Let's talk about personal trainers giving out nutrition advice. Should they do it – or better yet – are they able/qualified to do it? Should personal trainers create diets for their clients? How about supplements? Should trainers recommend supplements? If yes, which ones? What happens if you make a mistake? Can you be sued? Let's discuss these issues and see if I can help you make more informed decisions about the types of nutrition information you give to your clients.
Where People Get Nutrition Information
It would be nice if clients obtained their nutrition information from “The Journal of Nutrition” or other peer-reviewed scientific publications, but that just isn't so. In descending order, people usually get their information from:
- Magazines, TV, Dr. Oz, and radio
- From their doctor
- Registered dietitians
Because people mostly get nutrition info from popular media, it's likely that one of the first places they will go to double check the accuracy of that information is a personal trainer. Why? People see their personal trainer far more often than their doctor and I'd bet most clients don't even have an dietitian. This is why I say personal trainers are part of the health care system.
Also, people assume that all personal trainers know about nutrition.
As such, personal trainers are on the front lines of fielding nutrition questions. For this reason, personal trainers need to know what they are talking about if they are going to discuss nutrition with clients.
Personal Trainers And Nutrition Advice
Since personal trainers often see their clients 1-3 times per week for at least 30 minutes per session, it's very likely that they get all sorts of nutrition questions, with those about weight loss probably topping the list.
So, should personal trainers talk about nutrition with their clients? For trainers who work in a gym, I think the first place they should look for answers is with the management/owners of the facility they work at. Some gyms may actually have rules about what a personal trainer can ―and can't ―say about nutrition.
Gym -nutrition rules may be in place for several reasons including:
- The gym employs a dietitian (RD) to help with nutrition questions
- State laws may regulate what non-dietitians can say about nutrition
- The gym may be trying to reduce lawsuits from trainers giving wrong nutrition information
Don't assume that just because you have not heard of them, that nutrition regulations in the gym are not in place. It's been my experience that at some larger gyms, that proper training of staff may be lacking. As such it's possible that nutrition counseling of clients may not come up until the situation arises.
As I mentioned in the second bullet above, some US states specifically spell out who can discuss nutrition information. In some states it's only registered dietitians (RDs) who can do this. While doing a quick web search for, the question, “can personal trainers in (the state you live) provide nutrition information?” might yield some useful information, its best to contact your state government to ask about this. State government websites may also shed some light on this as well.
Because state governments can be can be confusing, contacting your state representative's office may shed light on this faster.
If the gym you work at (and the state) have no specific rules on nutrition info that personal trainers can give out, then the question becomes:
“is the trainer qualified to give out nutrition information?”
This can vary from trainer to trainer.
For the personal trainer who also has a certification in nutrition or sports nutrition or who has taken nutrition classes at the college level, I'd feel that giving general advice about topics such as proteins, carbs, fats and calories is appropriate. For example. A personal trainer who understood the benefits of nutrition should be able to accurately field questions like these:
- How much protein do I need?
- Should I eat 3 meals a day or 5 meals per day?
- Is it best to weigh myself once a week or every day?
- Is it best to eat before exercise or after exercise?
General questions about issues like these can be easily addressed by personal trainers who have studied nutrition. For the personal trainer who gets their information primarily from popular magazines, popular diet books or fitness-websites which may or may not know what they are talking about, I say no they should not discuss nutrition with clients.
Fitness trainers who want to know more about nutrition, I recommend these 2 books:
My Resources Page also has a LOT of other books etc that can help.
Nutrition questions that are outside the scope of what personal trainers should discuss (whether they are certified or not) include:
- I have cancer. What should I eat?
- I have bad kidneys. How much protein can I eat?
- Will the Atkins Diet help epilepsy?
- I take blood thinner meds. What foods should I avoid?
- I'm getting radiation therapy. Should I take antioxidant supplements?
These are VERY complicated questions. At this point, by dishing out advice on questions like these, the personal trainer would be acting like a doctor or dietitian. Even if the fitness trainer has some ideas on these issues, any specific nutrition-disease recommendations are outside the scope of practice of personal training. In these cases, I recommend referring the client to their doctor or to a registered dietitian in their area who can best help them.
Should Trainers Create Diets?
Some personal trainers create diets for their clients to help them lose weight. But is this the right thing to do? Often these diets are similar to what the personal trainer used him/herself. Even if the personal trainer had the client complete a week-long food journal to see what is normally eaten, problems can arise.
For example, what if the client has different nutritional needs than the personal trainer? Also, what if the client had some health issue that the personal trainer was not aware of (Tip: some big-box gyms do not share client health history forms with personal trainers).
