Dr. Erin Nitschke by Dr. Erin Nitschke

“I saw an advertisement for a ‘fat blocker’ available at XYZ Supplements. Do you think it’s worth trying?”

“My friend is taking supplement X to gain/lose Y. Shouldn’t I be doing the same?”

Enter the pregnant pause and deep breath. I cringe a little when a client or student asks me these types of questions. It’s not the questions that awaken feelings of dread; it’s the subject matter.  The dietary supplement topic—it’s complicated, messy and not necessarily black and white. So, how do we, as trainers and educators, effectively and professionally handle this and other similar questions our clients ask us while remaining within our designated scope of practice?

First, yes, you have a duty and obligation to educate clients about these and other health, fitness and nutrition-related topics. Second, make certain you are familiar with your certifying agency’s code of conduct and code of ethics documents. ACE Certified health and fitness professionals abide by the organization’s stated position and ethical codes when managing this and other topics. Third, if you are not familiar with the dietary supplement topic and the associated body of literature, take active steps to broaden your knowledge spectrum. Fortunately, there are several sources of quality information available, such as:

It is appropriate and responsible to share these resources with clients. Health and fitness professionals should be sharing information about supplement regulation as well as the efficacy and safety concerns related to supplement use. That said, how can you share the correct information in the right way and not overwhelm the client or step beyond the scope of practice? The next time one of your clients asks about a pill, potion or powder, use this three-step model to quash misconceptions and help your clients become informed consumers.

Step 1: Acknowledge the question.

Dietary supplement use is widespread among the general population and it is common for individuals to feel curious about certain products. The first step is to acknowledge the question the client is asking. It is easy for health and fitness professionals to brush off the dietary supplement topic because we are aware of the potential dangers, risks and questionable efficacy of such products. However, we must keep in mind the educational opportunity this subject presents. Instead of saying “No, you should not take a supplement,” respond with “That’s a great question. Let me see if I can help explain some basic facts and provide you with some valuable resources.”

Step 2:  Present the facts.

If you’ve not yet had a client or student ask this type of question, wait a little longer—the question will present itself eventually. To adequately prepare for this conversation, take some time to organize information packets with fact sheets, scientific evidence and supplement regulation details. In other words, arm your clients with enough information to help them understand the tricky nature of supplements so that they are informed and aware.

Step 3: Stay within the scope and refer out.

Health and fitness professionals should never provide supplement guidance and recommendations. A caveat—if a health and fitness professional possesses the appropriate licensures and educational background, then he or she may be adequately qualified to provide such guidance. However, it is essential that all professionals review and familiarize themselves with the laws in their respective states that govern such practices.

The final element of this step is to make the appropriate referral when necessary. Any client considering supplement use should be referred to a registered dietitian or another qualified medical/nutritional professional. Once the referral has been made, make sure to follow up with both the client and the nutrition professional. Although health and fitness professionals, unless appropriately trained and licensed, cannot prescribe or recommend supplements or specific nutritional support products, they can and should help to reinforce the messages and recommendations the registered dietitian provides to the client. This is one reason why it is important for all health and fitness professionals to establish a high quality and varied referral network.

What about individuals who work for a fitness or health club that promotes and sells supplements? This, much like dietary supplement use, is also a challenging topic. ACE specifically guides its professionals in the following manner: Should a condition of employment be that a trainer is encouraged or asked to sell supplements, ACE recommends obtaining the appropriate insurance coverage in the event that an issue should occur. Read the complete statement here.

If you are not an ACE Certified health and fitness professional, take some time to research your organization’s position stands on topics such as this. Lastly, remain committed to broadening your knowledge about nutrition as it will only lend more credibility to your practice and profession.

Interested in learning more about where ACE stands on nutritional supplements? Read our Position Statement.