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Can Personal Trainers Give Nutrition Advice?

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In a recent newsletter I referred to an article written by John Berardi of Precision Nutrition called (no surprises) “Can personal trainers give nutrition advice?“.

I think it offers a very clear idea as to where the boundaries are for Personal Trainers. In a nut shell, Personal Trainers (that are not registered Dietitians or Doctors) cannot;

  • prescribe diets or nutritional supplements to treat medical and clinical conditions;
  • prescribe diets to treat symptoms of medical and clinical conditions;
  • nor diagnose medical conditions.

In the week following I received some great input from Emma Robertson of Nutrition Training Australia. She says (in full)…

I just can’t help myself and have to comment on the Precision Nutrition (PN) article about fitness professionals giving nutrition advice. PN are generally on the money in my opinion (as a dietitian) with their behaviour change coaching approach to improving food choices. But John Berardi insists on continuing to push supplements & encourages the rest of the fitness industry to do so also!

“There’s a big issue with this, as there are entire textbooks dedicated to drug/herb/nutrient interactions and someone without a dietetic/ pharmacy/ medical degree just doesn’t have the skill to mitigate the potentially very high level of risk here. Then there’s the issue of how they are to work out what’s evidence based according to the literature without a science degree and the years of statistics & epidemiology that go with it… I have both a pharmacology degree and the nutrition & dietetic masters and still go back to the textbooks to check a supplements effect on liver enzymes and try to work out what potential effects it might have on metabolism of other drugs.

It really makes me sigh when people with a large platform oversimplify things like this and don’t realise the potential for harm!”

I would like to think that any Trainer advocating the use of supplements would, in the very least, establish whether a client is taking any other medication.

In any case, the prescription of any diet/supplement to even a healthy person, is best left to those with the formal qualifications to do so. It would seem to me to be an unnecessary increase in risk.

Please leave your comment below.

Personal Trainers, you might also like to check out some of the free resources that Emma has available for you here.

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13 thoughts on “Can Personal Trainers Give Nutrition Advice?

  1. TIFFANEY NISH says:

    I studied nutrition at university for almost 5 years, and I am constantly astounded by how many PTs out there are dishing out nutrition advice and diet plans (especially part or bootcamp/challenges).

    A lot of them have no hesitaion on giving their detailed opinion when asked by a client how to lose weight or bulk up and often prescribe eating plans; one guy I spoke to had been told to consume 320g of protein a day, and another girl was hospitalised when the diet of steak, broccoli and coconut oil her trainer prescribed for her caused early stage organ failure.

    I think the guidlines need to be a lot more strict, because too many people are acting out of their scope of practice. Some of us spent tens of thousands of dollars to comprehensively learn the intricate ins and outs of physiology, biochemistry and comprehensive evidence- based nutrition science, only to have people who have done a 6 week online certificate (or less!) being the ones to dish out the nutrition info at gyms, clubs and private bootcamps etc.

    I am qualified in Nutrition and Exercise Science. I’d like to see the industry be a lot more strict to protect the health of clients, as well as to respect the knowledge of those with tertiary-level education in nutriton and dietetic science.

    Like

    • Thanks for the comment Tiffaney. Agreed, it is dangerous for Trainers with a basic qualification to think or expect that they are fully equipped in this area. I suspect that in some cases, fitness professionals are not actually aware of what it is that they don’t know. I hope this article and its comments go some way to addressing this. No one wants to see any fitness professional get themselves into a unnecessary trouble.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wouldn’t it be better to teach people the correct risk management approach, eg: if in doubt get the clients GP’s clearance on your plans to help them reach your goals especially if they have at risk conditions which would be highlighted from pre-screening. Getting on a high horse to discount real world experience just because you don’t have two or three degrees is as pompous as it is stupid. There are just as many ‘good stories’ of people staying in uni to avoid work ending up with several degrees. Helping someone loose weight or gain muscle can not be considered treating a medical condition, and yes most certainly all people need to be checked and vetted for their experience before doing anything with some ones life, the chance of damaging someone psychologically as well as physically is also an import risk that needs to be controlled. Even you double degree people need to be accountable and checked. There are plenty of horror stories for every group, can we all say Dr Patel?

