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Giving Nutrition Advice

Fitness professionals should encourage people to develop good health habits to support a positive, active lifestyle and to prevent disease. As you think about how much nutrition advice you can give your clients, here are some factors to consider.

"My client lost about 30 pounds over the summer. She's worried she will gain it all back, like she usually does, so she signed up for personal training with me. She knows she should exercise daily to keep the weight off, but she also wants some diet advice. I hear so much about who is allowed to give clients nutrition advice; I don't know what I can say and what I can't say anymore." Personal trainers often field questions about weight control and lifestyle recommendations for good health. Fitness professionals should encourage people to develop good health habits to support a positive, active lifestyle and to prevent disease. So, how can you do this without saying something about good nutrition? You can't. On the one hand, you must be careful not to exceed your scope of practice. On the other hand, your clients have so many questions, and there is a strong need for professionals who can help prevent obesity and other health problems that can develop from an out-of-balance lifestyle. As you think about how much nutrition advice you can give your clients, here are some factors to consider.

What is your scope of practice?

Your scope of practice, what you are allowed to do in your profession, is prescribed by several different institutions, including your employer and your certification organizations. First of all, your employer may set limits on how much nutrition advice you can give. If your employer has not talked to you about your scope of practice, initiate a conversation. Some employers may restrict certain practices, even though you may feel qualified to provide these services. Sometimes this is because of state regulations. Your state governs the licensure of nutrition professionals. Some states, such as Ohio and Florida, mandate that only licensed professionals, such as registered dieticians, provide nutrition advice for monetary gain. Your employer may also be worried about other liability issues. Your certifying organization should also provide guidance for you regarding scope of practice. Many certification programs, such as the National Academy of Sports Medicine and the National Strength and Conditioning Association, include some basic sports nutrition information in their programs, and allow people with certain certifications to provide basic nutrition information to personal training clients (see References for more information). Consult your organization for more information.

Stick to scientifically sound advice

Once you have determined that you are qualified and able to give basic nutrition advice, stick to mainstream advice. We all have experience with food, and many of us have strong opinions about nutrition, eating habits and the best way to lose weight. But, you should only share advice that has sound scientific backing. Reinforce basic messages, such as to consume more vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and fewer foods high in saturated fats, for example. Teach your clients how to read food labels. Send clients to the USDA Food Guide Pyramid website (www.mypyramid. gov), a good source of basic nutrition information. Share handouts with general nutrition information from reputable writers and organizations.

Avoid activities that could be problematic

Fitness professionals should never diagnose health problems, or prescribe treatments, including dietary supplements. You should also avoid acting as a psychotherapist. Be ready to refer your client to a licensed nutritionist or dietician, or other healthcare provider, if any of the following occurs:
  • You suspect your client has disordered eating or exercise behavior.
  • Your client has a lot of questions about his or her diet that go beyond "general information."
  • Your client has a medical condition, such as diabetes, heart disease or cancer.
  • Your client wants to follow a very restrictive diet, such as a low carbohydrate diet.
  • Your client wants specific daily meal plans.
References International Society of Sports Nutrition, www.sportsnutritionsociety.org National Academy of Sports Medicine, Defining Personal Training, www.nasm.org/downloads/Defining_Personal_Training_NASMCPT_ History.pdf National Strength and Conditioning Association, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist Credential, www.nsca-cc.org/cscs/about.html United States Department of Agriculture, Steps to a Healthier You, www.mypyramid.gov
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