What Personal Trainers Wish Clients Knew About Nutrition
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 You’re Consuming
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 Rules
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 bad habit.”
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).