composition (Aragon et al. 2017), the evidence supports that diets primarily focused on fat loss are driven by a sustained caloric deficit, not necessarily focusing on or demonizing one macronutrient.”
“I wish clients knew that there are no ‘bad’ and
‘good’ foods and that excluding foods is not necessary to live a healthy
lifestyle,” says Katie Platt, NASM-CPT, PES, BCS, CNC, AFAA-CGFI. Paez echoes
that sentiment. “In a nutshell, carbs, fat or protein is not the enemy. The
problem is the overwhelming amount of caloric intake.” He tells clients this:
“If you are mindful of what’s on your plate—a balance of all three
macronutrients—you will reap the benefits of these foods. You see, your brain
and body’s preferred energy source is carbohydrates, but you also need fats for
hormonal balance—and protein for muscle and skeletal health.”
Expect to introduce your clients to macronutrients, and help them remove negative connotations and counterproductive stereotypes so they can appreciate the function of each one. “Many of my clients do not know what macronutrients are,” says Platt. “At first, this was surprising to me, but then I realized that before I entered this field, I didn’t either.” Platt says this is a great place to start. Setting a foundation in nutrition basics can help clients begin to understand how to fuel their bodies. Sharing this information with your clients can help them build a more positive relationship with food.
A Healthy Diet Has Wiggle Room, Not Rigid
Many clients will be new to macronutrients, and they may also be new
to flexibility and wiggle room. Paez says most people take things to the
extreme and have a “go-hard-or-go-home” mentality, but he says it doesn’t need
to be that way. “How realistic is it for you to eat grilled chicken, brown rice
and broccoli each and every day, including the weekends?” he asks. “Only a
handful of people can commit to this strict lifestyle. Most people cannot meet
this demand, and what happens next is they get sick and tired of this bland
lifestyle. Soon temptation creeps in and takes them back to the
Even if your clients aren’t aiming for a “perfect”
and superstrict diet, most people don’t do as well with a meal plan as they
expect to, says Vahjen. Instead, he suggests that a framework-style approach is
more effective—that is, providing guidelines, not rigid rules. He also
recommends that clients plan ahead for their Friday night out, instead of
denying that they’ll eat or act differently than usual. He says, “Meal plans
rarely account for the variability we experience from week to week.”
It’s Not as Simple as “Calories In, Calories Out”
Although calories are an important piece of any diet, Amanda Boyer, MS, RDN, NASM-CPT, says, “One of the biggest misconceptions I see is that clients view nutrition as simply ‘calories in equals calories out,’ and then they restrict themselves to a terrifyingly low amount of food, often damaging their relationship with food and their body.” She adds that extreme dieting can cause damage to a client’s metabolism, mental and emotional health, bone health, and cardiovascular system.
In addition, says Vahjen, severe calorie
restriction might not even be effective. “If the goal is to decrease body fat
over a reasonable amount of time, cutting calories below 1,200 calories a day
can make it difficult to get through prescribed workouts. Hunger can spike and
make it difficult to avoid overeating down the road,” he explains. “I have
experimented myself with low-calorie diets and suffered through workouts,
missing the gains in sports performance due to low energy and most likely
insufficient amounts of micronutrients. On the flip side, when I have focused
more on macronutrient ratios and a modest caloric deficit, I have been able to get
through my workouts with a much higher degree of success, while the body fat
continued to drop.”
Even if your clients consume a reasonable number of
calories, this old-school model of “calories in, calories out” can negate all
of the other aspects of health.
Boyer tells clients this: “We all have a
relationship with food and body, and nutrition is just one small piece of our
health. If how you are eating is causing you stress, it’s probably not a good
fit for you and likely will cause more harm than good!”
For clients to function at their finest, Lecovin says he believes in going beyond just exercise, nutrition and even stress. “I take a more holistic approach, and fit nutrition and fitness into the SPEED model: Sleep, Psychological stress, Environment, Exercise and Diet (nutrition),” he says. “I believe the optimal approach is to address all of the these factors.”
Trainers Often Are NOT Nutrition Experts
It’s such an honor that once your clients
bond with you, they trust you with everything. And you can’t blame them
for assuming that someone who knows a lot about fitness must also know a lot
about nutrition. The two work hand in hand, of course, but be upfront and
honest if you don’t have a degree or appropriate credentials.
“It’s important that fitness trainers
understand this: Though it is flattering that your clients come to you with
questions [about nutrition], if you do not have a formal education in this
field you should not prescribe a diet plan,” says David Paez, NASM-CPT,
CES. Doing so can be both legally and ethically problematic.
“I always encourage my clients to question
any trainer’s credentials, because, while some have education in nutrition,
others are simply giving out anecdotal advice,” says Amanda Boyer, MS, RDN,
NASM-CPT. Clients need to understand that nutrition, like exercise and health
advice, is not one-size-fits-all. Plans and advice need to be specifically
tailored to each client, and many nutritionists and dietitians are happy to
collaborate with trainers to help clients meet goals.
You Should Give Social Media Less Screen Time
In the past, clients might see a celebrity pushing a product or a diet here and there, or they might insist on trying their best friend’s favorite cleanse. But now you can expect a lot more outside influence on your clients, especially online. There are so many diets now that Paez says it’s like a grab bag when his clients come in with their newest “flavor of the week” recommendation from a celebrity trainer or social media influencer.
“Clients are swayed by social media marketing of
diet fads that they think will work for them,” says Platt. “Many have been
pressured into … purchasing multilevel marketing products that don’t work,
because they don’t understand nutrition basics and what will work best for
them.” And no matter the diet, she adds, “If it’s not something they enjoy,
then they are not going to stick with it.”
“This is where the ‘educate’ portion comes in,”
says Paez. “Pump the brakes a little and sit down with your client to explain
the differences [between diets].” He says trainers should have scientific
literature, articles and journals to back up any information they share with
clients, and they should also encourage clients to do their own research. In
addition, he says, trainers should be honest with themselves if they are not
comfortable sharing nutritional advice or not qualified to do so; clients will
appreciate the honesty of a referral.
He adds, “At the end of the day, the best diet is
the one that works with your lifestyle and the one you can commit to.”
You Can’t Out-Exercise a Bad Diet
Last but not least, some old adages still ring true. “I wish personal training clients knew that you can’t out-exercise a poor diet or lifestyle,” says Lecovin. You also can’t out-supplement a poor diet. In fact, there are no secrets or quick fixes. “Genetics loads the gun. Lifestyle pulls the trigger,” he says. “The ideal way to be the best you can be, based on your genetics, is to live a healthy, balanced lifestyle.”
Amplify Your Clients’ Success!
The next time your client comes to you with a nutrition question, be prepared with the NASM Nutrition Certification, which combines the most current nutrition information with behavior change guidance and coaching strategies. You’ll grow your ability to navigate through nutrition headlines and use evidence-based nutrition science to put credible theory into practice.
NASM kept the success of
fitness professionals and their clients as the center of attention as they worked with a team of industry-recognized
nutrition and coaching subject matter experts to
create this comprehensive certification. Whether working with clients
face-to-face or online, you’ll learn to develop customized nutrition programs
and guide clients to make food choices to meet their goals, while staying
within your scope of practice.
Learn more about how you can best use this certification to help your clients attain their goals—and how you can maximize adherence, reduce turnover, increase your service offerings and boost everyone’s bottom line.
Aragon, A.A., et al. 2017. International
Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Diets and body composition. Journal of the International Society of
Sports Nutrition, 14 (16).