It might surprise you to learn that personal trainers aren’t allowed to give nutrition advice, since so many of them do. Those with big social media followings do it publicly through the meal plans they sell, the supplements they recommend, and even the 1:1 nutrition coaching that they might sell.
In the gym setting, it’s not uncommon to hear a personal trainer give unsolicited nutrition advice.
(OK, maybe sometimes it’s solicited.) Things like: “Eat X grams of carbs/protein/fat per day,” or “avoid X food.” Or, the worst (and possibly most common) one: “Here’s what I eat,” with the implication that you should do the same.
(This article initially appeared in the Quit Your Diet Newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.)
And sure, a trainer giving nutrition advice might seem harmless.
This kind of talk often happens among friends, so what’s the problem with a personal trainer starting up the same conversation? Well, a number of things.
People tend to view personal trainers as authority figures who are trustworthy on matters of health and fitness.
So, they’re far more likely to take the advice without questioning it. But the reality is that trainers don’t necessarily have comprehensive knowledge on nutrition. Even if they’ve taken specialized courses, a personal training session is not the place to be providing nutrition advice.
As a dietitian, even I feel that it’s only responsible for me to give that advice to someone in a formal session, after we’ve talked through health status and concerns, mental health issues, eating disorder and dieting history (and risk), lifestyle, financial constraints, family dynamics, and so much more.
So, while you might trust your trainer—hopefully they’re really knowledgeable about fitness and focused on doing things that are accessible for your body specifically—they’re just not in a position to give you good nutrition advice, even if it’s well intentioned.
Then there’s the fact that people tend to really, really idolize trainers.
Frankly, this one idea could be a whole newsletter in and of itself, but I’ll be brief here. Fitness and wellness have exploded in recent years. Many trainers have become legitimate celebrities, while others are influencers with huge social media followings. And during this same time period, wellness culture has become synonymous with health. That makes sense at surface level, but it doesn’t add up.
Because wellness culture is often more about aesthetics and performance than it is about actual health. It’s about doing a certain workout, eating a certain diet, and aiming to look a certain way.
Health, on the other hand, is holistic, and goes far deeper. It’s about actually taking care of your body, which means feeding it properly, letting it rest, and letting it move in ways that feel good. It’s about working collaboratively with healthcare providers to properly address (or prevent) any issues. And it’s about paying attention to non-physical aspects of health: emotional, social, and even spiritual health.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s about acknowledging the fact that many things about our health are out of our control.
The thing about many experts or influencers in the “wellness” space is that they tend to ignore this part. Their businesses rely heavily on the idea that your health IS totally in your control. (And that the way to take control of it is to take their advice.) I wrote a couple of weeks back about the fake “empowerment” message of wellness culture, which you can read here, and it’s a similar idea. On the surface, the message seems positive: You can achieve anything, your health and happiness is in your hands! But below the surface, it’s much more sinister: You should be prioritizing the way your body looks, and it’s not good enough as it is, so buy my thing.
I’m not trying to pick on personal trainers. There are so many excellent ones out there, and the whole ‘giving nutrition advice that you’re not qualified to give’ thing extends into many other fields.
But to illustrate my point, let me share some of the responses I got when I asked: “What’s the worst nutrition advice you’ve ever received from a trainer?”
– “Don’t eat bread”
– “Women over 40 don’t need to eat carbs”
– “Fast for X number of days a week and strictly count macros the other days”
– “Don’t eat too much fruit”
– “Carrots have too much sugar”
– “Bananas have too much sugar”
– “Food combining!”
– “Stop eating gluten”
– “No carbs. Eat your weight in grams of protein. Eat [redacted] calories per day + exercise.”
– “Sugar is as addictive as cocaine”
– “You’ve got enough fat stores that you don’t need to eat during a 5+ hour bike ride”
People, these are awful. They’re ultimately just soundbites that the trainer likely read on the internet, or heard from a colleague or a wellness influencer. Maybe they put them into practice themselves, but that doesn’t mean that they’re effective, safe, or evidence-based. Some of these have the potential to cause legitimate physical harm. All of them are likely to really mess with a person’s relationship with food and their body.
They also reinforce the false idea that you need food rules in order to be healthy.
You don’t. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. But people gravitate towards rules, because it makes them feel in control. And when a trainer validates or prescribes those rules, it’s just more encouragement to move in a direction that’s ultimately harmful.
All of this stems out of a conversation I had last week at Current Wellness with a group of personal trainers who were learning about the Health at Every Size approach. The initial question was: “What should I do when someone asks me for nutrition advice/asks me what I eat?” Good answers to that question might be: “That’s not in my scope” Or, of course, “seek out a dietitian if you’d like personalized nutrition advice.”
I also love the idea of a personal trainer pushing back on diet culture in response.
When asked for nutrition advice, one useful thing a personal trainer could say (without overstepping, is: “Make sure you’re eating enough.” Likely, that’s not what someone expects to hear. And getting permission to eat enough, without a side of guilt or food rules, can be really powerful for someone who’s struggling. A personal trainer responding to the “what do you eat?” question with something like, “I don’t keep track of what I eat, because I don’t think that food rules or too much focus on eating is helpful” might be equally powerful.
The bottom line is that nutrition advice can cause real harm if it’s not carefully thought out (by someone who knows how to give it).
It’s not innocent conversation, because it has the power to affect someone’s health and wellbeing in a profoundly negative way.
If you’re sick of falling for terrible diets and “wellness” trends, I can help. I’m a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating. I take a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, patient-centered approach. Learn more about my nutrition counseling, offered to clients in several states. If you’re not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.