    So pick a trainer with real skills and real qualifications reregistered with Fitness Australia, not just some big guy or hot girl in lycra from the local gym. If your trainer cant be bothered to be registered and insured how committed are they. Oh and just to put my hat in the ring I have a computer science degree, have been a PT for a few years now, in the fitness industry for over 20 years (back before regulation) and am now doing an advanced diploma in Nutrition, but I do manage my risks I think correctly and in line with what the ‘reasonableness test’ would expect. To blanket label all PT’s as as you have done is a little sad coming from such educated people.
    – Stick to the guidelines and manage your risk in accordance with legal expectations and work together for the good of the client should be the take home. 🙂

    Like

    • Thanks for the comment David. Apologies if I appear to blanket label PT’s – this is certainly not my intention. I do appreciate the differences in the many thousands of PTs in Oz. And I certainly agree – a degree does not guarantee a great practitioner, and the absence of degree does not imply a poorly informed practitioner. Regardless this, your closing comments wrap things up nicely “Stick to the guidelines and manage your risk in accordance with legal expectations and work together for the good of the client“.

      Like

  3. Sam Murphy says:

    Dennis, firstly let me state how much I love what you and your Graduates offer; people wanting to improve their life with positive movement, a mental re-focus and well founded intentions to regain health. I am a Remedial Therapist, Western Herbal Practitioner and currently completing my Bachelors Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics, so feel rather passionately about advice given on supplements and dietary advice – EVERYONE in the health Industry should be encouraged to share healthy eating habits, that is a given, but what is difficult to accept is the amount of people that I treat that have been given advice by PT’s that echoes what Emma and Tiffaney both acknowledge; advice that can be potentially harmful and that oversteps the boundaries of the Certificate level of knowledge PT graduates have. Protein powders advised for people that have IBS (a major contra-indication), lactose intolerant people advised to take whey, fructose intolerant people advised to try Agave syrup instead of sugar to lose weight. The list is endless. What is wrong with sticking to what you are damn good at? Be the best PT you can, teach us how to improve and strengthen our bodies and work together with Nutritionists and Dietitians as a team! Isn’t that what small business enterprise is about? We run on small margins, nobody can afford bad press. PT’s, be proud of your profession and humble in your knowledge. And yeah, our qualifications HURT, we earn them, let’s respect each others space x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sam, thanks for the kind words. Very much appreciated. And among these comments, I feel we’re all pretty much on the same page.

      It’s disappointing to hear misinformation on diet being delivered by under-qualified PTs. Naturally, of course, we’re unlikely to hear about the cases where everything went well. All the same, I think you’ve summed it up beautifully; “Be the best PT you can, teach us how to improve and strengthen our bodies and work together with Nutritionists and Dietitians as a team!” In a similar fashion, here at HealthyPeople we focus on the things we do well and seek out experts in required fields when needed.

      Cheers, D.

      Like

  4. I think that the client should be aware of the difference between a personal trainer and a nutritionist. After that, the trainer can give diet advice but cannot prescribe diets for clinical reasons. It is the client’s responsibility to consider taking nutrition advice from a personal trainer. To be safe, recommend a client to a physician before even prescribing any diets or training. Nice articles and have a great day!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Extended scope of practice is an understatement. For the most part I think the PT industry is polarized, on one hand you have trainers who want to make it so simple they can enforce compliance to their programs and generate quick wins (insert brown rice, broccoli and steamed chicken) and on the other hand you have people who google regurgitate information and make it overly complicated for people trying to lose weight.

    I think the problem extends beyond the PT industry into the pre prepped meal industry. An industry build on the fact that people love easy more than they love cheap. I know 20 year old personal trainers with excelled meal prep business (i say excelled from a financial standpoint) who are suggesting 120Kg lobour intense workers go on 1300 Calorie diets to lose weight.

