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What Nutrition Advice Can a Personal Trainer Give?

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As a certified personal trainer, you teach clients about exercise and fitness. But how much can you say if they also ask about diet? 

In some cases, it is illegal to provide nutrition advice as a fitness trainer. This is true even if you know a lot about nutrition science.

To better understand what you can and cannot say, let’s look at what it means to have your personal training certification.

What Is a Personal Trainer?

Personal trainers are fitness professionals with education and/or experience in exercise science. This involves understanding anatomy and physiology. It also requires knowing about muscles and how they work.

This enables personal trainers to develop a safe and effective exercise regimen. The exact regimen suggested is based on the client’s specific fitness goals. 

If the client wants to lose weight, for instance, your personal training advice will include cardio. If their goal is to build muscle, strength training will be a large part of the training program.

In your personal training certification course, you learn how diet affects fitness. You are taught how carbs provide energy. You also begin to understand how protein helps muscles recover after grueling training sessions. 

Talking about these basic concepts is part of being a certified personal trainer. But if clients want help creating an actual menu, this may be outside your scope of practice.

Each State Has Different Rules for Dietitians and Nutritionists

Each state has different rules for dispensing nutrition advice. The Council of Holistic Health Educators explains that these rules fall into four basic categories:

  1. No state laws, so anyone can legally give nutritional advice
  2. No state laws, but there are restrictions as to when you can use titles such as dietitian or nutritionist
  3. Certification is required to provide nutrition advice
  4. Licensure by a state agency is required to act as a personal trainer and nutritionist

In most states, it’s within the scope of practice for personal trainers to address clients’ questions and concerns. Especially if those questions and concerns are about general health and wellness.

Some clients will want to know what type of diet can help them achieve their fitness goals, for instance. They’ll ask about which food choices can help them lose weight. Or they’ll want to know how to create a menu that will provide more energy for their training sessions.

Teaching them the basics of a healthy diet is generally okay. Offering medical nutrition therapy is another story.

General Nutrition vs Medical Nutrition: Understanding Your Scope of Practice

General nutrition advice includes educating clients about how food impacts the body. Eating too much fat puts them at higher risk of illness and disease. Not taking in enough nutrients increases their risk of deficiency.

As a fitness trainer, this involves sharing food choices that can enhance personal training sessions. It also means teaching them which food choices can hinder their training results.

Medical nutrition therapy involves prescribing nutrition for a specific health condition or illness. If a client has diabetes, for instance, they may benefit from a diet that stabilizes their blood sugar. Offering specific food advice to treat or manage this disease is outside your scope of practice.

Certain states have statutes that explicitly define scope of practice. In these states, providing medical nutrition therapy is illegal unless you are a certified, licensed, or registered dietitian. 

Sports medicine specialists can also provide this type of advice. The goal of sports medicine is to help patients recover from an injury. Thus, sports medicine physicians can offer dietary advice for a faster recovery.

It’s important to know the laws in your state. Educate yourself on what you can say in your personal training sessions. Also know when you should refer clients out. This could involve suggesting they see a registered dietitian. Another option is to recommend they work with a sports nutritionist or holistic nutritionist.

It should be noted that, in most states, it is legal to make nutritional suggestions for healthy, active individuals. This is likely a majority of your fitness training clients. It’s also legal to share materials that originate from a public or well-known entity. This includes:

When You Want to Provide Services as a Personal Trainer and Nutritionist

What do you do when you want to offer fitness training clients both exercise and food advice? Earn certifications for personal trainer and nutritionist designations. Holding accreditation in each area allows you to dispel advice for both.

Trainers with nutrition education are equipped to make suggestions related to gym performance. These include suggestions about optimal rest, hydration, and workout-related food intake.  

Further, trainers often make suggestions to support weight loss and muscle gain efforts. This involves educating fitness clients about:

  1. Calorie management strategies. This involves eating less, eating more filling foods, and avoiding calorie-dense drinks and snacks.
  2. Good food selection strategies. Teaching clients to choose whole grains over processed carbs or water over pop.
  3. Good food timing strategies. What to eat before and after a workout and the importance of eating breakfast.
  4. Supplement suggestions/information. Teaching them which vitaminsminerals, and other essential nutrients may be beneficial.
  5. Healthy lifestyle choices. Identifying nutritious food options for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.

Again, in most cases giving general advice on these topics is acceptable. Yet, some nutritional issues fall outside the scope of practice for fitness professionals. 

Giving nutrition advice for specific health issues is not in your domain. That belongs to a registered dietitian or medical practitioner. The same is true when offering guidance related to eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. 

When in doubt, ask yourself: what is a personal trainer? If the advice you’re about to give fitness clients does not fall into this definition, it may be best to leave it alone.

Your Role as a Personal Trainer Nutritionist

In the end, your level of nutritional advice will be based on the following:

  1. Your state’s regulations. Most states allow you to address clients’ basic questions and concerns. Although, nutritional advice regulations do vary by state. Learn what you can say to personal training clients in your area.
  2. Your client’s likelihood of working with both you and a nutritionist. Is your client willing to work with both you and a registered dietitian trained in sports nutrition? If so, this can help them better reach their fitness goals.
  3. Your client’s health. Does your client have health problems or a nutrition-related disease? If so, it may be best to refer them to a licensed dietitian trained in sports nutrition. As a personal trainer, you aren’t qualified to offer medical nutrition therapy.

Develop a relationship with a qualified local nutrition partner to refer clients out. Look for a registered dietitian or holistic nutritionist also certified in sports nutrition. This gives you someone you trust with your fitness clients. It also increases the likelihood that they’ll refer clients to you. You’ll become their fitness industry professional of choice.  

What if you don’t know any of your local dietitians and nutritionists? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics can help you find a registered dietitian nutritionist in your area. The International Society of Sports Nutrition offers an online search if you’re looking for a sports nutritionist.

Earning Certifications for Personal Trainer and Nutritionist

Offering many services within the fitness industry enables you to better help your clients. You’re able to teach them how to improve their fitness both inside and outside the gym.

The ISSA offers a Nutritionist certification. Upon its completion, you’ll know how to discuss nutrition science with clients. You’ll also learn how to assist them with making healthier food choices. This is helpful whether their goal is to lose weight, gain muscle, or both.

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