I stayed in a high-rise apartment building in New York City with a tiny, well-equipped gym in the basement for over ten years. I frequently observed my neighbors slogging through sweat-inducing workouts with personal trainers instructing them at their sides while jogging on the treadmill or performing my own strength-training sessions.
It was impossible to avoid overhearing their chats in such a small area. I listened to instructions intended to help the exerciser improve their form as well as advice on how long to rest in between sets—guidance you might anticipate a fitness expert giving their clients. To my astonishment, however, many of the coaches also offered dietary guidance, much of it was either excessively restrictive or unsupported by science.
As a certified dietician, it was quite difficult for me to remain silent throughout such exchanges. Additionally, I frequently observe “fitfluencers” and personal trainers now promoting the same questionable advice and diet strategies on social media. My coworkers and I are tempted to leave a face-palm emoji in the comments section for each of these posts.
The majority of the time, personal trainers and fitness coaches shouldn’t be giving their customers advice on their eating behaviors and nutrition. I know I sound like a grumpy R.D. with a “get-off-my-lawn” attitude. Of course, there are exceptions; for instance, some trainers have received in-depth training in nutrition science and can offer wise recommendations on foods that enhance exercise performance and recuperation. However, you should keep these facts — and significant red signs — in mind before taking your trainer’s nutrition and diet recommendations at face value.
HOW NUTRITION CAN SUPPORT ACTIVITY You need to understand why your eating habits and food choices important when it comes to your fitness before delving into who can and shouldn’t offer nutrition advice. Simply said, whether you’re training for a race, trying to grow muscle, or working towards healthy weight loss or weight gain, nutrition may support an exercise program and help you achieve certain fitness-related goals. For instance, properly preparing for a workout by consuming the optimum proportions of protein and carbs (a macronutrient needed for sustaining muscle growth) might assist improve exercise performance. And you’ll need both of those nutrients to assist post-exercise recovery, refill your glycogen (a type of glucose that is generated from carbs) stores, and repair your muscles.
However, you often don’t learn about these recommended practices in your high school health class. In response, some people could ask their personal trainers for nutrition advice to assist their fitness endeavors. Or, the coaches themselves might provide their own opinions without being questioned, even if they lack the credentials to support them.
WHO CAN GIVE NUTRITION ADVICE? PERSONAL TRAINERS? To be clear, trainers are permitted to discuss food. However, it’s crucial to think about whether the knowledge they’re divulging is under their area of expertise. Similar to how doctors, dietitians, and therapists may discuss studies on the advantages of exercise for both physical and mental health, but they might not have the training required to give their patients or clients a thorough workout schedule.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE), for instance, outlines specific guidelines on the kind of nutrition subjects that fitness experts can often talk about. This applies to dietary recommendations made by the government, such as those in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the MyPlate recommendations . Additionally, according to ACE , people who have successfully completed fitness certification programs recognized by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies or American National Standards Institute can offer fundamental dietary advice. According to the organization, this “basic” information includes guidelines for wholesome eating and food preparation, information on the nutritional value of foods and supplements, and details on the important nutrients, their functions in the body, and how to include them into your diet.
In addition to these foundations, there are some situations where trainers may offer more detailed nutritional guidance, such as if they are also registered dietitians. These people have finished the required six to twelve months of supervised training as well as the required core nutrition science education (think of courses on organic chemistry, biochemistry, food science and production, clinical nutrition, nutrition and metabolism through the life cycle, and more) to pass a nationally recognized licensing exam. To sit for the exam that certifies them to legally practice as a dietician, they’ll also need to hold a four-year degree (and starting in 2024, a Master’s degree). All things considered, personal trainers can’t compare to certified dietitians when it comes to their nuanced knowledge of nutrition.
You might also feel more ease asking for or getting nutrition recommendations from trainers who have completed comprehensive nutrition courses designed specifically for personal trainers. Look for certificates from the Precision Nutrition , Institute for Integrative Nutrition , Nutritional Coaching Institute , and specific guidelines 0 programs, such as PN-1 or PN-2.
Just be aware that these certification programs don’t provide the same level of nutrition education as registered dietitian programs, so you might still want to consult a dietician if you have a condition or concerns that call for additional explanation. Consider working with an R.D., for instance, if you need to be aware of your blood sugar levels due to diabetes or prediabetes. Particularly if you are using drugs to control your blood sugar, they will have a greater grasp of the disease and be able to explain what may need to be changed for you in terms of meal timings, carbohydrate quantities, and exercise. Alternatively, if you’re expecting, you should consult with someone who is aware of how your nutritional requirements alter as the pregnancy progresses.