    When it comes to supplements most trainers are just looking for a passive income. What they fail to see is that they can get a referral fee for referring to a registered dietician, they can if required by the dietician still get some passive income on vitamins, supplements etc recommended. Together, with both parties doing only what they specialize in, they achieve better outcomes for the client. As opposed to fighting over who gets to take credit they should both take credit by doing a fusion marketing approach which would increase the exposure of each service to the alternate audience. The excellent transformation would result in more business for both parties…

    sorry went off on a rant… enough said. Great read was my point!!

    Like

    • Who doesn’t love a good rant? My favourite bit, “Together, with both parties doing only what they specialize in, they achieve better outcomes for the client.” I’m a huge fan of fitness professionals working more closely with allied heath professionals. As the saying goes, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.’

      Thanks for the comment, TFBB.

      Like

  6. Jack Jones says:

    Have any of you been obese or overweight ? Have any of you had to lose large amounts of body fat ? If you have chances are you didn’t follow the food pyramid to lose that weight. This is the reason why there are so many diets and programs that fall outside the scope of the food pyramid. The food pyramid fails these people because it doesn’t work for them. As a PT all clients are screened and all clients are advised to seek medical advice from a profession prior to starting an exercise program. This process identifies prospective clients that have existing medical conditions. If a client gets the all clear then they do not have a medical condition they are classified as healthy, yes? If that same client was 20 kg overweight and wanted to lose body fat to have their abdominal visible (6 pack) its around 10% for males and a little higher for females (this is a common request) and they had a limited amount of money to spend (this is almost 100% of clients) on their fitness goals is giving this person a meal plan that includes portion sizes allowed? What harm can be done to a healthy person by giving them meal plans that take into account their fitness goals that consist of just good healthy food? For example, if this person has Cherrios for breakfast and they replace that high in sugar, low nutritional food with 2 hard boiled eggs and a piece of low GI rye bread is that allowed under the scope of a PT? What harm is done to the client? How can this client say that the healthy food prescribed caused them harm? What about replacing their morning muffin and chocolate milk with a handful of cooked brown rice, 1 sliced tomato and 200g of steamed chicken breast heated up in the microwave? How can this client say that the healthy food prescribed caused them harm? Most clients don’t have deep pockets and an endless supply of money. Referring a healthy client to a dietitian or a nutritionist for an eating plan is just pointless. When you talk to clients about their current eating habits almost without exception they have poor habits, however most know what they should eat. How can a trainer set a goal for a client, especially for fat loss, if they can’t provide an eating plan?

    Like

    • Thanks for the comment Jack. Before I address key questions raised, please note I am not a nutritionist nor do I have any legal background. My answers are based on experience and understanding of related documents.

      “..is giving ..a meal plan that includes portion sizes allowed?” You’re safe when providing a recommended portion size based on accepted norms, but would be moving off your scope to ‘prescribe’ a specific diet.

      “..if this person has Cherrios for breakfast and they replace that ..with 2 hard boiled eggs and a piece of low GI rye bread is that allowed under the scope of a PT?” Providing ideas for a healthier breakfast would be well and truly within the scope of the Personal Trainer.

      “How can a trainer set a goal for a client, especially for fat loss, if they can’t provide an eating plan?” Agreed, getting your clients eating right is a big part of getting them to their weight loss goals. And getting them onto better breakfasts and healthier snacks is an important part of that. As the saying goes, ‘muscles are made in the gym and a six pack is made in the kitchen’. The danger zone for Trainers (as in potentially causing harm that leads to costly and career ruining litigation) is in the prescription of specific diets. Especially if those diets depart considerably from generally accepted nutritional norms.

      I think, for the greater part, most clients will benefit from simple guidance towards healthier food choices. It’s only those with special needs that would need the assistance of a qualified dietician.

      You mentioned that “most [clients] know what they should eat.” On this I also agree. On this point, I think Trainers should be open to the notion that a session or two with a psychologist could do as much to address an eating problem as multiple sessions with a nutritionist/dietician.

      Keep fighting the good fight, Jack.

      Like

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