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Nutrition and Supplementation: A Fitness Professional’s Scope of Practice

Nutrition and Supplementation: A Fitness Professional’s Scope of Practice  | American Council on Exercise | Exam Preparation Blog | 11/12/2012


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scope of practiceNutrition and supplementation are important topics for fitness professionals. During your preparation for the ACE exam, your education will focus primarily on exercise and exercise programming. However, nutrition and supplementation also are covered. While this information may play a smaller role on the exam, these are topics that clients often inquire about. For example:

  • Should I eat before or after a workout?
  • Does creatine actually help build muscles?
  • What is the maximum number of calories I can take in without gaining weight?
  • Should I take supplement A or supplement X for increased energy?

While it is true that many fitness goals cannot be addressed without also considering proper nutrition, most fitness professionals are prohibited from giving specific nutrition advice.

At least 40 states, plus the District of Columbia, require licensure of nutrition/dietetics professionals. In most states, the licensing statutes explicitly define the scope of practice and state that performing as a nutrition/dietetics professional without first obtaining a license is illegal. Furthermore, many employers require dietetics professionals to be registered with the Commission on Dietetics Registration.

Designing or implementing a specific diet or recommending nutritional supplements for your clients is outside the scope of practice for a fitness professional and would be a violation of the ACE Code of Ethics. (See Appendix C of the ACE Personal Trainer Manual 4th edition, "ACE Position Statement on Nutritional Supplements.")

ACE created this position on nutritional supplements because most personal trainers do not have the formal training to recommend meal plans and/or supplements. Nutritional supplements are not currently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); as such, they may contain substances that may put a client's health at risk.

What you can do is educate your clients about nutrition and supplementation. Chapter 4 covers nutrition topics such as the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA), hydration and special dietary needs for different populations. You can also provide information on healthy eating and making healthy choices and show your clients how to use the website. Have your clients record a food diary and help address their unhealthy choices. You can educate your clients about issues like hydration, techniques for carbohydrate loading, appropriate protein consumption, nutritious snacks during exercise and timing of post-workout meals for enhanced recovery. Each of these topics are drawn from the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010) and from research published in reputable scientific journals. A client who needs additional help with his or her diet or who wants you to design a diet or meal plan should be referred to a dietitian.

As for supplementation, until supplements are regulated by the FDA with guidelines from the USDA, you cannot recommend them without stepping outside your scope of practice. While you can educate your clients about the positives and negatives of supplementation, a client who expresses interest in taking supplements should be referred to his or her doctor.

Although fitness professionals cannot tell clients what to eat, what not to eat or create meal plans, having a solid foundation in nutritional sciences is essential. Not only with this enable you to educate your clients on nutritional topics, it will also help you to recognize areas of possible imbalance and, if necessary, make appropriate referrals to qualified clinicians.