Remember: If you’re getting detailed food advise from your trainer, use care unless they have a nutrition certification from an established, reputable program. According to ACE , fitness professionals generally shouldn’t offer personalized nutrition advice or meal planning, assess your nutritional requirements and suggest particular calorie, nutrient, or dietary intakes, give advice on how to prevent, treat, or cure diseases, or prescribe nutritional supplements. Consider it a warning sign if your trainer or coach suggests any of these things.
Whatever their credentials, your trainer is not a reliable source of dietary advice if they suggest any of the following.
THEY PROPOSE DISMANTLING WHOLE FOOD GROUPS. Eliminating entire food groups from your diet is risky for your mental and physical wellbeing. Avoiding certain food groups might lead to an overly restricted mindset and may potentially cause specific guidelines 1 in addition to the possibility of losing out on vital nutrients that assist performance and recovery.
In the gym at my apartment complex, I frequently overheard trainers advising their clients to limit dairy. However, it’s fascinating to note that dairy products like milk, Greek yogurt, kefir, and cottage cheese provide a perfect combination of easily digestible carbohydrates and protein—nutrients crucial for daily life and post-workout recovery. Eat less dairy if you’re not feeling well after eating it. However, feel free to leave it on your plate or in your glass if you can stomach it and it benefits you.
Remember that a trainer who advises you to abstain from dairy or eliminate all carbohydrates can be speaking from their own fear of these substances. Or, they might have simply learned about nutrition from a popular TikTok video rather than a reputable university.
THEY PROMOTE VERY LOW-CALORIE MEAL PLANS OR VERY RESTRICTION. In addition to making dining exceedingly dull, restricting your diet increases the chance of omitting important nutrients and may even be harmful to your gut health. For instance, eating a variety of meals can help you cover more ground to support your microbiome’s optimal function. Consuming enough levels and various types of fiber is vital for promoting gut health. However, if you consistently consume a small number of the same items, you might be missing out. Additionally, the body may find it difficult to exercise and recuperate afterward if not given enough calories.
Extreme diet restrictions can also encourage an unhealthful “on plan/off plan” mentality; you may find that you eat substantially differently when you’re not sticking to your (often extremely rigorous) meal plan, frequently overindulging in items that aren’t on it. It can be exceedingly difficult to achieve your nutrition goals and maintain any success you may have due to this all-or-nothing mentality.
Additionally, if your coach is extremely particular about which brands are “good enough” to incorporate into your diet, you should be wary. I once overheard a trainer instructing someone to avoid all carbohydrates, with the exception of Ezekiel bread. Although I adore sprouted-grain bread, which is high in protein and fiber, it needn’t be your only source of complex carbohydrates.
THEY TRY TO MARKET SUPPLEMENTS TO YOU. Recall that ACE advises against fitness professionals giving out, recommending, or selling nutritional supplements to their clients. Despite the fact that supplements are occasionally regarded as being less “serious” than medications, you should still be cautious about possible interactions with other medications you may be taking and problems with quality control, which are both specific guidelines 2 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as are drugs and medications.
For addressing a particular health condition, a small number of carefully chosen supplements (such as those you identify to be helpful with the assistance of an R.D., doctor, or other competent practitioner) may be used. Take a step back, though, if a trainer is pressuring you to spend a lot of money on products when you don’t even fully understand what they do.
FOODS ARE LABELED AS “GOOD” OR “BAD” BY THEM. Break up with your trainer if they label certain foods as “good” or “bad” or if they make you feel horrible about your eating habits. Hearing someone else criticize your food choices can cause a build-up of negative self-talk, potentially harming your relationship with your body and your relationship with food, even if you feel like you’re more likely to stay on track if you’re getting your ass kicked (yes, I’ve heard this from patients and clients before). You want to engage with a skilled expert who will accept you as you are, not embarrass you, and develop a customized program that takes your objectives, requirements, and preferences into account.
THE CONCLUSION Take any more advice with a grain of salt — or as a sign to start working with someone else — because, in most situations, personal trainers should only provide you the most basic nutrition advice. However, it might be appropriate to follow your coach’s advice if they have undergone additional nutrition training to complement their exercise suggestions. Just keep in mind to trust your instincts. Consult a certified dietician if you want a reality check or if you have more particular nutritional demands.
FTR, it also works the other way; I’d never advise somebody to follow an exercise regimen prescribed by a dietician or physician who isn’t a certified trainer. Examine their credentials and pick a health expert who makes you feel confident, protected, and supported because different health experts have varying areas of experience.