The topic of nutrition is somewhat of a slippery slope in the fitness world. The greatest challenge is not always a lack of knowledge on the personal trainer’s side, but rather a lack of consistent regulation in nutrition laws and practices from state to state. Further complicating the nutrition subject are the clients’ expectations of what their trainers can and should be able to provide for them when it comes to dietary practices. Therefore, trainers must not only develop a comfort level with the topic of nutrition, but they must also understand the governing laws of the state in which they practice and clearly define their scope of practice. Of course, this is easier said than done.
That said, personal trainers have a professional responsibility and obligation to help educate their clients on proper nutrition guidelines. Trainers can take active steps to safely, effectively and legally deliver this important component of their professional services while still remaining within their scope of practice.
Nutrition and fitness require a balance. It’s not possible (or recommended) to simply out-exercise poor dietary practices. The body needs fuel to perform, whether for recreation or competition. Food is that source of fuel. This means, as personal trainers, we must have (at the very least) a basic understanding of nutrition principles, guidelines and recommendations. The most important thing to remember: Don’t make recommendations or provide clients with specific meal plans (unless you are a fitness professional who possesses the requisite qualifications to provide such guidance).
Here’s what you can do to reduce your liability and still provide this necessary education to your clients.
Know the Law
First, research the laws and statutes in your state. Like dozens of other laws, individual states reserve the right to police how nutrition is practiced and regulated (Muth, 2013). This makes it challenging because there is no hard and fast rule personal trainers can rely upon. Instead, we have to be informed providers and know what the state requires (or doesn’t, in some cases). For example, New Mexico requires licensure, Nevada requires a certification, and Colorado, Arizona and New Jersey don’t have any requirements. This means in those states without requirements, almost anyone can practice nutrition counseling (Muth, 2013).
Furthermore, personal trainers must also abide by their certifying agency’s position stand and code of ethics. Many organizations have a statement that reflects the agency’s professional philosophy on this and many other topics. ACE’s statement can be found here.
Educate Yourself and Your Clients
Second, commit to continuing education efforts in nutrition. Fortunately, this can be accomplished by taking classes through a variety of NCCA-approved organizations, ACE included. Be sure to check your organization’s approved CEC provider class list to register for a course.
When educating your clients, it is reasonable and expected for you to share resources endorsed or developed by the federal government. This includes resources such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the MyPlate recommendations. Additionally, the educational efforts you make with clients do not have to be limited to providing a handout or an article. Get creative and offer cooking demonstrations, workshops or seminars. You can also partner with a dietitian to bolster the information you are able to offer your clients. If you discover outside resources developed by a doctor or dietitian, you can distribute that information to clients as well.
What Not to Do
Third, know what is outside the fitness professional’s scope of practice. According to ACE’s statement, fitness professionals should not engage in the following actions:
- Offer individualized meal planning/recommendations
- Conduct a nutritional assessment to evaluate individual nutrient needs and status
- Make specific recommendations for intake or specialty diets
- Offer nutrition counseling
- Recommend nutritional supplements
- Promote oneself as a dietitian or nutritionist (unless specifically licensed)
Performing any of the above, regardless of what the state law says, would be considered unethical and outside the scope of a fitness professional’s knowledge, skills and abilities.
Effective Communication, Information and Referrals
Many clients assume their personal trainer can move mountains and that includes providing specific guidance on nutrition practices. It is reasonable and prudent for a trainer to clearly and openly communicate the array of services he or she can legally, ethically and skillfully provide. Consider developing a client toolkit with this type of information, which can be given to new clients upon their first meeting with you. You can also include the contact information of other licensed professionals in your referral network. This way clients know from the beginning what they can expect of your services and how you will help address other questions and topics that may be beyond your scope.
Nutrition is not a topic that personal trainers should avoid. If the topic is ignored or ineffectively addressed, clients may seek out other questionable sources to help them with their nutritional concerns. By being open and honest about your scope of practice, you and your clients will be comfortable discussing nutrition and its role in supporting their fitness goals.
Muth, N.D. (2013). ACE Fitness Nutrition Specialist Manual. San Diego, Calif.: American Council on Exercise.