If the personal trainer writes out a diet for their client and something bad happened as a result of that diet (e.g. they passed out from lack of calories) , it's possible the personal trainer may get into legal trouble, especially if the state they live in, has rules about who can prescribe diets.
Personal Trainers and Supplements
Personal trainers recommending supplements is one of the most controversial areas in the fitness industry as far as I'm concerned. I know there are a lot of personal trainers who discuss, recommend ―and even sell ―supplements to their clients.
While, I personally have no problem with personal trainers engaging in an unbiased pro/con discussion about the benefits / lack of benefits of various supplements with their clients (if they are qualified), I am uncomfortable with personal trainers recommending ―and selling―supplements. Here's why.
- Reason #1. Supplements are complicated. For example, take glucosamine. Most personal trainers have no idea that there are 3 different types of glucosamine and that of those 3 types, most of the supplements out there, contain the wrong type. Most supplements contain the type called glucosamine HCL while most of the positive research has used glucosamine sulfate. Read this for more info.
- Reason #2 Supplements CAN interact with medications. Don't believe the slogan “natural means safe.” Suppose the client was taking a blood thinner medication and the personal trainer recommended fish oil supplements? Fish oils have a blood thinning property. The combination of blood thinner medications and blood thinner supplements might prove disastrous.
Tip. Many supplements have blood thinner properties. In fact, my rule of thumb when it comes to supplements is to first assume it's a blood thinner until I know otherwise.
- Rule #3. Personal trainers CAN be sued. In 1998, a personal trainer working at Crunch Fitness, in NYC, recommended several supplements to help his client lose weight. She died in the gym as a result! Her name was Anne Marie Capati , she was 36 years old and she had high blood pressure. The products recommended by this personal trainer included yohimbe and a product called, Thermadine, both of which can raise blood pressure. As a result of this, both Crunch Fitness ―and the personal trainer―were sued for over $300 million!
Read my review of Personal Trainers and Supplements for more on this terrible incident.
Tip. Your personal trainer insurance might not protect you from lawsuits stemming from supplement recommendations.
Selling supplements has become quite popular among some personal trainers because it's a way to earn extra income. One problem with this however, is that the lure of making “easy money” selling supplements can dilute the quality of those doing the selling. This can lead to fitness trainers with no nutrition background, dolling out supplement information. As in the Crunch Fitness case, this can be a recipe for disaster.
Also, don't believe the hype. Most people who sell supplements make VERY LITTLE money.
Personal trainers need to know that they will be left holding the bag, if lawsuits stem from selling supplements. Not even personal trainer liability insurance policies will protect trainers from lawsuits stemming from the sale or recommendation of dietary supplements.
If you are looking for an honest book on supplements that is backed up by what the science really says (including side effects), take a look at my book on dietary supplements.
Supplement-Geek.com is my website devoted to JUST supplements.
Personal Trainers and Dietitians
I think a good argument can be made for knowledgeable personal trainers to give out basic, fact-based nutrition information to their clients. Often they are on the front lines of a lot of nutrition-hot topics and can be a valuable resource to clients who “want the answer now.”
For more advanced topics like making diets, nutrition for various diseases etc., I'm a fan of networking with a registered dietitian (RD) and referring clients to that person when needed.
This actually makes a lot of sense because:
- RDs have LOTS of clients who need to exercise!
This not only helps the personal trainer get clients but it also frees up the his/her time to work on what they know best: helping people exercise smarter, not harder.
Networking With Registered Dietitians
To find a dietitian to partner with, this is what I suggest. Go to the RD website and find RDs in your area. The link provided let's you enter your zip code to find RDs that are in your area. From there, you can see info about the dietitian including email address, phone numbers and even their websites if they have one.
Look over their information and see if you can find a few RDs that would work best with your clients. Then contact those people and introduce yourself. Explain to them that you want to partner with an RD to help your clients. Invite them to a lunch where you both can get to know each other. Bring your business cards (click to read my review), brochures etc. to the meeting. Explain how a partnership with you would be a win-win situation for both of your businesses.
You might propose holding a joint seminar together. Both the RD and trainer invite their of clients to the event. Each of you take 20-30 minutes speaking about the benefits of exercise (that's your part) and nutrition (that's the RDs part). As an added bonus, you both might pick up clients from this event too.
So, instead of giving nutrition advice that may or may not be correct, partnering with an RD not only saves trainers time but more importantly, helps people by getting them to other professionals that can best deal with their unique nutrition needs. It's been my experience that dietitians would welcome the opportunity to partner up with qualified personal trainers because it's a way to expand the services that they can offer to their clients as well.
What do you think?