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Food and meal planning can seem like a chore to most people, so as a trainer, should you help clients with it? In most cases, yes, it's fine to guide your personal training clients through thoughtful meal planning and prep.
Just be aware that there are lines you shouldn't overstep, such as giving advice related to medical conditions.
But helping a healthy client plan meals for weight loss, for weight maintenance, to meet fitness or body composition goals, or just for better overall health is certainly appropriate for your expertise. Help them sort through the diet trends and meet their goals more easily through step-by-step food planning.
If you are a certified personal trainer, even with no special certifications in nutrition or diet, you have the expertise to provide food planning advice. It is important to know your limitations, though. It is generally appropriate to provide basic nutrition advice and to guide meal planning for most clients.
For those with special needs, medical conditions, eating disorders, or other issues beyond the scope of your expertise, always refer clients to a qualified professional. This may be their own doctor, a nutritionist, or a therapist.
If in doubt about what is allowed or appropriate, check your state laws. Many states regulate what nutrition professionals can and cannot do and any required certifications or licensing.
As part of food planning, help your clients understand which diet trends are beneficial, which are useless or damaging, and which are best for them, if any. For instance, intermittent fasting is popular, but it isn't right for everyone, especially women.
There is so much hype around the trendiest diets, regarding health and weight loss, and your clients need your expertise. Some of the diets your clients are most likely interested in are the Whole30 diet, the ketogenic diet, the paleo diet, intermittent fasting, and low-FODMAP. Make sure you understand how these diets work and the benefits and drawbacks so you can educate your clients.
There are several ways to approach food planning for weight loss, which is likely your clients' most common goal. Get to know your client, do an assessment, find out their goals, preferences, and limitations, and then decide on the best strategy that coordinates with their workout plans.
The most straightforward way to manage weight, although it isn't best for everyone, is to count and restrict calories. The goal in food planning with this strategy is to design for daily calorie deficit. You'll need to find out how many calories your client expends each day to make a plan for what they should eat.
Just be sure that for good health the calorie deficit is no more than 500 calories per day. Generally, for most people, calorie intake should never drop below 1,200 or 1,500 daily for women and men, respectively (1). Keeping track can be challenging, so recommend an app that will make it easier.
Another valid strategy in planning meals is to count macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. The benefit of macro counting is that it goes beyond basic calorie counting and allows you to track not just the quantity of food but also quality. For weight loss and fat loss, you'll generally plan for your clients to reduce carbs and increase protein and healthy fats, but the correct amounts will depend on each individual.
Not all clients will be willing or able to stick with the specific measuring, counting, and tracking required for macro- and calorie-based planning strategies. For those who are not ready for those detailed methods start with portion sizes.
Educate your client about correct portion sizes for various types of food: proteins, vegetables, whole grains and carbs, fruits, and healthy fats like nuts and seeds. Then, give them a basic plan for how many portions to eat per day. This gives them flexibility and an easier way to control food intake.
If you are going to take on meal planning with your clients, follow some basic steps to stay organized and to be sure you hit all the important aspects of a healthy diet.
Before you can guide anyone through making healthy food choices, you have to know what they're doing right now, what their goals are, and any limitations or strengths. When discussing nutrition and meals, always begin with an assessment that includes:
Goals, such as losing weight or gaining muscle
Food likes and dislikes
Budget and time available to spend on buying food and cooking meals
Allergies and intolerances
Lifestyle and motivations for changing food habits
With an understanding of your client's needs, goals, and abilities, you can now craft meal plans for them. Use a planning strategy you think will work best for each individual client:
Focusing on eating whole foods or eliminating junk foods
Strict portion sizes
Following a particular diet, such as keto, paleo, or vegan
An easy way to meal plan for any style of eating is to use a monthly template with meal and snack options your client can slot into each day. Most people will appreciate the flexibility of having options and being able to choose from a list of meals or snacks.
You may also have clients who prefer something more rigid. For those, simply select the meals they will prepare for each day of the week. Each meal option should be realistic and based on what your client can afford, has time for, and will actually like.
Making changes to what you eat is hard. Old habits are tough to break. The easier you can make it for your clients, the more likely they will be to stick with new, healthy habits. With that in mind, provide them with not just a meal plan by day and week, but also simple recipes for each dish and a grocery list for each week.
It's so much easier to stick to a meal plan when the foods are already in the fridge, ready to eat. Encourage your client to prep meals once a week, on Sunday afternoon for instance. Give guidance on which dishes can be made for the week ahead. Provide tips for prepping healthy snacks too, like having veggies cut and ready to eat with portioned servings of hummus.
Most of your clients will be working with you for the long-term. They're not coming to you simply for a meal plan and no further guidance. To help your clients make lasting changes, evaluate their progress, their adherence to the meal plan, and their goal progress. Make changes to the plan if results are slow or if they struggle to stick with it.
There is no single right way to provide food planning for a client. The most important part of the process is the first step: getting to know your client. Then you can plan the right meals, use the best strategies, and help more clients hit their goals. As you work on meal planning and food plans, here are some extra tips to keep in mind for each and every client.
Not only is it not ethical to provide advice you are not qualified to give, it may be illegal. Check the laws in your state about what is and is not allowed in nutrition guidance. There may be restrictions, for instance, on providing what is known as nutritional therapy. Know the rules and stick by them.
As a personal trainer, you are qualified to give nutrition advice, but there are limits. If you have a client with special medical needs or someone who may need counseling for a suspected eating disorder, refer them to someone else or encourage them to see their doctor for a referral.
Not everyone is ready for a full-on meal plan. For those clients resistant to big change, start smaller. Help them make slow but steady changes, like replacing one soda with water each day or cutting out one snack per day.
Sticking with a food plan will be the biggest challenge your clients face. They are most likely to be enthusiastic initially and then get frustrated or bored. To increase the odds they'll stick with it, make the plan as simple as possible. Avoid complex recipes and stick with formulas and a few simple rules.
What your clients need from you the most is knowledge. If you can teach them about smart food choices, good nutrition, and basic meal planning, they can do most of the work themselves. This will set them up for life to make better choices.
As you work with your clients on food planning, always keep in mind that your responsibilities are limited. A personal trainer is not a dietician or a doctor. If in doubt about a client's needs always refer them to someone more qualified or recommend they see their own physician for advice and referrals.
If you would like to focus more on nutrition coaching and meal planning, get certified. The ISSA offers a comprehensive course for Certified Nutritionists that will provide you with the knowledge and expertise needed to guide all types of clients to a healthier, goal-focused diet.
Harvard Medical School. (n.d.). Calorie Counting Made Easy. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/calorie-counting-made-easy